No sooner had Andre Agassi walked off the court last Saturday than he received the devastating news. Having dusted Pat Rafter in the semifinals of the Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., Agassi was informed that he would lose an hour of sleep that night because of the switch to daylight saving time. "I need that extra rest," he lamented. Yet he arrived for Sunday's final against Jan-Michael Gambill looking no worse for wear. "I just changed my clock when I got back to my room," he said. "After that, I didn't think about it."
Overcoming time is nothing new for Agassi. Less than a month before his 31st birthday, he's playing the best tennis of his colorful career and registering the most smashing results for someone north of 30 since the aging Jimmy Connors's triumphs of nearly 20 years ago. On the heels of successfully defending his Australian Open title in January and beating Pete Sampras to win the prestigious Indian Wells Masters Series event in March, Agassi thrashed Gambill 7-6, 6-1, 6-0 to push his 2001 match record to 22-2. Agassi's total in the ATP's point race is more than double that of his closest competitor, Arnaud Cl�ment of France. "Right now, at least on hard courts, he's far above everyone else," says Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic, who suffered a 6-4, 6-4 battery by Agassi in the quarterfinals. "It's like, How is he still doing it?"
That's a good question, particularly in a sport in which top players tend to peak in their mid-20s. Consider that Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe failed to win a Grand Slam event after age 25, and that Rafter and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 28 and 27, respectively, are pondering retirement. The first explanation that Agassi proffers for his success is his conditioning. "It's not just an asset, it's absolutely necessary," he says.
The tales of Agassi's vomit-inducing workouts near his house in Las Vegas have been repeated ad nauseam. Suffice it to say that Agassi, the fittest player on the circuit, reaches balls that would scarcely draw a wave from other players, and he has no difficulty enduring six sets in 24 hours, as he did last weekend. His stamina also enables him to inflict body blows, engaging in lengthy, corner-painting rallies that break an opponent's resolve as a match progresses. "Being in this kind of shape, Andre has what all athletes want," says his coach, Brad Gilbert. "He has a healthy, able body, and he has the mind and experience of a 30-year-old who has been playing for years."
Agassi is judicious about his schedule, too. Following the 2000 Australian Open, he headed to Zimbabwe for a Davis Cup tie. He didn't lose a match in Australia or Africa, but he was so wiped out when he returned to the U.S. that he never regained his footing and failed to win another event the rest of the year. This year he plans to limit the number of tournaments he plays, including Masters Series events.
He's also exhibiting a level of focus that he hasn't always shown. Earlier in his career he played a kind of hide-and-seek with his tennis, performing spectacularly in one match and poorly in the next. Now he is "fixed in," as he puts it, dedicating himself year-round and refusing to tolerate on-court lapses. During matches he does everything from returning serve to asking for a towel with an unblinking intensity. "At some point you have to make up your mind: Is this what I want to be doing?" he says. "When the answer is yes, it doesn't make sense to cheat yourself."
Agassi has done plenty to conjure up eternal tennis youth, but it's hard to exaggerate his timeless gifts. Able to see the ball earlier than any other player, he has a talent for spanking shots on the rise, not unlike a cricket batsman. In his first match in Key Biscayne, against 19-year-old Taylor Dent, Agassi returned a 142-mph serve as though it were propped on a tee. Against Rafter, the game's best serve-and-volleyer, Agassi unleashed a devastating one-two combination of ankle-high returns and surpassing passing shots. "With Andre we're talking about an unbelievable ball striker, maybe the best ever," says Gilbert. "That hasn't shifted through the years."
If Agassi's preternatural talent has been a constant, plenty else about him has changed—dramatically. Who would have guessed that an icon once known for his two-toned mullet would have less than a tennis ball's worth of fuzz on his head? ("I feel old when I see mousse in my opponents' hair," Agassi says.) That the onetime embodiment of Las Vegas flamboyance would drive a nondescript Lincoln Town Car, wear only neutral tones on the court and quietly give millions to charity? That the player once labeled a punk would become tennis's sage, an island of self-awareness in a sea of delusion? "We're all shocked when we think back to who we were 10 years ago," Agassi says of his image-is-everything phase. "Let's just say I'm happier waking up the person I am now."
Agassi's evolution is thrown into particularly sharp relief when compared with Sampras's. Linked inextricably as the two best players of their era, Agassi and Sampras epitomized style versus substance—with Agassi cast as the former. Now the roles seem reversed. Sampras moved to Beverly Hills and married a movie starlet, Bridgette Wilson; Agassi bought a mansion in subdued Marin County and has a girlfriend, Steffi Graf, who is so shy that she rarely sits in his box when he plays. Sampras is a regular at Los Angeles movie premieres and Lakers games; Agassi prefers quiet dinners with friends.
Likewise, their games are going in opposite directions. While Agassi has never been in better form, the slumping Sampras has lost his imperial presence. He is without a tournament victory since Wimbledon, and he fell in his second match at Key Biscayne, to 18-year-old Andy Roddick—who served notice, at 138 mph, that the hype about him is justified. Afterward, Sampras observed that Roddick had felt no pressure and could swing for the fences. Agassi was stunned to hear this. "There's no excuse for Pete to feel pressure," he says. "If there's any time you should let your game fly, it's when you've won 13 Grand Slam titles and the other guy's 18 years old. So much of tennis is confidence."