Andre Agassi is a gilded talent whose chief accomplishment during his 22 years is wealth, whose diet is scandalous and whose training regimen is poor. He drains Cokes for breakfast and wolfs Big Macs at every other meal. He really wants to be a champion, but is he too fatally attracted to synthetics to attain his goal?
Agassi may have earned a couple of trillion dollars in endorsement income and prize money, but he does not have a Grand Slam title and he isn't ranked in the Top 5—two achievements that would make him feel better about having all that cash. Trouble is, the money and the fame came before he had done all that much to deserve them, and now he's trapped in his own teen idolatrousness.
By his own estimation, Agassi has bought at least 25 cars, including a Lamborghini, a Ferrari and a handful of Cadillacs. If Agassi likes you, or if you are related to him, he tends to buy you a car. So there was something extremely silly-touching-sweet about the birthday present he got last week from his girlfriend, Wendy Stewart, whom he has known since he was seven. She gave him a bicycle built for two.
Moments like that provide Agassi with his only real glimpses of clarity. His birthday, on April 29, occasioned another bolt of reality. "My accomplishments do not live up to my tennis game," he said. Yet companies continue to offer Agassi endorsement deals and appearance sums large enough to make even his financially jaded eyes blink. Three times this year he has received tournament guarantees of $300,000—just for showing up. Donnay, the company that makes the racket he plays with, has recently signed him to a contract worth $20 million over 10 years. "Most people have to work really hard and win some big matches, and then they get money and popularity," said Agassi. "For me it has been the reverse of everybody else. The exact opposite."
A year ago Agassi was ranked fourth in the world. Now he is out of the Top 10 for the first time since 1988 and struggling to break out of the worst slump of his seven-year career. He took a step in the right direction last week in Atlanta, where he defeated Pete Sampras, who is most formidable on fast surfaces, to win the AT&T Challenge on clay and raise his ranking from 16 To 11. To be sure, Atlanta was the weakest of the week's three ATP tournaments—the lion's share of the world's top clay-courters were playing either in Madrid or Munich—but for a player who had advanced as far as the quarterfinals in only one of the previous seven tournaments he had entered this year (box, page 36), the victory was not insignificant.
Agassi's demeanor, once that of a loud and terrible child, has softened into a gauzy uncertainty, an impression heightened by his floating peroxided-blond locks. He is an airy creature, despite the muscle he has layered over his hummingbird build as if to reassure himself that he is a person of substance. Is it any wonder that Agassi, who once proclaimed for an ad, "Image is everything," suddenly feels like a piece of flimsy footage? "Like I've been edited in," he said last week.
Still, he is growing up. He has matured into a rather gentlemanly, thoughtful guy, a polite door opener and a check grabber who has awakened to at least some of the excesses in his life. He is about to sell most of his more extravagant cars, and at his relatively unassuming three-bedroom home on a Las Vegas golf course, his only real luxury is a video-arcade game room. "Right now I'm at a point where I want to cut away everything," he said. "More and more I want to cut away everything except for me and the tennis."
In short, Agassi is experiencing a full-blown crisis of confidence. His normally penetrating strokes have been tentative, and his strategy has been riddled by doubt. Even his facial expression on court has been, as he describes it, "panicky." At Indian Wells in March, he lost in straight sets to 10th-ranked Emilio Sanchez in the third round. The next week, at the Lipton, he lost in the second round to No. 59 Bryan Shelton, again in straight sets. It was more of the same two weeks ago in Tampa, where he fell to 77th-ranked Franco Davin and left the tournament grounds without saying a word, near tears.
During his decline, Agassi has experimented with different strings strung at different tensions, changed his serve and footwork, changed them back again, embarked upon a low-fat diet, quit it, hired a new coach—serve-and-volley specialist Brian Teacher, to augment his longtime teacher, Nick Bollettieri—and then quit him, too. Finally, Agassi took two weeks off. He did away with all the experiments and arrived in Atlanta to begin building toward the French Open, which starts later this month, with a renewed determination to hit the ball with conviction and an urgent sense that the time had come to turn his game around. Still, Agassi's psyche is much too frail to portend any residual dividends from last week's victory.
"I think I need to come to terms with exactly what makes me tick," he said in Atlanta. "I go through stages where it seems no one can beat me, and I go through stages where it seems anyone can beat me. I need to zero in on that. I'm moving into an age where I have to focus on what I want to accomplish in the next five years."