Agassi the ageless
Andre Agassi has pulled off many eye-catching feats in his tennis career, to which must now be added his latest exploits in Houston, when in the space of 24 hours he regained the number one world ranking and scored a remarkable victory in the final of the United States clay-court championship.
A fortnight ago, two days short of his 33rd birthday, Agassi trailed Andy Roddick by a set and 0-2, 0-40 on his serve.
‘Find a way to hold serve and at least make him finish off this match,” Agassi said he told himself as he contemplated losing heavily to the title holder, a player nearly 13 years his junior.
He saved the first break point with a backhand drop shot, but admitted that he ‘still felt pretty desperate”.
By winning the next four points as well (to deny Roddick the break), he started to feel a little better before turning the match around by winning five straight games from 3-1 down.
He eventually won the match 3-6 6-3 6-4, notching up his 58th title.
It had already been a good weekend for Agassi, whose semifinal victory over Austria’s Jürgen Melzer had made sure that he would return to the top of the world rankings as the oldest player to hold that position. His win over Roddick emphasised that despite mounting evidence of the primacy of youth in achieving success in the evermore competitive world of tennis—the average age of the other nine top-10 players is 23—age need not be eclipsed when accompanied by exceptional talent.
‘Inside the lines I don’t see age,” Agassi said after beating Roddick to take his wins this year to 23 against one loss.
‘It’s about what your game is, what you bring to the table.”
Based on evidence gleaned from reporting sport for nearly 40 years, my feeling is that being the number one in men’s tennis at the age of 33 is akin to a 40-year-old cricketer being rated the best batsman in the world, or a 45-year-old golfer being at the top of his sport.
Extreme dedication is one of the keys to Agassi’s success, something that when he was young he did not always seem to have within his grasp.
He was brought up in Las Vegas, where he now lives with his wife Steffi Graf and son Jaden Gil.
He admitted that as a teenager, his drinking became excessive and that he was ‘on the edge of a cliff as far as drugs and alcohol are concerned”.
Helped by religion—there are, by some distance, more churches and temples in Las Vegas than there are casinos—and, later, by his stabilising relationship with Graf, Agassi has achieved a state of contentment that has enabled him to pursue perfection on the tennis court with a zeal few others can match.
The man who, according to Pat Cash, walks ‘with that mincing little waddle” and has been described by a US tennis writer as having ‘no-account legs”, can keep going longer than many of his younger rivals.
Agassi regards his long-time fitness coach, Gil Reyes, as the most important member of his back-up team and willingly submits to blood-vessel-busting fitness regimes. It was the faithful Reyes who helped him back after domestic instability and a wrist injury caused his world ranking to drop to 141 in 1997, a difficult time when he was forced to compete in second-tier Challenger events to work his way back.
‘My secret now is that my fitness level is very good,” he said. ‘I’ve become more intense in my training schedule. An hour on the court now [while training] is comparable to what two hours would have been like a few years back.”
And how has he raised his stamina level?
‘I train on my favourite hill, which is a very slowly increasing incline and offers nothing unless you put something into it. So I just go out there and try to make it my friend.”
His desire to maintain his fitness is perpetuated by the heightened sense of satisfaction he derives from winning at this stage of his career.
‘As you get older, you realise so quickly how these moments pass,” he said.
‘You appreciate everything in life more. I think everything has deeper roots in your own heart and mind.”
Everything, of course, is underpinned by extraordinary natural ability, most obviously the hand-eye coordination that has made him the best returner of serve since Jimmy Connors.
When he surprised everyone, including himself, by winning Wimbledon in 1992, he dismantled the games of three of the best serve-volleyers of the professional era—Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Goran Ivanisevic.
And while you won’t see Agassi in the Masters final in Rome this weekend, the most prestigious tennis titles this season are still his for the taking. —