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Agassi is tennis' showman

Agassi has flare for the dramatic
By Mike Puma
Special to

"You're from Vegas, you understand show business. You know what the people want and you know how to give it to them. And Andre came from the school of giving the people what they want. He understands that innately. He just knew something we didn't know about pleasing crowds," says Jim Courier on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Early in his career, he was the renegade of tennis who once promised to "wake up the country club." Andre Agassi did just that, making a name for himself with his long hair, loud apparel and rambunctious behavior as much as his talent. He also drew headlines for his "image is everything" commercial and with his romance -- and marriage -- to actress Brooke Shields.

Andre Agassi
Early in Andre Agassi's career, he made a name for himself with his long hair and loud apparel as much as his talent.
Now into his 30s, Agassi has mellowed. The mention of his name no longer evokes thoughts of a rebel, just one of the game's top performers, someone who has won eight majors, which is one more than John McEnroe did. After his divorce from Shields, Agassi is in love again, this time with former tennis star Steffi Graf, whom he wed in October 2001.

Agassi is one of only five men to have won a career Grand Slam - Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. Not even his arch-rival, Pete Sampras, accomplished this feat.

He also has an Olympic gold medal from 1996 and helped the U.S. to Davis Cup titles in 1990, '92 and '95. He has a 30-6 lifetime singles record, returning to the team in 2005 after a five-year absence.

The winner of $30 million on tour, Agassi gained his 60th singles title in July 2005.

The defiant Agassi skipped Wimbledon for three years early in his career because of his discontent with the playing surface and what he deemed a stuffy atmosphere. He's also seen his career plummet twice, only to both times recover and regain his place among the elite.

"I've had these years where tennis hasn't been the top priority," Agassi said after winning the 2001 Australian Open. "There can be some regrets there, but that has saved me for the long run. My best tennis can still be ahead of me."

The youngest of four children, Agassi was born on April 29, 1970 in Las Vegas. His father Mike boxed for Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics before immigrating to Chicago. But Mike, who concentrated on tennis after ending his boxing career, couldn't tolerate the cold winters and moved his family to Las Vegas in 1962 so he and his children could play tennis year round. Mike took jobs in the casinos while his wife Betty worked as an alien certification specialist.

As soon as Andre could stand, he was given a full-sized tennis racket. When he was four, he hit balls with Jimmy Connors and played an exhibition match against Bobby Riggs. Growing up, Andre and his brother and two sisters hit thousands of balls every week. By Andre's count, he hit 3,000 shots a day, seven days a week.

"Dad raised me to play," Agassi said. "I never considered doing anything else."

Early in 1984, Mike Agassi sent him to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The 13-year-old wasn't happy about leaving home, but his father was determined to make his younger son a champion.

"It was impossible to ignore Andre for long," Bollettieri wrote in his autobiography, "My Aces, My Faults." "He was too talented. He was a short, skinny kid who tried to kill every shot, who never held back. You could also see that he was a scrapper, a street fighter, and that he would scratch and claw to win."

Turning pro two days after his 16th birthday, Agassi's first Grand Slam event was the 1986 U.S. Open, where he lost to Jeremy Bates in the first round. He finished the year ranked No. 91.

Andre Agassi
Agassi is one of only five men to win a career Grand Slam.
Agassi's Wimbledon debut came in 1987, when he lost to Henri Leconte in the first round. A disgusted Agassi -- he hated playing on grass -- later said, "This isn't tennis."

Agassi's career took off the following year as he won six singles titles and made a dent in the Grand Slam events, reaching the semifinals of the French and U.S. Opens. He finished the year ranked third.

In 1989, Agassi surpassed $1 million in career earnings in only his 43rd tournament, faster than any player before him. At the 1990 French Open, Agassi's black denim shorts covering his pink stretch pants and his multicolored headband raised some eyebrows. But that didn't stop him from advancing to the final, where he lost to Andres Gomez.

Later that year, he beat Boris Becker in the semifinals of the U.S. Open before losing to Sampras in the final.

After refusing to play Wimbledon from 1988-90 because of his distaste for the surface and atmosphere -- including the all-white dress code -- Agassi returned in 1991. The next year, as the 12th seed, he won the tournament, beating hard-serving Goran Ivanisevic in the final for his first Grand Slam title. "If my career was over tomorrow, I had a lot more than I deserved," Agassi said.

But he couldn't immediately feed off the success. He was struggling in 1993 when Bollettieri quit as his coach, citing a strain in their relationship and that he wasn't happy with their financial arrangement. After losing in the first round of the U.S. Open, Agassi underwent surgery to remove scar tissue from his right wrist, ending his year.

Just as Agassi was being written off, he pulled a stunner in 1994 by becoming the first unseeded player since Fred Stolle in 1966 to win the U.S. title. Agassi, now coached by Brad Gilbert, beat Michael Stich in straight sets in the final.

And Agassi wouldn't let down after this Grand Slam victory. Four months later he made his first appearance at the Australian Open and won, defeating Sampras in a four-set final.

Agassi ascended to No. 1 for the first time and assembled a streak of 26 straight victories, a career high that was halted by Sampras in the U.S. Open final. "In 1995, I proved to myself that I can go day in, day out, week after week, winning," Agassi said.

The highlight of 1996 for Agassi took place in Atlanta when he became the first American man to win the Olympic gold medal in singles since 1924, defeating Spain's Sergi Bruguera in the final.

Agassi missed most of 1997 due to a recurring wrist injury. On April 19, he married Shields in Monterey, Calif. With the love of his wife taking precedence of his love of the game, Agassi's performances dimmed and by November his ranking had slipped to No. 141.

But Agassi was about to prove once again that there's no overestimating his desire to be the best. With the love having gone out of his marriage, Agassi resurrected his game on the tour challenger circuit. Returning to the ATP tour, he continued his outstanding play and was ranked No. 6 at the end of 1998.

Andre Agassi
Agassi has won eight Grand Slam tournaments.
In April 1999, his divorce to Shields was final. That June, he defeated Andrei Medvedev in the French Open final, enabling him to complete a career Grand Slam.

A month later, he reached the Wimbledon final, but was crushed in straight sets by Sampras. Despite the defeat, a week later he regained the No. 1 spot -- from Sampras -- for the first time in three years.

Agassi's big year continued with his second U.S. Open championship. In beating Todd Martin in the final, Agassi became the first man in 26 years to rally from a 2-1 deficit in sets.

Agassi made it four straight appearances in a Grand Slam final -- the first time a player had accomplished that since Rod Laver in 1969 -- by beating Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the 2000 Australian Open final. Agassi successfully defended his Australian title in 2001 when he defeated Arnaud Clement in the final.

Two years later, he won his fourth Australian Open with a rout of Rainer Schuettler. At 32, Agassi was the oldest man to win a Grand Slam title since Andres Gimeno in 1972.

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