But none of that has eliminated the suspicion that Agassi had a commercial motive for his haircut, that this was merely another show: Agassi Unplugged. It was a sign of how freighted his public persona had become. He was seen less as a tennis player than as the Wizard of Oz, a talking head with smoke for breath, surrounded by image-making machinery.
Maybe it started with the slogan for Agassi's old Canon camera ad campaign, "Image Is Everything." Somewhere along the line, the response to Agassi among serious sports fans became a sneer. "I think the public has never had any concept of who I am," he says. "They see the cars and the plane, and if they don't try, they stop there. It's scary to be defined and judged that way. When that's the case, you just want to be seen for who you are."
Jim Courier, who has known Agassi longer than any other player, suggests that much of what was taken for artifice in Agassi was actually vulnerability. Maybe the Vegas show master was just a frightened waiter's son from a tract house who never knew what was expected of him. "He's really kind of puppyish," Courier says. "Be gentle."
Courier remembers the first time he laid eyes on Agassi. It was at a national 12-and-under tournament in San Diego. Agassi was a skinny kid with floppy, soft brown hair in a bowl cut. Courier watched Agassi as he left the grounds with his father when it was all over. He saw Mike hurl Andre's third-place trophy in a garbage can.
Long before there was Stefano Capriati, there was Emmanuel (Mike) Agassi. "Mike is consumed," says Rogers, who has known the Agassis for 14 years. "Andre is the vehicle through which he satiates his desire to see tennis played the way he thinks it should be."
The eldest Agassi child, Rita, has not spoken to her father for years because of the trauma she says she suffered as the original focus of his obsession with creating a tennis prodigy. Nevertheless, she characterizes Mike as a brilliant coach and dedicated father. "My father is like a concentrated substance," Rita says. "He's like a sober drunk."
It's hard to believe that the small, Yoda-like man drinking coffee in his kitchen is such a terror. Mike urges heaps of melon and sweet rolls on his visitor, stares wistfully at the backyard tennis court his son built for him and remarks that he would like another small child to teach. As for his grown children, he smiles wryly and says, "When the big wolf gets old, all the little wolves like to bite him."
Mike deserves credit for shaping Andre into a champion, and he made untold sacrifices to advance Andre's career on a Las Vegas showroom captain's income. "What we did," Mike says, "was more difficult than hitting the California lottery." But some of his methods were right out of the manual for how to screw up a gifted child. "The real sacrifice," Mike admits, "was Andre's childhood."
Mike learned tennis on a couple of dirt courts behind an American mission church in Tehran, Iran. But he was a better boxer than tennis player, and he fought for Iran in the 1948 and '52 Olympics before emigrating to Chicago, where he took a job waiting tables at the Ambassador Hotel. Depressed by the cold weather, Mike and his wife, Betty, packed up and drove west, looking for someplace where tennis could be played year-round. In Las Vegas, Mike found jobs at Bally's and the MGM Grand, where he still works as a casino host. Betty was employed by the state of Nevada as an alien certification specialist.
Mike would work until 3 a.m., grab a few hours of sleep and then rise at seven to hector his children—Rita and Phillip, then later the much younger Tami and Andre—through an hour of tennis practice on the courts of the Frontier or the Tropicana before school. After school there were another two or three hours of practice. "He was trying to drive his kids to a better life," Rita says.