By Leslie Ann Tripathy
Phoenix, is a firebird that comes from Paradise, lives five hundred years feeding on aromatic herbs and filling the air with its heavenly voice, before it perishes and burns in fire. It would then rise from the ashes to live another five hundred years. Like the Phoenix, tennis player Andre Agassi made a comeback from his all time career ranking low at 141 to being world number one.
Andre Agassi is considered one of the greatest and most charismatic players in the history of tennis. Agassi has earned more than $30m in prize money during a career in which he won eight Grand Slam tournaments. At the age of 16 turned a pro in 1986. It was Agassi who was almost responsible for glamorizing tennis. With his long flowing bleached blond tresses, earrings, denim and lycra shorts, shaved torso and rebellious attitude, Agassi became the poster boy of tennis worldwide. What really mattered to him was playing the game. Winning or losing hardly made any difference to him.
Agassi decides to conquer tennis
In 1992, Agassi decided to see what winning a major tournament tasted like. He decided at the last minute to play Wimbledon. Agassi put his best efforts and viola! he had a taste of his first major win. Agassi managed to advance to the finals against the odds. 5 ft 11 in tall Agassi in an interview said, "I didn't need that pressure to feel the pressure because I was already putting it on myself. I wanted to win. I wanted to not just make it to the finals. I wanted to see what it felt like to win." Agassi defeated Goran Ivanisevic. The taste of victory initiated his hunger for further wins.
But the celebration of victory was not to last for long, when his coach of ten years Nick Bollettieri decided to leave Agassi. Deciding to move on, Agassi asked fellow player Brad Gilbert to coach him. The decision paid off as the much stronger and motivated Agassi went on to clinch the U.S. Open in 1994, the Australian Open in 1995 and the Olympic gold medal in 1996.
Sampras and Agassi
Throughout the 1990s, professional men's tennis was dominated by one of the best rivalries of all time: Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Both were ranked World No. 1 during the 1990s, Sampras held onto the world's top-rank spot for a record 286 weeks while Agassi held it for 101 weeks. With contrasting styles and temperaments, they played each other 34 times from 1989 through 2002, with Sampras winning 20 of their matches. Agassi's flashy clothes, stylish hair and bad-boy attitude were the perfect counterpoint to Pete Sampras's gentle-manly steady, clean-cut power game. Sampras and Agassi’s rivalry brought high T.R.P for the matches. Agassi mentioned a few times, despite their years on tour, he and Sampras never bonded. They were different people and different on court, too. Sampras possessed arguably the best serve in tennis history, including a fabulous second delivery, while Agassi was one of the great returners and baseliners. More often than not, Sampras came out on top, especially when it counted, going 6-3 at majors. In Grand Slam finals, it was more lopsided 4-1. Their rivalry provided lot of fodder for the media with debates and speculations over who had an edge over the other? Roger Federer and Rafal Nadal are the current favourites in the media world echoing the same madness and frenzy that Sampras and Agassi generated. Sampras’ kept a low-profile. Though on court Sampras had an edge over Agassi but off-court the latter’s flamboyance had the world abuzz. Agassi was the James Dean of Tennis. Be it his tryst with Hollywood, drugs, endorsement.
Agassi romances fame
Agassi’s fame was at a feverish peak. Fans swooned over him. It did not surprise when the super-hot Hollywood actress Brooke Shields started dating Agassi in 1993. Shields was the pin-up girl of America, after her blockbuster movie Blue Lagoon. After a nearly four-year courtship, the two married April 19, 1997, in Carmel, California. Unfortunately their marriage could not survive the attention it received world over. Shields' career seemed to be on the upswing with the NBC sitcom "Suddenly Susan," but Agassi began to lose one match after another. In November 1997, Agassi sank to the lowest point of his career, ranked at No. 141. Agassi admitted later in his 2009 autobiography ‘Open’ that it was around 1997, he had a meltdown and used the drug crystal meth to feel like a Superman on the urge of his assistant Slim. This admission shocked his fans worldwide. The struggle with his game began to put a strain on his marriage. Agassi filed for divorce in 1999.
Rise of the Phoenix
Instead of quitting the game, Agassi was determined to taste success again. With the unstinted support of coach Gilbert, Agassi set on a strenuous diet and training routine. In an interview Agassi said, "It's a combination of a lot of weight training, a lot of cardio, sprinting, working on hills, combined with the tennis court."
In 1999, Agassi won the only Grand Slam title he had not yet claimed, the French Open. He became the first man since Rod Laver in the 1960s to win all four Grand Slam events.
Gilbert described the training. "He's running so hard. His body is aching so much. His legs are on fire. His lungs screaming as he is sprinting up the hill, and on his face, you see the look of pain, but you also see the look of purpose," he said.
1999 witnessed the taming of the rebel. As Agassi toned down his rebellious-bad-boy attitude, liberated himself from his fake hair and opted for a shining-bald-look, which instantly became a popular style statement among the youth. Agassi’s new avatar won him much more titles, fans and the love of one of the distinguished titans of women’s tennis, Steffi Graf. She is the owner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles. Together they have two children: son, Jaden Gil (b.2001), and daughter, Jaz Elle (b. 2003). He is the founder of the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, which has raised over $60 million for at-risk children in Southern Nevada. In 2001, the Foundation opened the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, a K-12 public charter school for at-risk children.
In 2005 Agassi made it to the finals of the U.S. Open at age 35 (he lost to Roger Federer). Plagued by back problems, he retired after losing in the third round the 2006 US Open. In his career Agassi won more than 850 singles matches, including 60 titles, 8 Grand Slams in 15 Grand Slam final appearances. Agassi is the only male to win the "Career Super Slam", winning all four Grand Slams, the Olympic singles gold medal and the ATP World Tour Finals. The gunslinger speed of Agassi’s returns was drilled into him by his father Mike Agassi, an Iranian of Armenian and Assyrian descent. Mike had represented Iran in boxing at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics before emigrating to the United States, where he married Betty. Agassi finished in Top 10 for 16th time in his 20-year career and becoming the oldest player in year-end Top 10 since Jimmy Connors at age 36 was No. 7 in 1988... At 35 years, 4 months, Agassi advanced to US Open final to become oldest Grand Slam finalist since 39 year old Ken Rosewall at 1974 US Open. Tennis Magazine has named Agassi the 7th greatest male player from 1965 through 2005. In 2005, Agassi left Nike after 17 years and signed an endorsement deal with Adidas. As Punisher (a nickname Agassi earned for manipulating his opponents to run relentlessly in the court) said in 2005 US Open: I've been motivated by overcoming challenges, the hurdles and the obstacles that faced me. There still is plenty out there to get motivated by.
The story of Agassi is an extraordinary saga of inspirational courage overcoming adversities with panache. The grit and mental strength Tennyson’s Ulysses displayed.