The usual teenybopper brigade of Andre Agassi admirers was out in force last Thursday afternoon in Key Biscayne, Fla., jamming the stands to watch their shaggy-maned hero take on Jim Courier in the quarterfinals of the Lip-ton International Players Championships. However, with Agassi trailing 5-1 in the first set, an unusually youthful fan in the crowd just couldn't take it anymore. "He's losing!" said a sobbing little boy of no more than five.
At the postmatch press conference, Agassi, who had rallied to beat Courier, seemed amazed when told that a tyke had been so upset at the sight of him losing. "I don't have any idea who he is," said Agassi with a smile. "But if you see the kid, tell him I know exactly how he felt."
Agassi, 19, could joke about it now, but last year he had been ready to throw a fit of his own. After he swaggered through 1988 with rock-star brashness and climbed to No. 3 in the world by winning six tournaments, the Las Vegas Kid's act went as flat as his tennis game. All the cute stuff—tossing spare pairs of denim shorts and sweat-soaked shirts to spectators, blowing kisses to the crowd, applauding opponents' shots—suddenly seemed less entertaining as he struggled with a new racket, a battered image and only one tournament victory all year. "I didn't want to be motivated," says Agassi. "I didn't want to come back the next day if I won. I was just fried."
But last week, in the blazing heat at the Lipton, Agassi was cooking once again. In Sunday's final he played his strongest tennis of 1990, gunning powerful passing shots and running down balls seemingly out of reach, en route to a 6-1, 6-4, 0-6, 6-2 win over Stefan Edberg. Agassi's victory gave his coach, Nick Bollettieri, further reason to smile, because the day before, another prot�g�, 16-year-old Monica Seles, ranked No. 6, easily won the women's title with a 6-1, 6-2 rout of 15th-seeded Judith Wiesner, to move up to No. 4.
With upsets and 11th-hour withdrawals sapping the Lipton of a number of prominent players, Agassi stole the 10-day show. And in the end, he did more than avenge his four-set loss to Edberg at Indian Wells, Calif., two weeks ago. By winning the tournament, which boasted 17 of the top 20 men's players, Agassi bumped his computer ranking up a notch, from No. 5 to No. 4, behind Ivan Lendl (who was a fourth-round upset victim), Edberg and Boris Becker (a third-round casualty), in that order. "I think I'm playing better this year than I've ever played," he said.
Agassi, who also won at San Francisco in February, now has a 1990 match record of 16-2. Along the way he has conquered two Wimbledon winners, three-time champ Becker, whom he defeated at Indian Wells, and 1988 winner Edberg. Before Sunday, Agassi had lost both his meetings with Edberg.
The changes in Agassi were evident in more than his matches last week. Sure, he still sported the same phosphorescent pink bicycle tights and black shorts, and the jazzy pink-on-black shirt and shoes. But his demeanor was turned down a few watts from its previous Day-Glo high. He was all business. After he defeated Edberg before an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 12,500, the only thing Agassi hurled into the stands was a tennis ball. What's more, he acknowledged the boisterous applause following his victory without hamming it up; he bowed modestly to both sides of the stadium. Away from the court, Agassi projected a reserved image and talked of how the pain of '89 had helped him gain a new outlook in '90.
"What I brought to tennis in 1988, everybody doubted if it was good," he said. "And a lot of people wondered if I could keep [winning]. I got really drained at the end of the year because I played so much tennis. I wasn't prepared for anything anymore—or even where I was. In my mind, my year was over in February. There was a lot of pressure, plus the expectations of people and expectations I put on myself. I had a lot of growing up to do. I still do. But if I'm in for another bad series of feelings, of bad tournaments and stuff, I'm better prepared to handle it."
This hardly sounded like the player who, during a 1989 Davis Cup victory against Paraguay, poked fun at the political upheaval at the time in his opponents' homeland with comments like, "I don't even know how to spell coup. That's why I choose to live in the U.S.' "
Not that Agassi has left controversy behind altogether. His strained dealings with Davis Cup captain Tom Gorman still produce sparks. Last month, Agassi abruptly changed his mind and announced that he would not play in this weekend's Davis Cup tie against Czechoslovakia in Prague. Gorman questioned Agassi's commitment to the team, while Agassi questioned Gorman's leadership and his policy of isolating squad members from friends and family during competition.