Agassi's moment at Wimbledon

Last Updated : 23 June 2012, 15:41 IST

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It’s been 20 years since the dyed-blonde American conquered the grass Slam

Has it really been 20 years since Andre Agassi won Wimbledon, since he rose above the external critics and internal monologue with his long, dyed-blond hair streaming out of the back of his cap?

 Already 20 years since he showed all the doubters, himself included, that he truly did have the right Grand Slam stuff in what was supposed to be the wrong place?

This being the summer of 2012, with another Wimbledon about to begin next week, the answer is yes. Agassi, who has long possessed one of the best memories in tennis, recalls much of his breakthrough run in 1992 with documentary-ready precision, although not quite all of it.

“I still remember the smell of the grass,” he said sotto voce.
He also remembers the emotions – still mixed – after that 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 victory.

“As hard a critic as everybody was, I think the thing that was misjudged about me consistently over the years was how much harder of a critic I am of myself,” he said.

“Sure, I felt the vindication of the people who told me I couldn’t do it or the times I read I couldn’t. I absolutely felt that, but not more than the ghosts that I managed to exorcise in my own head. And so what I had proven to myself was a much greater emotion to me at that moment because of all the failures I felt like I had.”

He added, “The sad part of all of it is that Wimbledon felt more like a relief at that stage of my career than a celebration.” Then he corrected himself.

“I shouldn’t say that,” he continued. “I wouldn’t say relief trumped it. Relief was a significant component of what I felt, and that is the unfortunate part.”

Agassi said that when he called his father after the victory, his father’s first comment was that he had no business losing the fourth set, although Agassi could hear him tearing up. Agassi said the glow was gone for good by the US Open, about two months later, when he lost in the quarterfinals to Jim Courier.

Yet it would be far off the mark to think that Agassi – now 42 and more interested in educating his two children and others for tomorrow than in rehashing yesterday’s matches – in some way regrets winning his lone Wimbledon title.

“I value the trophies by what it took, and what it took out of me, what it took from me, what it took of me,” said Agassi, now married to the former women’s champion Steffi Graf. “Wimbledon is up there with the French Open in 1999. That’s how much it means to me. It’s a reminder, a reminder of what we can overcome if we just refuse to quit.”

Despite the complex, inconclusive epilogue, the heart of the plot in 1992 was Agassi’s decisive, inspirational tennis. He produced it as the 12th seed and with barely any grass court preparation, with a gold earring dangling from his ear and with the same cap on his head in each round to satisfy superstition and to hide his thinning hair. He did not even dare to doff it to the Duchess of Kent, breaking protocol during the victory ceremony.

Agassi lost his first match at Wimbledon at age 17 to Henri Leconte, 2-6, 1-6, 2-6, in 1987 and was so underwhelmed by the slick conditions and buttoned-up attitude that he stayed away for three years. But once he returned, dressed in the requisite white, he found that grass-court tennis suited his quick-strike style. He reached the quarterfinals in 1991 before losing to David Wheaton.

“If you could be the first one to hit a quality shot, it paid dividends, and it was hard for somebody to turn around a point,” Agassi said. “So I gained confidence really quickly on the grass.”

Still, he said that he went to London in 1992 with no realistic hope of winning and that if he had met a classic serve-and-volley player in the first round, he might have been knocked out before finding his range. Instead, he got to rally at length with Andrei Chesnokov, a Russian who played from the baseline. Agassi lost the first set and then won the next three in a match that stretched over two days.

He also lost the first set against Masso, another baseliner, in the second round. Then came straight-set victories over the American Derrick Rostagno and Saceanu, a German qualifier.

Then, in the quarterfinals, came Becker, the German star who had won Wimbledon three times. But Agassi had beaten Becker in their last five matches, and even on Becker’s turf, he prevailed again, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

“I have not seen anybody on grass playing that kind of tennis,” Becker said afterward.
In the semifinals, he faced John McEnroe, his friend, Davis Cup teammate and occasional mentor, who at 33 was playing in what turned out to be his final Wimbledon in singles. McEnroe had also given Agassi grass-court tips, and when they met at the net after Agassi had routed him, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, McEnroe asked him why he had listened so well.
He managed to do so again against Ivanisevic, the explosive, young Croatian left-hander who had served 36 aces to beat Sampras in four sets in the semifinals to reach his first Grand Slam final.

Although Agassi had much more experience at 22 in big Grand Slam matches than Ivanisevic at 20, Agassi had not won a set against Ivanisevic in their two previous matches and considered himself the underdog on grass. That, in his mind, was critical.
“It was such a relief to me to finally, finally play somebody in the finals of a Grand Slam who is supposed to beat me,” Agassi recalled. “That feeling alone helped me not to interfere with myself.”

But to hear Agassi recount the final 20 years later is to realize how much potential interference was inside his head as his chances increased – as he broke Ivanisevic early to take control of the second and third sets, as he recovered his balance after Ivanisevic had rocked Agassi’s world in the fourth.

The details are still vivid, even an Ivanisevic lob on a break point that seemed to Agassi to hover between the clouds and the blue for “more than an hour” before Agassi pounded it safely away.

He eventually found himself up, 5-4, in the fifth with Ivanisevic serving. Two double faults made it 0-30, but Ivanisevic rallied to 30-all before Agassi passed him with a midcourt forehand to reach match point.

“I’m walking back to the baseline thinking, geez, I’m one swing of the racket away from winning Wimbledon,” Agassi recalled. There would be more time to think after Ivanisevic missed another first serve under the pressure.

“I actually put my racket up because of all the voices in my head, and the only one I couldn’t hear was my own,” Agassi said. “I just told myself at that point: ‘OK, no regrets. Just hit it. If you’re going to lose this match, it won’t be because you take the conservative road at this moment. When you lost all your finals, that’s what you did.

You played not to lose. Play this one to win, and hit this thing as hard as you can.”'
In came the second serve to his backhand. Then came the grunt and the big swing, and even if the ball did not leave Agassi’s strings with the force he had intended, Ivanisevic could not quite volley it back.

Agassi had the first of his eight Grand Slam titles, even if he did not yet have his catharsis. “For me,” he said, “winning Wimbledon didn’t seem to last nearly as long as losing did.”

Published 23 June 2012, 15:41 IST

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