Andre Agassi, 1991

By Scott Ostler, published in THE NATIONAL, March 1991

LAS VEGAS- So I’m driving a white, $500,000 Lamborghini Countach, which is basically a jet engine with turn signals, weaving through heavy traffic near the Strip, trying to catch another motorist who has requested a drive-by autograph from the guy riding shotgun with me, trying to be cool while hoping not to pop the clutch and send us rocketing into the fountain at Caesars Palace, and idly wondering if I’m being conned.

My passenger, the owner of the Lamborghini, is Andre Agassi, Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll Tennis. Public opinion on Agassi seems divided into two camps – tennis insiders, who see Agassi as an overrated phony with bad manners, and tennis outsiders, who see Agassi as an overrated phony with bad manners.

Agassi is aware of the criticism. He is aware that, to an extent, he has earned it. He has launched a campaign to make himself more accessible to the press and lovable to the public.

I have taken my shots at Agassi in print, had roaring good fun at his expense because it seemed like the right thing to do. But a tennis promoter I know has pleaded with me, “If you just meet Andre, get to know him…”

Sounds like a crazy idea, but I phone Agassi’s agent and request an interview. The agent phones back and says Andre will do an interview, but there is a catch. The agent says, “Andre wants to know if, instead of just talking for an hour or so, you two can get together and spend some quality time.”

This is not an unusual request in the world of athlete-media relations; this is a freakish and bizarre request. Most famous sports figures define quality time as any time spent away from the media – the farther away, the higher the quality.

Paranoia sets in. Am I allowing myself to be used as a PR tool, a dupe in a plot to fix Agassi’s bad name so he can sell more sneakers and cameras?

Or could it be that he really is a decent fellow who wants the world to see the side of him that isn’t about tanking, taunting, ducking, and spitting?

You be the judge. For the record, though, I spent about seven hours with Agassi in this, his hometown, and here are some of the things he did not do:

* Curse,

* Gossip or badmouth anyone in any significant way, not even to call anyone a bozo.

* Fail to open a door for anyone, man or woman.

* Fail to drive courteously and safely.

* Refuse an autograph request.

* Bleach, tease, comb or fuss with his famous hair, or otherwise primp or pose.

* Play loud music on his car stereo, except for one quick demonstration.

* Leer at babes.

* Act even remotely angry, impatient, bored, spoiled, or – as we used to say in high school – stuck up.

Still, the day wasn’t a complete washout.

“If youdon’t mind, I’d like to take you my favorite place for breakfast,” Agassi says.

We hop into his Jeep and drive to the outskirts of town, to a truck-stop diner just off the interstate. He parks near the sea of 18-wheelers. At the diner entrance, a trucker does a groggy double-take as the kid with a diamond earring, long fluffy hair and Levi’s shorts politely holds open the door.

Sure, this restaurant could be part of the con. But the people who work here know Andre, a couple of them come out of the kitchen to exchange pleasantries. Nobody asks for an autograph.

“To me, this is real life,” Agassi says. “It’s not people making you believe you’re something special.”

He says that’s a problem. “I always do my best to remind myself what reality is. You have to fight so hard to keep a grip on it, to deal with the fact that you are never lacking in friends, that there’s always someone around who makes you feel like you’re special. You can forget that loneliness is a reality, but in my world, loneliness comes in a different way.

“You’re never sure, if your money was gone, how many people would still care. One thing I worry about is motives. I put people on stage. The few people really close to me, I don’t question them, but the others are guilty until proven innocent…”

Girls, for instance. They dig Andre. But is it for his money and fame, or for himself? Some girls send him photos of themselves naked. Some try and weasel into his hotel rooms. Before Andre enters a hotel room, his burly weight-training coach goes in first and checks under the beds and in the closets.

Until recently Agassi went steady with one girl for about two years.

“I’m not exclusive anymore,” he says, “but I hang out with a limited amount of people.”

Female-wise, his main friend these days is a BYU student whom Agassi doesn’t have to put on trial, which is a big relief.

“I’ve known her since I was 8,” Agassi says, “but I’m going to run out of girls like that pretty soon.”

Speaking of motives, I mention to Agassi that people might be skeptical of his new glasnost with the media, see it as a slick image-repair campaign.

“I’m flattered that they would think I’m that smart,” Agassi says. “I’m hoping my sincerity shows through that.”

Referring to a writer from THE NATIONAL who has been critical of Agassi, he says, “My goal is not to change the ideas about me. I don’t want to change the [John] Feinsteins of the world. I just don’t want to become like people, who in the midst of surviving pressure, stop telling their story. We all have pressure in our daily lives; we can’t let the pressure beat us.”

The closest Agassi has come to tap-dancing is when he talks about the pancake house incident. In a Florida restaurant one night last December, sportswriter Barry Lorge overheard Andre and his brother Phil seemingly plotting to fake an injury so Andre could skip a tournament.

“Philly and I were talking about taking steps as alternatives, not as strategies,” Andre says. “I was injured, and we were discussing ways to make that known as soon as possible, and it came off as some kind of conspiracy. I was really trying to make the right decisions.”

The flapjack flap was the sledgehammer that broke the camel’s back. Tennis magazine named Agassi Twit of the Year, and called him the Milli Vanilli of tennis.

And yet, there are the fans. At tournaments, the fans seem to enjoy the Andre show.

“Walking onto the court in San Francisco, I was reluctant to see how the crowd would respond,” Andre says. “I was relieved to see that [past misdeeds] were either water under the bridge, or were not taken seriously in the first place… Every time I step onto the court and people are in the stands, I’m flattered.”

Say this about Andre Agassi: He can drive down the street in one of his seven gleaming cars, fans honking and staring and waving, the world at his feet and be aware that he is one lucky dude.

“My father always says I was born with a horseshoe up my ass,” Agassi says with a laugh. (OK, one curse word in seven hours.) “Things have worked out well for me.”

We stop at his parents’ home, where Andre lives when he’s in Las Vegas, and we tour the garage. He owns three Porsches, the Jeep, the Lamborghini, a Ferrari Testarossa and a special-edition Corvette that will blow the doors off your standard wimpy ‘Vette. Andre is curretnly showroom-drooling over something called a Vector, a high-performance space vehicle capable of 240 mph.

He loves to give cars as gifts. He has given cars to his two sisters, his trainer, his coach. He gave a Porsche to brother Phil, a Range Rover to mom and Cadillacs to his dad, Mike Agassi. Alas, Mike Agassi still struggles with the adjustment from smaller cars to the heavy Motown metal. He has crashed two Cads and is currently nursing No. 3.

“The one thing I’d miss if I didn’t have money,” Andre says, with innocent sincerity, “would be not being able to buy my dad a new Cadillac when he totals one.”

Andre shows me his Porsche S4 GT 172 and says, “This is a real practical car, even for a family.”

Family of two, max.

The Lamborghini is practical, too, now that there is a Lamborghini mechanic in Las Vegas and Agassi doesn’t have to ship the car to Los Angeles on a flatbed truck every time it needs a fan belt.

The cars, Andre admits, are an indulgence. They are his reward for a boyhood donated to tennis, for being yanked out of school in the middle of the eighth grade and packed off to Florida, “moving away from home at 13 to a tennis academy that was like a military school.”

Andre’s agent, Bill Shelton of International Management Group, hates to see his client spend so much money on cars, but Shelton shrugs and says, “They really are his only vice.”

Andre cranks up the monster stereo system in the Ferrari. From the power and volume, I’m guessing that the Ferrari’s motor has been removed to make room for the speakers. The garage shakes but does not collapse, since the song he’s playing is mellow rock. No heavy metal for this boy.

“I’m into lyrics,” he says. “James Taylor, people like that.”

Andre Agassi, the perpetrator of Rock ‘n’ Roll Tennis, is an easy-listening kind of guy? It’s true. When Barry Manilow played Vegas, Andre went to see the show. Two nights in a row.

His parents’ home is a nice suburban layout but far from palatial. Andre uses his bedroom only for storage, he sleeps on a coach in the den. His alarm clock is a giant cockatoo named Fred.

“I want to buy a big, new couch,” says Mike Agassi, spreading his arms in the living room, “so Andre can sleep here, watch TV.”

The backyard is dominated by a tennis court, where Mike gives free lessons to nine local kids, and a giant TV satellite spy dish. Satellite feeds of sports events omit the commercials, allowing Mike to eavesdrop on announcers as they chit-chat during the breaks.

Mary Carillo hates me,” Andre says, matter-of-factly.

Adds Mike Agassi, “When she is not on (live) TV, she is very obnoxious.”

“{Jimmy} Connors is very bad {anti-Andre},” Andre says. “Cliff Drysdale is good, {Fred} Stolle and {Roscoe} Tanner are good, and Barry McKay.”

High on the list of the criticisms of Agassi is the feeling that he has done more product endorsing than big-tournament winning. “Major scores through minor feats,” is how Bud Collins puts it.

Agassi never has played the Australian Open, and he has snubbed Wimbledon the last three summers because it didn’t, uh, fit his schedule. This is like the Giants skipping the Super Bowl to rest up for the exhibition season, and it has done Agassi’s image no good.

The rumor is that Agassi almost surely will play Wimbledon this summer, but he doesn’t want to make a definite public commitment yet.

“If I go, I’m going over there with high hopes,” he says. “The thought of being there makes me nervous. I’m really excited.”

Andre says he wants me to meet his trainer, Gil Reyes, who lives nearby.

“Which car should we take?” Agassi asks.

I pick the Lamborghini, and we cruise the two miles to Reyes’s house. The trip takes approximately 14 seconds.

Agassi and Gil Reyes – Andre calls him Gilly – work out in Reyes’s garage in their quest to produce the first tennis player to hit a ball so hard it vaporizes. Most top tennis players are dedicated conditioners, but Agassi probably works harder than any of them on sheer power. He works on flexibility and endurance, but power is a major component of the overall plan.

When Agassi weighed 150 pounds, he already hit the ball harder than anyone in tennis. In 14 months with Reyes, Agassi has added 27 pounds of granite, and grown two inches to an even 6 foot.

“To give you an idea,” Andre says, “when I started, I bench-pressed 135 pounds. Now I do five reps with 250 pounds. And the biggest improvement has been my legs. I lost to [Boris] Becker in ’89 in three sets. He overpowered me. Last year I beat him in three sets. We’re even now in strength; we compete on ability.”

Some critics say Andre is too strong, overmuscled. His record this season would indicate some fine-tuning is needed, but Agassi and Reyes believe the work they do in the garage is correct and vital.

Bouncing around the garage demonstrating the sophisticated equipment, Andre and Gilly are like Hans and Franz of “Saturday Night Live,” brothers dedicated to a grand quest and geeked up on the pumpatude of it all.

Andre has great affection for the members of his inner council – Gilly, Philly, Billy, Nick and Dad.

Billy is Bill Shelton, Andre’s agent at IMG. Philly is Andre’s brother, personal manager and constant traveling companion. Nick is Nick Bollettieri, Andre’s coach for the last seven years. It’s a close-knit group. You prick one, they all bleed, and at times this has been Team Tourniquet.

There is a camera convention in town and Agassi has agreed to stop by the Canon exhibit to sign some autographs. In the Canon TV commercials, Andre says, “Image is everything.”

“People want to tie that [slogan] in with my philosophy of life,” Andre says, driving over to the show. “It’s [Canon’s] slogan, not my philosophy.”

The Rebel image, though, does seem to fit. Agassi’s Nike shoe commercials also play to the basic theme- Andre as James Dean with a tennis racket. He talks of getting kicked out of the Bollettieri Academy several times for refusing to cut his hair, for failing to conform. That hasn’t changed. When he visited the White House last year to meet George and Barbara Bush, Andre showed up in a sweatsuit and sneakers.

Nor is tennis etiquette his strong suit. He is the bad boy of the sport, no question, and the gods of tennis have sent down the perfect antagonist in Pete Sampras. These two are yin and yang, Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskel, at least on the surface.

Never mind that Agassi is a Christian who doesn’t drink, do drugs or even go to R-rated movies. Image is everything. When Sampras beat Agassi in the U.S Open final last year, it was a clear-cut case of good kicking evil’s butt.

“There probably are a lot of people who would have been disappointed if I’d beated Sampras,” Agsasi says nonchalantly. “It seems like Petey reaps the benfit of the controversy I start… He is capable of a broader fan base, but people know where I’m coming from and they know what I’m feeling. It’s like a good song, I won’t cheat you on the lyrics, I’ll give you your money’s worth. It would be too easy for me not too say a lot, not act up on the court, but the whole point is not just to survive.”

Sampras has taken subtle shots, through the media, at Agassi’s off-beatness, but Agassi says, “Petey’s really harmless, I don’t think he’s very vindictive.”

The autograph-signing goes smoothly. Agassi charms the Canon VIPs. He is still wearing the shorts, walking shoes with the laces untied, and a plain cotton shirt.

“Those wonderful legs,” sighs a woman standing in the autograph line.

Driving away from the convention center, Agassi talks about people he admires.

“I’m a big fan of [Wayne] Gretzky,” he says. “I love Jack Nicholson. I like the interest he creates, the mystique, what people would give to find out what he’s really like. That’s neat when you can carry that kind of charisma.

“Old George Bush has really won his place with me, too. The way he’s handled all this, the example he’s set for this country, has been awesome.”

We drive out to a golf course that Las Vegas hotel baron Steve Wynn has carved out of the desert for himself and a few select pals. It is a golfer’s Eden, with waterfalls and lakes, hills and trees. Some days you can play an entire round without seeing another foursome.

Agassi commandeers an electric cart and gives a high-speed tour of the course, nearly crashing into an outcropping of boulders as he drives blindly over the crest of a steep hill. Then he picks up his clubs and a bag of “range” balls – brand-new Titleists – and heads for the practice tee.

Agassi is a weekend golfer, never had a lesson. He plays lefthanded, though he’s a rightie in tennis. He pulls out a 3-wood and, on this chilly late afternoon, without so much as a warmup swing or a waggle or a tee, slams about 20 dandy drives down the middle, all well over 200 yards. Two or three veer off course, but even on those he makes solid contact. The swing is smooth, the distance impressive. Rock ‘n’ Roll golf.

It’s time to head to the airport, and he offers to let me drive the Lamborghini.

“That’s good,” he says as I merge cautiously onto the freeway, trying to ease the car out of third gear, “you’re going 90.”

He talks about what the 1991 model Andre Agassi will be like.

“I’ve made a commitment to get out more, to talk more,” he says. “Other than that, no difference. I’ll go out there and play some fun tennis, some hard tennis. I just want to add something to tennis. I have fun being me on the court.”

At a stoplight, a car pulls up next to the Lamborghini and the driver motions for an autograph. Agassi laughs and shrugs. The light turns green. Impulsively, Andre rips a page out of my notebook and signs his name.

“See if you can catch up with that guy,” he says.

If all this has been an act, it ‘s a real good one. Very convincing. The impression is that if Agassi can eliminate the more childish stuff- the spitting, the tanking, the taunting- what would be left would be an exceptional athlete with personality, charisma and style, and Tennis magazine would have to find itself a new Twit of the Year.

Agassi drops me off at the airport. As he roars away, six of seven people stop and stare, just like people always did in the last scene of “The Lone Ranger” TV show, when they would stand at the outskirts of town and watch the Lone Ranger gallop into the sunset on his white horse, and wonder what he was really like.

By Alan Trengove, World of Tennis, 1984

The evolution of Mats Wilander as a formidable grass-court player was undoubtedly the most significant feature of the tournament. After an unimpressive opening match, in which he was taken to five sets by Ben Testerman, the Swede beat Roscoe Tanner, Paul McNamee, defending champion Johan Kriek, John McEnroe, and, in the final, Ivan Lendl. His greatest asset was his return of service, particularly off the backhand, but it was his volleying, improving with every match, that was the eye-opener. By the end of the fortnight he was moving confidently to, and at, the net. And though his volleys weren’t as decisive as they might have been, he kept opponents under pressure with good, deep first volleys.

McEnroe gave no early warning of his semi-final débacle. He began strongly against Wilander, who had beaten him on the only two other occasions they met in 1983 – in the French Open and at Cincinnati – but after going to a 5-2 lead in the first set was lucky to scrape out of it, 6-4. Wilander realised that McEnroe’s service held no terrors for him, and either because of the Swede’s accuracy, or the wind and glare, to which McEnroe was unaccustomed after two months of indoor tennis, or, of course, the pressure, the New Yorker’s touch steadily deserted him. He hit many backhands out of court, misjudged volleys, and finally allowed Wilander to dictate strategy. “Shocking” was how he described his performance, but he was gracious enough to say Wilander was a great player…

Lendl was playing a pretty fair brand of serve-and-volley tennis with his usual overpowering serve and groundstrokes. But once again in a final he did not do justice to his ability. It was the first ever Australian final between two players from Europe, and Wilander was to become the first non-British European to capture the title since Jean Borotra did so in 1928. The first four games resembled a match at Roland Garros, with one rally extending to 29 shots and lasting 95 seconds. From the outset, though, Wilander showed the most willingness to go to the net, and when he broke for 3-1, Lendl’s game fell away. Lendl led 4-2 in the second set, only to double-fault twice in the next game and drop his service. Once more, he lost his grasp, and what had seemed likely to become a titanic, all-court battle faded into a rout. Lendl became completely intimidated by Wilander’s double-handed backhand, and either over-hit in desperation or played tentatively.

When he was king

Bjorn Borg

By Tim Pears, the Observer, Sunday 5 June 2005

They called him the ice man, but there was so much more to Björn Borg than cool detachment and a wispy beard. Twenty-five years after the Swede’s last and greatest Wimbledon triumph, award-winning novelist Tim Pears offers a remarkable portrait of the rebellious teenager who became an accidental Nordic mystic – and an all-time great.

‘I think Björn’s greatest victory was not the way he came to master his ground strokes, but the change he underwent, with terrible determination, to tame his passionate spirit.’ Lennart Bergelin, Borg’s coach

Was ever a great champion so misunderstood, even in the broad light of his glory, as Björn Borg? By the time of the Wimbledon championships of 1980, when he was 24, he had won the grass-court competition each of the four preceding years, as well as the French Open, on clay, five times. On contrasting surfaces that required radically different approaches, this was an achievement without precedent. And yet the calm young master was widely regarded as an automaton, a robot. The Swede had is i magen: ice in his stomach. In the British press he was the ‘Iceberg’. His admirers no less than his critics described a man with cold blood running through his veins.

How wrong they were. Borg was not blessed with abundant talent, but the talent he had he surrendered to, with the devotion of an instinctive faith, until he achieved liberation. Borg was an inspiration and I wondered how others could not see that his heart was filled with joy for this game and that he hid this joy not to deny it, but rather to nurture its presence within him.

Eyes

Born on 6 June 1956, Borg was brought up in Södertälje, an industrial town of 100,000 people 30 minutes drive south-west of Stockholm, the only child of Margarethe and Rune, a clothes-shop assistant. He first appeared at Wimbledon in 1972, winning the junior title, a lanky Swedish youth with a straggle of blond brown hair. He had blue eyes that were so close together they appeared slightly crossed. He kept them averted from other people, betraying the shy evasion of a teenager who believes everyone is looking at him – the one object he focused on was a tennis ball when about to hit it. He had a sharp nose in a thin, feral face, with a long pointed chin; his wide shoulders were stooped and he walked with a rolling gait. And yet everywhere he went he was pursued by mobs of schoolgirls. Less a Viking, really, than an Arthurian knight, Borg was embraced by England. We were drawn to his modesty.
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Indian Wells

Legendary tennis commentator Bud Collins explains how unique the atmosphere is at Indian Wells. Interview by Vincent Cognet for L’Equipe, translated by Tennis Buzz.

Q: You knew this tournament long before it moved to Indian Wells. What are your memories of those years?
It was already a good tournament but it moved often. And all the best ones were not always there, unlike today, but those who had loved it because it is one of the most beautiful places in our country. (Former tournament director) Charlie Pasarell had to fight because it was planned to move the tournament to China. But this tournament has always been relaxed, almost family at a time.

Q: The weather is also really cool
Not always! Sometimes it blew a terrible wind. One year, the press tent flew away. Between us we thought it was Richard Nixon who did it! Moreover, the final was not held that year.
Another year, Jimmy Connors and Roscoe Tanner had reached the final, but the wind was so violent that it was impossible to play. Both players refused to enter the court until NBC, the tournament broadcaster, decided to bang its fists on the table. Connors and Tanner did not say anything and played the final.
I also remember a year, it must have been in 1974, where the referee could not make the draw, he threw the coin up into the air but it never fell down, because there was so much wind! It was completely insane.

Q: What do you think of Larry Ellison, the owner of the tournament?
He is a very discreet, private person. And he loves tennis, he also has a private coach, a former pro who never really made it to the next level. He seems to do quite well racquet in hand.

Q: Do you think players are more relaxed here than on the rest of the circuit?
Absolutely! Players are different. They do not feel persecuted or spied. At Indian Wells everyone mixes with everyone. It has always been the desire of Pasarell, players owe him a lot.

Photo by Rick, find out more pics of Indian Wells 2011 here.

John McEnroe, 1979 US Open

Extract from John McEnroe’s autobiography, Serious:

On the other side of the draw, Vitas was having a great run: he beat Clerc in the round of 16, Kriek in the quarterfinals, and in the semis, Tanner who had just gotten revenge on Borg for his Wimbledon loss. (It was funny how Vitas could beat guys who had beaten Borg, and yet, when it came down to it, couldn’t handle Borg himself. Tennis always works that way.)

But then in final, Vitas faced me.

I was coming off a year in which I had won three big victories over Connors: in the Masters, at Dallas (where I’d beaten Borg to win the tournament), and now here at the Open, in straight sets in the semis. There’s no other way to say it – I felt it was my time. I was a little uncomfortable about having to play my buddy Vitas in a big match – but not uncomfortable enough to lose.
In the end, it wasn’t even a particularly close match – I won in straight sets 7-5 6-3 and 6-3. In fact, I think that Vitas was more uncomfortable than I was. People were booing because they were angry that Connors and Borg weren’t playing. At that moment they were still the real stars – here we were just two guys from Queens! But I thought it was miraculous: two guys from Queens in the final of the US Open! I was convinced it was never going to happen again (I’m still convinced).

For a couple of years, I’d been working to hang out with Vitas, wondering if I could keep up with him off the court. I’d be trying to be his friend. I looked up to him. And now that I’d blown by him, the victory felt hollow. I had taken something from him. He was still a legitimate number four in the world, but now he was off the mountaintop. Now it was Borg, Connors and me .
Things were never quite the same between Vitas and me after that.