The day Agassi cried

In a much-publicised career that has been part-fairytale and part-nightmare, Agassi has shed a lot of tears in the past — but almost always in the privacy of his hotel room or in his Las Vegas home. Never before had he dared to bare his sensitive soul, standing awash in emotions as he did on that Sunday of the men’s final.

Andre Agassi kisses the trophy after his 6-7 (8-10), 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 victory over Goran Ivanisevic in the men’s singles final at the Wimbledon Championships in London, on July 5, 1992.   -  Getty Images

The tears broke out uncontrollably and Andre Agassi lifted his shirt to bury his face in. In the packed stands of the Wimbledon centre court, and particularly in the box for players’ guests, there were a lot of wet eyes too.

In a much-publicised career that has been part-fairytale and part-nightmare, Agassi has shed a lot of tears in the past — but almost always in the privacy of his hotel room or in his Las Vegas home. Never before had he dared to bare his sensitive soul and stood awash in emotions as he did on that Sunday of the men’s final.

Life, then, is a strange matter full of unreason. It requires you to smile through your most despairing moments, to put on a brave face as they call it. And when you shed tears and strip yourself bare to reveal a heart and soul at your most ecstatic of moments, the whole world toasts you as a hero.

It is almost as if you have to earn the right to cry, to stand out there and let the world watch you become overwhelmed by emotions. That is a price you have to pay for emotional freedom on stage when millions of pairs of eyes are on you.

Andre Agassi paid that price in full on that Sunday. He earned his freedom.

No longer will he be shackled by self-doubts, haunted by the question marks over his strength of will and championship calibre on the big occasions. No longer will he hear insulting remarks about being the richest tennis player without a single major title.

The ghosts of the past have been exorcised once and for all. One phase of his life as a tennis pro had ended. Another, a more glorious and rewarding one, had begun. And not a minute too soon, as it were.

“We have waited long enough for this day,” said Nick Bollettieri, Agassi’s coach and the man who says “I love him like a son.”

And what an agonising wait it had turned out to be. Promoted like few other modern sportsmen have ever been promoted before — or after — the teenaged Agassi did reveal early on that he had the talents to win major championships. He made a sensational debut in the Stratton Mountain tournament in 1986, the one which also marked the return of John McEnroe after his sabbatical.

What is more, he cut a colourful swath through the pro circuit belting out bruising groundstrokes and splinting his baseline game with liberal doses of aggression. It is another matter that the clothes he chose to wear would glow in the dark and clash with daylight. What did matter was that he had the game to beat all the top players.

At the French Open in 1988, then only 18, Agassi played a memorable match with the eventual champion Mats Wilander. It signalled his arrival on the big stage. And two years later, when he made the final in Paris, with the ageing Andres Gomez standing across the court from him, many thought the coronation time had arrived.

They were wrong. Soon, it became clear that his strength of mind was questionable when challenged at the highest level. When the final question was asked of him, he failed to reveal a champion’s heart. It happened again in the Fall of 1990, when Pete Sampras beat him in the U.S. Open final.

The world doesn’t wait forever to make judgments and when Agassi once again failed in a major final in 1991, falling to Jim Courier at the French Open, many were willing to write him off. You were sure that the man who said image is everything was indeed more style than substance.

While Agassi saw no reason to change either his sartorial tastes or his attitudes to life and his love for the fast lane, the backlash was painful. You might be the heart-throb of millions of teenaged girls but when you can’t gain acceptance as a genuine champion in your own profession, the experience can be terrible, to say the least.

“I am like a guy who decided to add a few rooms onto his house and started off blowing the whole thing up,” he once said.

And it did appear that he had blown the whole thing at the start of this year as Agassi lost in the early rounds in seven successive tournaments. His ranking slipped to No. 17 even as younger Americans who turned pro after him — Jim Courier and Pete Sampras — kept climbing.

“When you are in a slump, you feel like the people cheering against you are all carrying megaphones,” he said earlier this year. “Everything is magnified, everything is cloudy.”

Well, before it was too late, he did see one thing clearly: the best way out of a slump is to win more tennis matches. The resurrection began at the ATP Challenge in Atlanta in May.

Finally, the cycle was complete at Wimbledon on July 5. And, surely, Agassi must have felt this time that those who were cheering for him — everybody in the stands it seemed on that day — were carrying megaphones.

After all, the depth of emotions is the same both in extreme despair and in great ecstacy.

The following are excerpts from interviews with Agassi during the Wimbledon fortnight.

Question: If somebody had said to you at the start of the year that you would win Wimbledon, what would you have said?

Answer: I came here to win the tournament. But it was really expecting a lot. To beat this kind of field on grass. But if you had told me at the start of the year, I would have had a hard time digesting it. I would have thought there were some strings attached somewhere if you had told me that.

Do you see the irony in all this, Andre? The fact that this is your first Grand Slam triumph and it has come on the least likely of surfaces.

It is quite an irony. You know, I really have had my chances to fulfil a lot of my dreams. But I have not come through in the past. To do it here is more than anything I could ever ask for. If my career was over tomorrow, I had a lot more than I deserved. I could not possibly ask for anything more than this. This is simply unbelievable.

Do you see your victory today as a return of the baseliners at Wimbledon. For a long time it seemed that a baseliner would never again win this championship.

I don’t know what it is a return of. All I know is the game has moved towards power. It is high power, both on serve and groundstrokes. I think I definitely have made a mark for those who play like I do. I think I have given them a bit of confidence. I am just surviving out there. But the way I play, hitting the ball hard, it has worked for me in the past and it has worked for me these two weeks. To say if anybody else playing from the baseline is going to come and do it is tough for me.

Agassi and Steffi Graf of Germany pose for photographers at the Champions Ball for the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, in 1992.   -  Getty Images


Now that you have won here, do you regret skipping this championship those three years (1988-1990)? Do you think it was because of bad advice or perhaps bad thinking on your part?

It is kinda sad. It is really sad because this sport has offered me and my life so much. This tournament has offered me so much. It is a shame that I didn’t respect it a little earlier. But you can always second guess yourself. I thought I was going to use the time away to really prepare myself to do well when I got here. Whether it is good or not for me in the long term it is tough to say now. This is the greatest title in the world and this is my greatest achievement.

What was going through your mind in the fourth and fifth sets of the final. He blew you apart in the fourth set and were you thinking, “It is happening to me again. I can’t let this one go.”

Interestingly enough, this being my fourth Grand Slam final, you would have thought I would go in with the snowwall mentality, ‘I hope I don’t lose a fourth one.’ But really I felt extremely relaxed the night before and in the morning I never felt tension. I felt myself overflowing with this desire to go out there and hit shots. It was a very positive feeling and I stayed positive even after I lost the first set. I felt I was doing my best to stop him. I hung in there long enough to make him think. I am pleased with my ability to do that.

You perhaps came in here with lower expectations than at the French Open. How much of a factor was that in your being successful?

It was a factor early in the tournament. Getting by the first few rounds was not easy. But it helped me stay positive. As I started playing on the grass and getting used to it, I surprised myself getting more comfortable on it, adapting to it well. By the time you get to the final, you no longer think you are on grass. You are just all-consumed with this confidence. You know that you only have to go out there and show it. As the tournament went on it was just a question of my getting comfortable on serves.

How much credit would you give to John McEnroe for training with you and teaching you on grass?

John has helped me technically on grass and I am grateful for that. But nobody can help you win a Grand Slam tournament. It is mental out there. It doesn’t even feel like it is a tennis match.

What kind of help did McEnroe really offer you?

Last year, for example, he told me to shorten my strokes a little bit to make them more concise. This year the first time I practised with him he told me as to which shots I needed to change. I had this habit of hitting neutral balls like I’m playing on clay. 

John told me grass isn’t like that. He said every shot counts and if you are not putting everything into every ball, there is a good chance you are going to lose the point.

What is it about your game that Boris Becker is not able to handle? You have now beaten him six straight times.

I don’t know. I really don’t know. It is strange that I have won six times in a row. It could have gone the other way every single time. It was that close. And I never once went in thinking ‘I have this match.’ I wish I could tell you the reason.

Considering what you have achieved here, have you exceeded your own expectations for the year? Are you surprised by how well you have played?

I am certainly glad that it has turned around. I said at the beginning of the year that I hope by the French Open things really start working for me. As I got close to the French, I began suspecting that I was hoping for too much. But I did pull together and then came here hoping to perform well. I said at the French Open that I am going to look back on the tournament as a turning point in my career.

How big a part have the fans played in your success? You have had some tremendous support here and you were the favourite every single time you went out.

I owe a lot to the public here just in the sense of the vibes I feel from them. It is like I just have to step on the court to feel the support. It allows me to do what I do best.

At the same time, with all those girls screaming for you, does it put you off? Is it a kind of distraction, too?

Put me off my concentration! It is not easy you know. Week after week you play tennis as a sport and then so many people just try to pull out my hair, pull off my hat, my clothes, my arms, my tennis bag, anything they can touch. It’s tough to keep it as a sport. But when you come to Wimbledon you have an unbelievable ability to put all that aside and focus on what you’re here for.

This article was published in The Sportstar, on July 18, 1992.

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