A fascinating voyage of discovery

If it is amazing that Andre Agassi has managed to reinvent himself as a champion time after time after time, the key to the success has been the hard work he has put in

THE late Rajiv Gandhi was India's Prime Minister, Sachin Tendulkar hadn't made his international debut yet, Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl were playing Grand Slam finals that lasted longer than one-day internationals, Steffi Graf was en route to a golden Grand Slam and this writer was sure of one thing, more than anything else — the punk with the bleached blond hair and pigeon-toed gait wasn't going to last.

Ben Johnson's hour of shame had come and gone in Seoul, Vijay Amritraj was still playing Davis Cup tennis for India, the Berlin Wall was still standing firm and I was sure of one thing, more than anything else — the smooth talking teenager who endorsed Canon cameras with the words "Image is everything'' was no Boris Becker of Ivan Lendl, more likely a fit candidate for quick burnout.

That was 1988. And the teenaged "punk'' was one Andre Kirk Agassi.

Fifteen long years later, as the bald, old, wise one ascends to the very top of the ATP rankings for the fifth time in his career two days short of his 33rd birthday — by far the oldest world No.1 in history — this writer has no qualms, nor any sense of shame, in admitting that he was wrong. Watching an 18-year old Agassi on and off the court in 1988, who would have believed that he had it in him — not in terms of talent but in terms of attitude, discipline and character — to do what he has done in his career?

Surely, not even Agassi himself would have believed then that he would last this long and end up as one of the game's all time greats and, more importantly, one who would, at 33, look stronger, fitter and better equipped techically/tactically than ever before.

Yes, most of us were wrong about Agassi 15 years ago. But that was because Agassi himself was wrong about many things, not the least about his own possibilities as an athlete, as a champion of substance.

The world would be a wretched place if human beings can't change, change for the better. And the widely chronicled story of Agassi's transformation from an image-obsessed punk to a great champion who's taken his place among the game's immortals is one of the most fascinating chapters in modern sport, one that has few, if any, parallels.

For all that, it is still mind boggling when you get to grips with the last four years of the man's career, when you come to realise that he has won 23 of 24 matches this season, including four titles, starting with the Australian Open in January, and that five of his eight Grand Slam titles have come past the age of 29.

When he beat his young countryman Andy Roddick in three sets in the final at Houston last fortnight, Agassi had already made sure of claiming the No. 1 ranking the following week. In four different spells as No. 1 in the past, Agassi had spent 87 weeks at the top but none of those reigns can compare with his latest climb to the top spot at age 33.

Not even the original Marathon Man of modern tennis — Jimmy Connors — managed anything quite like this. Connors's last tryst with the most coveted ranking was at age 30, in 1983.

``I don't think I could quite find the words,'' said Agassi after his semifinal victory in Houston over Austria's Jurgen Melzer assured him of the No.1 ranking. "It feels amazing. I feel I've forgotten what it's like,'' said the man who last held the top ranking in September 2000.

``It's the result of a lot of hard work and decision making, a lot of success in many different arenas against many different opponents. It's a bit overwhelming to have it come together at one moment,'' said Agassi who replaced Australia's Lleyton Hewitt at the top.

And when that great moment arrives less than 48 hours before you'd blow 33 candles on your birthday cake, it might not only be overwhelming but, quite simply, unbelievable.

``Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be. The last for which the first was made...''

Indeed, I am constantly reminded of those unforgettable words from Robert Browning while watching Agassi enact his heroics these days.

And anybody who was witness to his eighth Grand Slam triumph at Melbourne last January would readily believe that the best is yet to be. As an athlete, as a tactician, as a shotmaking genius, Agassi is near the apotheosis of a remarkable career. Never perhaps has the man from Las Vegas served with such confidence and power as he has been doing this season. And he is moving as well as any 18 year old might expect to.

``The way Agassi's playing and serving, it's like playing against the Berlin Wall. Everything comes back, and it comes back faster,'' wrote Ilie Nastase, a former world No.1, in the Sunday Age in Melbourne on the eve of the Australian Open final.

When Agassi is in full flow, tennis is a near-perfect blend of art and science and few men can stand across the net from him and come out on top. In my mind, there is only one person who can handle Agassi at his best and make him look a lot less than the sum of his parts, so to say. Pete Sampras is the bloke's name.

Little wonder, then, Agassi readily acknowledges that Sampras is the best player he has played against. For the only time Agassi has managed to beat the great man in a Grand Slam final was in 1995 in Melbourne and the Las Vegan ended up on the wrong side of the scoreline as recently as in the U.S.Open final last September against Sampras.

But the fact that Agassi has won 14 of their 34 matches over a 15-year period hardly does any damage to the 33-year old charismatic star's CV.

And even as a huge question mark hangs over Sampras's halted career, Agassi himself has displayed the sort of hunger that continues to elude younger men such as Marat Safin and Andy Roddick, to name only two.

``I think he loves it more now than he ever has,'' said Agassi's best friend, fitness trainer and spiritual guru, Gil Reyes in Melbourne. "I believe that his body is good at this level for another two or three years. I don't know if that's our destiny but, for sure, the plan is getting stronger.''

In fact, the plan looks so strong, so to say, this season that there are quite a few who believe that Agassi can actually win all the four majors in 2003. Not since 1995 — when he had a 19-1 start to the year — has Agassi looked quite as good at the start of the year.

And few men, barring Hewitt, look good enough to pose any serious challenge to the 33-year old evergreen champion from Las Vegas.

``It's already been a great year and it's getting better,'' said Agassi. "It is hard not to feel great about my game right now and I can't ask for a better start.''

Then again, such stupendous success at age 33 doesn't come cheap. Perhaps no other top player trains as hard during the off-season as does Agassi.

If it is amazing that Agassi has managed to reinvent himself as a champion time after time after time, rededicating himself to set goals and then achieving them in style, the key to the success has been the hard work he has put in away from the courts.

The extraordinary success that Agassi has had in Australia — where he has won four of his eight Grand Slam titles — has to do with the fact that he spends much of December whipping himself into shape in the company of Reyes.

Two hours of weight training in the gym, then sprints on steep mountain roads and finally tough sessions on practice courts may test the will of a much younger man. But Agassi has steadfastly stuck to his routine and few would grude him the just rewards down under.

Then again, there must be more to Agassi's longevity than merely his willingness to train as hard as he does and with as much dedication has he does.

``I suppose there is a wear and tear issue you have to look at,'' says Agassi. "I think there were times when I wasn't putting as much trauma and stress on my body as others.

``Having said that, I play my game a certain way. I hit balls in front of me. I'm never on the full stretch and torquing the joints, knees and hips. I built a certain strength level up. So I can't be sure if I'd be done with the game if I had given it a consistent push throughout my career." That assessment is not only honest but it is on the mark. The time Agassi has spent away from the game in his career has certainly helped the man retain his hunger. On the other hand, it has taken extraordinary will power and character to make light of those breaks and come back as a champion.

``I enjoy my tennis when I am intense about it. I enjoy my life when it's intense. You can't have both,'' Agassi said a few years ago, before he fell in love with one Stephanie Graf.

Now, playing some of the finest tennis of his career watched by a 22-time Grand Slam champion wife and son Jaden Gil, Andre Agassi, the champion of substance, will surely agree that "you can have both.''

But it has been a long, arduous trek to this marvellous destination.