How far will patience and a forehand take him? To judge by his upbringing, as far as he wants to go. Agassi's dad, who boxed for Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics and is now a showroom captain at the Bally's-Las Vegas Hotel Casino, tells a cute-prodigy/pushy-parents story. "Before he could walk he would sit in his high chair and I would give him a very small Ping-Pong paddle. I'd tie a balloon on the chair and blow it at him. He'd hit it back over and over."
A few years later Agassi would hit for hours against the playroom wall. "Finally he'd get tired," says his father. "He'd put the ball under his racket and use it as a pillow and take a nap. Then he'd wake up and start to hit again."
Such early diligence, plus lessons from his dad on the backyard court, made Andre a tyke to watch. When the pro tour came to town each year, says Agassi, "people would always stop by and check me out." He was a local legend. On Andre's fourth birthday he hit some with Jimmy Connors, and when he was eight he rallied with Bjorn Borg. One person he rarely plays is his brother-in-law, Pancho Gonzales, who is married to Agassi's older sister, Rita. "He's always too lazy to get out on the court," says Agassi.
One worrisome note about Agassi is that he's a die-hard Bollettierian. At 13 Agassi left home and junior high—"Me and school never got along"—and went to Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. He remains a Bollettieri disciple and defender. "It bothers me when people talk bad about a guy they don't really know," says Agassi.
What people say is that Bollettieri baseline-bound supernovas don't have complete games and are predestined to burn out. Past Bollettieri wunderkinder like Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein and Carling Bassett have all had fine careers, but none has lived up to world-beating expectations. Agassi is aware of this. "You know, people say Nick doesn't teach volleys," he says. "But it's just that Jimmy and Aaron weren't interested in volleying. Nick would help them if they wanted. I'm trying to come in more now, and Nick's helping. I don't want to learn after it's too late. That's what happened to Aaron."
Agassi already possesses some all-court talent, but he needs to develop an offensive shot from the backhand side and add some oomph to his serve to go with that lethal forehand. He's working particularly hard on the serve right now, and it showed last month in an Americans-only event on Amelia Island. Hard-hitting Robert Seguso was unable to attack aggressively and fell 6-1, 6-2 to Agassi in the semis. Then Jimmy Connors, who's had the best year of any American player, was trailing 4-3 in the finals when he had to retire because of the 100-degree heat.
Inevitably, Agassi is being pegged as one of the saviors of U.S. tennis. He tries to keep himself removed from all that. "You can learn from others' mistakes. What I've learned from Jimmy [ Arias] and Aaron is that it can mess you up if you worry about everybody hoping for the next great American player. What people want to think and what they want to hope is their business. I'm going to try to play the way I want to play."
That way is fun to watch. Agassi jumps, spins and fools around during matches. He has charisma and knows how to work an audience in high Vegas style. Tennis could use some lightness, playfulness, charm and good humor today. It could use Agassi.