Really now. Can Andre Agassi, whose self-contradictions force tennis observers to question whether he's the game's new savior or just another infantile twerp, actually be unique? On the contrary, Agassi's sweet-punk/smiling-predator image seems just about perfect for the role created long ago by America's two previous tennis heroes, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. So what if Agassi wears Christ on the sleeve of his Nike shirt while blithely dismissing a political uprising in Paraguay that cost a few dozen people their lives? Hey, give the kid a break. He's only 12 years old. (Well, 18.) He grew up in a cave. (Well, Las Vegas.) And he has never been to high school. (Well, the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.)
Bottom line: Agassi (pronounced AAH-gus-see) is still a teenager. End of puzzle. See ya when you're 20 and back from the ozone, dude. He's got rock 'n' roll hair. Big deal. The last close-clipped, white American idol—not counting Contra-aiding lieutenant colonels—may have been Pat Boone. But just because Agassi is No. 4 in the world; just because he has the speed, eyes and hands of a tennis genius; just because he hits the ball on the rise as well and as true and as hard as any human could possibly hit it—whew, man, and much harder than you would ever suspect a 5'11", 155-pound, spare-looking spider boy could—doesn't mean we should rush him into understanding geography, or acting less like a showboating nincompoop on the court or...or playing Wimbledon or something.
So, could Agassi, with his sidewinding howitzer forehand, his exotic. Middle Eastern surf-rat looks and that come-hither grin that melts all the girls, truly be the swirl of fresh air that tennis has been longing for? Or is he merely a chic bundle of cynical contrivances, a marketeer's dream package with a streak of show-biz evangelism, a veritable "Wayne Newton in denim" (as he was described recently by someone too terrified of the new Agassian power bloc to be identified)?
Most likely this bright-eyed, bushy-maned son of an Iranian immigrant contains elements of both. For instance, to see out the old year of 1988, during which he won six tournaments and earned some $2 million (much of that off the court), did Agassi celebrate at Caesars with Frank, Sammy, Liza, Tony Newley, Jessica Hahn, Buddy Hackett and toga-clad thousands? He did not. He packed up several pizzas and six-packs of diet soda, his girlfriend, Amy Moss, and another young couple—oh yeah, at the last minute he bought a state-of-the-art tent and some sleeping bags on sale—and drove his mom's Range Rover from Vegas to Malibu to spend the evening on the beach listening to the clock tick down on '88 and the waves roll in. Two days later they all sat in the stands watching the Rose Bowl, as anonymous as peas in a pod.
This setting was only a few minutes, and a few months, from a tour event in Los Angeles, where last September the crowd turned on Agassi, causing the first real crisis in his two-year pro career. In a second-round match against Mexico's Jorge Lozano, Agassi continued his disturbing practice of tanking a set when behind early in order to get on with his expected victory. When he did it again in the semifinals against John McEnroe, winning 6-4, 0-6, 6-4, McEnroe blew up, calling Agassi's ploy "insulting, immature, a cop-out." Added Mac: "His act is wearing thin. I don't think that's showing respect for your opponent. And it's not good for tennis either. But I expect to see a lot more of it before we see less." Last week at the WCT Finals in Dallas, Agassi defaulted during the second set of his match against McEnroe, claiming he had aggravated a muscle pull in his thigh. Agassi had not limped noticeably during the match and was booed by the crowd when he left the court. Once again, McEnroe was irate: "It's bizarre, it's unbelievable. People would have respected him more if he put in the effort. But it seemed a foregone conclusion that he wasn't going to play."
"God help him when he really starts losing," says Ion Tiriac, the glowering Romanian who manages Boris Becker, among others. "You can prance around like an idiot when you're on top, but whatever seems funny now will be seen as obscene or disastrous or a calculated disturbance as soon as you stop winning." Which is exactly what Agassi has done in three tournaments over the past three weeks.
Australia's Mark Woodforde, meanwhile, revealed in L.A. that there was also growing displeasure among the tour players over Agassi's clapping, posturing and grandstanding demeanor on the court. Other players believe that nasty locker-room confrontations are inevitable if Agassi doesn't tone it down. Imagine Woodforde's shock in his quarterfinal match with Agassi when, in the middle of Woodforde's own argument with the umpire over a line call, Agassi loudly reprimanded Woodforde, saying, "Leave the umpire alone. He's trying to do his job like the rest of us." Or words to that effect.
Tennis pros just don't do that to one another. In truth, given a different opponent in a different time and place than an even-tempered Aussie willing to cut a juvenile some slack in his home country, a sincere punch-out might have been the result.
And if that wasn't enough, Agassi, who lost in the L.A. final to Mikael Pernfors, spiced up his public postmatch speech by blaming his defeat on "the long year" and a "pinched nerve" in his neck, and by calling a spectator who had given him a rough time "a jerk."
We've all got to understand, of course, that Agassi is still in the process of learning "how to handle all the extemporaneous stuff," as tour player and Davis Cup teammate Ken Flach puts it. The tanks, for instance. "They shouldn't be taken as insults," Flach says. "What they're all about is his confidence. Bagging sets to get going works for him. That's just Andre. He's spontaneous, an instantaneous kind of person. If he wasn't like that, he'd lose his edge."