The Rise, Fall And Rebirth Of Andre

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - September 13, 2006
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To achieve fame and success is difficult enough. To do it twice is nearly unthinkable. Andre Agassi first burst on to the scene in 1986, at the age of 16, and quickly became one of the most talked about and photographed athletes in the world. The game needed him. Tennis was in a funk.

McEnroe was at the end of his career, Connors basically done, Borg was finished and the best tennis could do was ... Ivan Lendl, an outstanding player but whose lack of personality failed to draw fans. The game needed some excitement. It got it in the perfect package for the times.

You have to look no further than Agassi to understand the ‘80s. Long, bleached hair cut into a metal mullet, an on-court wardrobe that turned its back on the traditional white in favor pinks, purples or any other hue that is hard to hide in the dark. His 10 o’clock shadow, rebel image and even his nothing-comes-between-me-and-my-Calvins girlfriend turned wife screamed look at me in the perfect style of the decade. Granted, Brooke and Andre didn’t actually hook up ‘til the ‘90s, but they were still much more Poison then Pearl Jam. Even his racket was cute. Image really did seem to be everything.

Fortunately, unlike most made-for-MTV celebrities, there was substance to the style. Andre could flat-out play. Maybe image wasn’t everything. Agassi won his first major singles title at 17. He won six more times the following year and surpassed $2 million in career earnings, becoming the youngest to ever do so. He reached the French Open and U.S. Open finals in 1990 - the latter match against another teen sensation, Pete Sampras. The rivalry would carry the sport for years. While Agassi rose up the ranks and became a corporate mouthpiece, he still managed to ensure that he wasn’t a pawn to bland man of fashion.

Agassi did not attend Wimbledon from 1988 to 1990, saying in part, that he didn’t agree with the tournament’s all-white uniform color rule. Others speculated that the grass courts did not fit the young star’s baseline game. Either way, Andre was his own man. Even if what he was standing up for was the right to wear pink spandex shorts.

Agassi’s star continued to rise, and by 1995 he was the No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world. But it all came crashing down in 1997. The wrist injury from four years earlier resurfaced. His world ranking dropped to 141, he was having marital problems and his career seemed over. It was then that life No. 2 began and re-emerged an even bigger star.

Agassi put himself on a rigorous physical conditioning program and started working himself back on the Challenger Series, tennis’ minor leagues. In 1998 he won five titles and worked his way back up to No. 6 in the world. One year later he was again No.1 and the transformation was complete.

Gone was the brash, colorful pinup. What remained was an introspective and thoughtful ambassador of his sport. The long locks were gone, and in their place a shaved head and conservative clothes. Where he once got by on natural ability, the elder Agassi now had a muscular frame that allowed him to simply overpower his opponents. He didn’t just return serves, he attacked them. The man was benching 350! A tennis player throwing around steel like a line-man. And whereas years before young tennis players looked to him as a role model for fun and financial success, they now admired him for his work ethic and for maintaining the popularity of the sport. He was their leader. And they all bowed in deference.

With the exception of George Foreman, who transformed himself from threatening ring assassin to preacher and pitch man, no one besides Agassi has been to the top only to disappear from sight and then to come back with more influence and popularity than he had ever had.

Rafael Nadal called him an icon. Serena Williams said he was everything that she aspires to be, not only on the court but off. By following his example, Williams may find her way back on top. Following in his professional footsteps would be comparatively easy. Following his off-court example would take some real work.

Since 1995, Agassi’s Grand Slam for Children has raised more than $52 million for the under-privileged children of Las Vegas, the city where he was born and continues to live. And because he pays all the foundation’s costs, such as rent, salaries, etc., the entire $52 million has gone to its benefactors. Agassi is a one-man philanthropical society. He built the Agassi Learning Center for the boys and girls of Child Haven, a shelter for abused and neglected children. Where the children were once crammed in a two-room schoolhouse with one teacher, they now enjoy a state-of-the-art center with seven rooms, a library and a computer center. The 80 children are now housed in six cottages, and another is being built for those with special needs such as muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, disabilities and contagious diseases requiring isolation.

As Agassi was leaving the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center following his loss to Benjamin Becker, a fan yelled out, “Thank you,Andre.“A simple fitting tribute for a man that has made not only his sport better, but society as well.

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