Andre Agassi, 1999 US Open

With Sampras out due to injury, Andre Agassi was the man to beat at the 1999 US Open. Agassi dropped only two sets en route to the final: to Justin Gimmelstob in the third round and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semifinals. In the other side of the draw Todd Martin defeated Slava Dosedel in the quarterfinals and Cédric Pioline in the semifinals to advance to his second Grand Slam final.

From Agassi’s autobiography, Open:

I’m on the verge of being number one again. This time it’s not my father’s goal or Perry’s or Brad’s, and I remind myself that it’s not mine either. It would be nice, that’s all. […]

In the final I face Martin. I thought it would be Pete. I said publicly that I wanted Pete, but he pulled out of the tournament with a bad back. So it’s Martin, who’s been there, across the net, at so many critical junctures.
At Wimbledon, in 1994, when I was still struggling to absorb Brad’s teachings, I lost to Martin in a nip-and-tuck five-setter. At the US Open the same year, Lupica [1] predicted that Martin would upend me in the semis, and I believed him, but still managed to beat Martin and win the tournament. In Stuttgart, in 1997, it was my appalling first-round loss to Martin that finally pushed Brad to the breaking point. Now it’s Martin who will be a test of my newfound maturity, who will show if the changes in me are fleeting or meaningful.

I break him in the first game. The crowd is solidly behind me. Martin doesn’t hang his head, however, doesn’t lose any poise. He makes me work for the first set, then comes out stronger in the second, taking it in a tight tiebreak. He then wins the third set – an even tighter tiebreak. He leads two sets to one, a commanding lead at this tournament. No one ever comes back from such a deficit in the final here. It hasn’t happened in twenty-six years. I see in Martin’s eyes that he’s feeling it, and waiting for me to show the old cracks in my mental armor. He’s waiting for me to crumble, to revert to that jittery, emotional Andre he’s played so often in years past. But I neither fold nor yoeld. I win the fourth set, 6-3, and in the fifth set, 6-2, and walk away knowing I’m healed, I’m back, exulting that Stefanie [2] was here to see it. I’ve made only five unforced errors in the final two sets. Not once all day have I lost my serve, and it comes as I capture my fifth slam. When I get back to Vegas I want to put five hundred on number five at a roulette table.

In the press room, one reporter asks why I think the New York crowd was pulling for me, cheering so loudly.
I wish I knew. But I take a guess: They’ve watched me grow up.
Of course fans everywhere have watched me grow up, but in New York their expectations were higher, which helped accelerate and validate my growth.
It’s the first time I’ve felt, or dared to say aloud, that I’m a grown-up.

[1] Mike Lupica, journalist
[2] Steffi Graf. They were at the beginning of their relationship.

Andre Agassi, 2006 US Open

From Agassi‘s autobiography Open:

Thirty minutes before the match, I get an anti-inflammatory injection, but it’s different from the cortisone. Less effective. Against my third-round opponent, Benjamin Becker, I’m barely able to remain standing.

I look at the scoreboard. I shake my head. I ask myself over and over, How is it possible that my final opponent is a guy named B. Becker? I told Darren [Cahill] earlier this year that I wanted to go out against somebody I like and respect, or else against somebody I don’t know. And so I get the latter.

Becker takes me out in four sets. I can feel the tape of the finish line snap cleanly across my chest.

US Open officials let me say a few words to the fans in the stands and at home before heading to the locker room. I know exactly what I want to say. I’ve known for years. But is still takes me a few moments to find my voice.

The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last twenty-one years I have found loyalty: You have pulled for me on the court, and also in life. I have found inspiration: You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I have found generosity: You have given me your shoulders to stand on, to reach for my dreams – dreams I could have never reached without you. Over the last twenty-one years I have found you, and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.

It’s the highest compliment I know how to pay them. I’ve compared them to Gil [Reyes].

In the locker room it’s deathly quiet. I’ve noticed through the years that every locker room is the same when you lose. You walk in the door – which slams open, because you’ve pushed it harder than you needed to – and the guys always scatter from the TV, where they’ve been watching you get your ass kicked. They always pretend they haven’t been watching, haven’t been discussing you. This time, however, they remain gathered around the TV. No one moves. No one pretends. Then, slowly, everyone comes toward me. They clap and whistle, along with trainers and office workers and James the security guard.

Only one man remains apart, refusing to applaud. I see him in the corner of my eye. He’s leaning against a far wall with a blank look on his face and his arms tightly folded. Connors.

I makes me laugh. I can only admire that Connors is who he is, still, that he never changes. We should all be true to ourselves, so consistent. I tell the players: You’ll hear a lot of applause in your life, fellas, but none will mean more to you than that applause – from your peers. I hope each of you hears that at the end.

Thank you all. Goodbye. And take care of each other.

Andre Agassi, gold medallist, Atlanta 1996

From Agassi‘s autobiography Open:

As the Games begin, sportswriters kill me for skipping the opening ceremonies. But I’m not in Atlanta for opening ceremonies, I’m here for gold, and I need to hoard what little concentation and energy I can muster these days. The tennis is being played in Stone Mountain, an hour’s drive from the opening ceremonies downtown. Stand around in Georgia heat and humidity, wearing a coat and tie, waiting for hours to walk around the tack, then drive to Stone Mountain and give my best? No. I can’t. I’d love to experience the pageantry, to savor the spectacle of Olympics, but not before my first match. This, I tell myself is focus. This is what it means to put substance above image.

With a good night’s sleep under my belt I win my first-rounder against Jonas Bjorkman, from Sweden. In the second round I cruise past Karol Kucera, from Slovakia. In the thris ound I face a stiffer test from Andrea Gaudenzi, from Italy. He has a muscle-bound game. He likes to trade body blows, and if you respect him too much he gets more macho.
I don’t show him any respect. But the ball doesn’t respect me. I’m making all sorts of unforced errors. Before I know what’s happening, I’m down a set and a break? I look to Brad. What should I do? He yells: Stop missing!
Oh. Right. Sage advice. I stop missing, stop trying to hit winners, put the pressue back on Gaudenzi. It’s really that simple, and I scrape out an ugly, satisfying win.

In the quarters I’m on the verge on the elimination against Ferreira. He’s up 5-4 in the third, serving for the match. But he’s never beaten me before, and I know exactly what’s going on inside his body. Something my father used to say comes back to me: If you stick a piece of charcoal up his ass, you’ll pull out a diamond? (Round, Tiffany cut). I know Ferreira’s sphincter is squeezing shut, and this makes me confident. I rally, break him, win the match.

In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs – he’s the Brad of Bombay. Then, behind all his junk, he flies to the net and covers so well that it all seems to work. After an hour you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly – and yet he’s beating you soundly. Because I’m prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6 6-3.

In the final I play Sergi Bruguera, from Spain. […]
From the opening serve, I’m pounding Bruguera, moving him from corner to corner, making him cover a parcel of real estate the size of Barcelona. Every point is a blow to his midsection. In the middle of the second set set we have a titanic rally. He wins the point to get back to deuce. […]
Even though Bruguera has won the point, Gil sees, and I see, that winning the point cost him the next six games.

As I mount the review stand, I think: What will this feel like? I’ve watched this on TV so many times, can it possibly live up to my expectations? Or, like so many things, will it fall short?
I look left and right. Paes, the bronze winner, is on one side. Bruguera, the silver winner, is on the other. My platform is a foot higher – one of the few times I’m taller than my opponents. But I’d feel ten feet tall on any surface. A man drapes the gold medal around my neck. The national anthem starts. I feel my heart swell, and it has nothing to do with tennis, or me, and thus it exceeds all my expectations.

Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, 2005 US Open final

From Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open:

Driving to the stadium with Gil, I’m quiet. I know I have no chance. I’m ancient, I’ve played three five-setters in a row. Let’s be real. My only hope is if it goes three or four sets. If it’s a fast match, where conditioning doesn’t come into play, I might get lucky.

Federer comes into the court looking like Cary Grant. I almost wonder if he’s going to play in an ascot and a smoking jacket. He’s permanently smooth, I’m constantly rattled, even when serving at 40-15. He’s also dangerous from so many different parts of the court, there’s nowhere to hide. Federer wins the first set. I go into frantic mode, do anything I can to knock him off balance. I get up a break in the second. I break again and win the set. I think to myself: Mr Grant might just have a problem today.

In the third set, I break him and go up 4-2. I’m serving with a breeze at my back, and Federer is shanking balls. I’m about to go up 5-2, and for a fleeting moment, he and I both think something remarkable is about to happen here. We lock eyes. We share a moment. Then, at 30-love, I hit a kick serve ti his backhand, he takes a swing, shanks it. The ball sounds sick as it leaves his racket, like one of my deliberate misfires as a kid. But this sick, ugly misfire somehow wobbles over the net and lands in. Winner. He breaks me, and we’re back on serve.
In the tiebreak, he goes to a place that I don’t recognize. He finds a gear that other players simply don’t have. He wins 7-1.

Now the shit is rolling downhill and doesn’t stop. My quads are screaming. My back is closing the store for the night. My decisions become poor. I’m reminded how slight the margin can be on a tennis court, how narrow the space between greatness and mediocrity, fame and anonymity, happiness and despair. We were playing a tight match. We were dead even. Now, due to a tiebreak that made my jaw drop with admiration, the rout is on.

Walking to the net, I’m certain that I’ve lost to the better man, the Everest of the next generation. I pity the young players who will have to contend with him. I feel for the man who is fated to play Agassi to his Sampras. Though I don’t mention Pete by name, I have him uppermost in my mind when I tell reporters: it’s real simple. Most people have weaknesses. Federer has none.

Andre Agassi defeats Pete Sampras, 1995 Australian Open

Excerpt of Andre Agassi‘s autobiography Open:

At the 1995 Australian Open I come out like the Incredible Hulk. I don’t drop one set in a take-no-prisoners blitz to the final. This is the first time I’ve played in Australia, and I can’t imagine why I’ve waited so long. I like the surface, the venue – the heat. Having grown up in Vegas, I don’t feel the heat the way others players do, and the defining characteristic of the Australian Open is the unholy temperature. Just as cigar and pipe smoke lingers in the memory after playing Roland Garros, the hazy memory of playing in a giant kiln stays with you for weeks after you leave Melbourne.

I also enjoy the Australian people, and they apparently enjoy me, even though I’m not me, I’m this new bald guy in a bandana and a goatee and a hoop earring. Newspapers go to town with my new look. Everyone has an opinion. Fans who rooted for me are disoriented. Fans who rooted against me have a new reason to dislike me. I read and hear a remarkable succession of pirate jokes. I never knew there could be so many pirate jokes. But I don’t care. I tell myself that everyone is going to have to deal with this pirate, accept this pirate, when I hoist that trophy.

In the final I run smack into Pete. I lose the first set in nothing flat. I lose it gutlessly, on a double fault. Here we go again.
I take time before the second set to collect myself. I glance toward my box. Brad looks frustrated. He’s never believed that Pete is the better player. His face says, You’re the better player, Andre. Don’t respect him so much.

Pete is serving like grenades, one after another, a typical Pete fusillade. But in the middle of the second set, I feel him tiring. His grenades still have the pins in them. He’s wearing down physically, and emotionally, because he’s been through hell these last few days. His longtime coach, Tim Gullikson, suffered two strokes, and then they discovered a tumor in his brain. Pete is traumatized. As the match turns my way, I feel guilty. I’d be willing to stop, let Pete go into the locker room, get an IV, and come back as that other Pete who likes to kick my ass at slams.
I break him twice. He slumps his shoulders, concedes the set.

The third set comes down to a jittery tiebreak. I grab a 3-0 lead and then Pete wins the next four points. Suddenly he’s up 6-4, serving for the set. I let out a caveman scream, as if I’m in the weight room with Gil, and put everything I’ve got into a return that nicks the net and stays inside the line. Pete stares at the ball, then me.
On the next point he hits a forehand that sails long. We’re deadlocked at 6. A furious rally ends when I shock him by coming to the net and hitting a soft backhand drop volley. It works so well, I do it again. Set, Agassi. Momentum, ditto.

The fourth set is a foregone conclusion. I keep my foot on the gas and win, 6-4. Pete looks resolved. Too much hill to climb. In fact, he’s maddeningly unruffled as he comes to the net.
It’s my second slam in a row, my third overall. Everyone says it’s my best slam yet, because it’s my first victory over Pete in a slam final. But I think twenty years from now I’ll remember it as my first bald slam.