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Agassi's legend grows
Posted: Monday September 13, 1999 12:17 PM
By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
If so, his other feline attribute is an uncanny knack for landing on his feet after a freefall. Two years ago he finished the year outside the top 100, an outdated icon with less motivation than a garden slug. Today he is the world's No. 1 player, having beaten a game Todd Martin in a thrilling five-setter to win the U.S. Open. Suddenly, Mr. Image-Is-Everything, at age 29, has appeared in three straight Grand Slam finals and is inching ever closer to the bona fide legend corridor. "This is just so thrilling, that even at my age, when you've won Slams before, you're almost speechless," said Agassi, who won his only other U.S. Open in 1994. "After where I've been, I'm really enjoying the way I'm playing."
Agassi as comeback kid is certainly an incarnation we've seen before from a player whose career has always undulated like a sine curve. A brief recap: After he finished 1990 ranked fourth, he won only two titles the following year and bowed out of the U.S. Open in the first round. He won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 1992, but by the end of 1993 he was out of the top 20. Following "a rededication to tennis," he catapulted to the No. 1 ranking in 1995, but then began his steady descent that didn't reach its nadir until he hit No. 141 last fall.
While his career was in the doldrums, Agassi, whose rebel posturing has always been leavened by immense compassion and loyalty, was profoundly affected when Kacey Reyes, the 14-year-old daughter of his longtime personal trainer, Gil Reyes, broke her neck in a sledding accident. Kacey, like Andre, made a remarkable recovery, but Agassi was by her bed during her most grim hours. "If I had half the strength she had," Agassi said recently, "I could carry the entire world on my shoulders and still be No. 1."
Not that Agassi simply waved his graphite wand and made all his troubles vanish. He divested himself of nearly 25 pounds, watching his diet and sprinting up hills in the sweltering desert heat. "Everyone sees the glamorous side of Andre's life," says Reyes. "They don't see him sweating like crazy, his heart pounding, his eyes half-closed in pain and fatigue." His roadwork paid generous dividends Sunday night. After failing to find his rhythm in the middle of the match, he found himself down two sets to one. Confident that there was plenty of fuel in the reserve tank, he transferred seamlessly to a higher gear while Martin wilted. "I've realized that there's no substitute for hard work," he says. "It's too bad it took me this long to realize the importance of being fit."
At that late stage in the game, Agassi has also learned to treat the court as a chessboard as well as a shooting gallery. Instead of blasting away from the baseline, he's setting up points and thinking two or three shots ahead of his opponent. Sunday, he hit his share of winners, but, in the end, he won with body blows, not with a knockout punch.
In light of his advancing age and the sense that the days in his era are dwindling, Agassi was asked peripherally these past few weeks about his plans for the future. Without hesitating, he gave various versions of the same answer: I'm playing the best tennis of my life now and I'm ranked No. 1 so why think about calling it quits? And who's going to disabuse him of this notion? After all, time and again he's proven that once he gets past the fizzle, tennis' ultimate showman, the 1999 U.S. Open champ, still has plenty of steak.
Jon Wertheim is a Sports Illustrated staff writer.
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