Sportstar Archives: Andre Agassi - Always ready to spring a surprise

Andre Agassi spoke about his topsy-turvy career, his late career surge after turning 30 and how he wanted to be remembered once he calls it a day.

"It’s hard not to want to win, especially when you can," Andre Agassi said.   -  ap

When he finally puts his racquets away for good, Andre Agassi will reflect on the irony, no doubt. When he exploded on the tennis scene in a blinding flash of colour in 1986-87, he was widely expected to dominate the sport while still in his teens, or, in the least, in his early 20s.

But, through a remarkably blow-hot, blow-cold career that has had as many shocking lows as there have been incredible highs, the man from Las Vegas never really dominated the sport for a dozen years after making his Grand Slam debut at the 1986 U.S.Open.

And, finally, past his 29th birthday, Agassi won his first French Open in June 1999 and ended a remarkable year as the No.1 player for the first time in his career.

What is more, the balding megastar went on to win the 2000 Australian Open too shortly after realising the dream of a lifetime. But what came after that last year suggested that maybe the versatile star's career was at last approaching its end.

Then again, Agassi has this knack of delivering when you least expect him to. And at this year’s Australian Open, the man who would celebrate his 31st birthday in April (in 2001) was virtually unstoppable. And who is to say how many more majors he can win?

The following are excerpts from an interview with Agassi after he won his third Australian Open title:

Question: It must be a new experience to you....successfully defending a Grand Slam title?

Answer: You know, coming into this event I was thinking that this is one of the first times being a defending champion was not about pressure but about knowing that you can play well here. I came into this tournament feeling that my game was very solid. I was in good position physically and it got better each day. Winning it felt special. Defending it certainly didn't occur to me till now. But that is a good feeling as well.

Would you say that you wanted to win this as much for your mother and sister (who are fighting breast cancer) as for yourself? That the courage your mother showed encouraged you?

No, I don’t think it is fair to say that. I think they are two separate things. I think as far as courage and determination go, my sister and my mom have more of it than I do. You have got to focus on one part of your life at a time. Being down here was about tennis. That's what my mind was on.

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It appears that you have come to a point in  your career where you  know exactly  what you are  going to do once you are in the groove?

Well, I can say that I don’t self-inflict or throw curves at myself as much anymore. I don’t make it tougher on myself. But to say it is easy would be misleading.

I am certainly experienced at what keeps me at my best and what puts me in position to be at my best for the bigger matches. That’s clearer now than it  has ever been. I think when you have been through it a number of times and you’ve had your share of successes and defeats, you know where to file it all a little bit easier. And I think the end result is a lot easier to accept.I feel, win or lose, that ultimately my goal is to be proud of myself out there in how I competed and how I conducted myself.

We are used to seeing you play men like Sampras and Kafelnikov in the final. What was it like facing a player like Arnaud Clement?

I never really enjoy the time leading up to the final because all you want to do is just get  out  there  and tee up. When you are in a position where you have been so many times, you know what to expect.

I have a lot of appreciation of how dangerous a player Arnaud, with his speed and  capabilities, can be. Having two days off, I felt edgy and anxious, wanting to get out there. That part is a lot more difficult than say, if I was playing Sampras or Rafter or somebody like that. You can stay a lot more relaxed when you play guys like that because you know you are going to have to be at your best. There are no two ways about  it. But  once  you  get out  there,  there are a number of times it occurs to you that you  are  glad it's not Pete. You feel like you have the edge in certain respects because of  your experience.  Still, I had to answer his weapons and establish mine. I did that pretty effectively.

Andre Agassi's first French Open title came few months before his 30th birthday.   -  The sportstar

 

Can you get any better than the player you are today?

Yeah, I think so. I hope so. That’s my goal. That’s what I want to do. I can always move better, be more aggressive more consistent. You are always striving  for that perfect, perfect game.

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Other than hard work, what would you put down your longevity to?

I think the year-round nature of our sport and the individual nature of our sport takes its toll on each person in a very aggressive way. And if you don’t know to ease up when your body needs it and when you mind needs it, I think the toll can get to be overwhelming in your late 20s.

But, for me, I thinly it’s come pretty natural for me not to make tennis my entire life. And  I've taken  time to kind of get away from it, so it’s kept my mind  and my body probably a lot fresher than where  I  might have been at 30 if it had been week in, week out, year after year.

So, you think those “lows” of your career were something of a blessing?

Yeah. I think you can always second guess  what you are doing and why you’re doing it. But I have definitely come not to regret those times. I think they've played a big part in my ability just to be healthy and determined, and feel that sense of hunger.

Can you comment on the inter-play between tennis and the rest of your life?

There are players who define their life by tennis. If their tennis isn’t going well, they are not happy.

I think it’s a difference between being 30 and being 18. I mean, you are dealing with a very young sport. It’s a huge sport, huge business, huge opportunities, huge accomplishments. You see kids fighting to accomplish certain things. It is easy to understand the pressures and the miscalculations of how it plays out at the end.

But I have lived through that. I’ve been through that. At this point, I can’t say I ever had  the  perspective in the beginning as if I had some foresight. I just think my heart never allowed me to be consumed by it.  But now I use that as an asset, as a tool.

When Jimmy Connors was 29 or 30, he said he'd play maybe two or three years. Then he ended up hanging around till 39 or 40. Do you see that happening to you?

You know, I would be probably more shocked than anybody if I played longer than a few more years. I have no intentions of playing as long as he did.

Andre Agassi poses with the 2000 Australian Open men's singles trophy.   -  the hindu archives

 

How much do you think about your place in history, your place  among the greats, where you fit in?

I thinly you think about it when it’s over. Statistics don’t lie. You know, records don’t lie. Either you do it, or you don’t. No sense in thinking about it before you step on the court. It’s a wonderful feeling being a champion here three times. Things like that really impact you. But somehow they don't play a part when you are stepping out there to play. In some respects, it makes you feel proud. But in other ways, it is irrelevant.

 

Looking back, when you got down levels and played in those Challengers four years ago, did you think you would win four more Grand Slams?

No, definitely not. At that stage it was more reflective of how I function as a person. It wasn't about winning, it was about getting better. It was a process. And this is something I really enjoy. I enjoyed it every bit as much then as I do now. I couldn’t even tell you now if I have any more Slams in me. I have no idea, that’s the way I approach it. I feel like you have to be good to win, you have to be lucky to win, and things have to fall right for you. But the  process  that  happens day in and day out, asking yourself  to get better  as a player, is a process that I really enjoy on the court and off the court. And playing the challengers just speaks volumes for how important that  process is in my life.

 

What is more important, the drive to win or enjoying playing the game?

You want to achieve more. How can you not want to win? It’s hard not to want to win, especially when you can. A man needs to world. If I do this well,  I might as well work here, you know. It is important to me just to pay a price, to assess  how  your day was at the end of it. I can’t think of a better way to do it than playing the game of tennis.

 

Stefano Capriati has said nobody can become a tennis champion without a father or a mother struggling a lot at the beginning of the career of his son or daughter. We never hear about your father.  What kind of influence did he have in your early days?

My father was very crucial to my success. He has a passion for the game that is more now than when I was a young boy. He plays every day. He plays with friends, teaches kids, gives me an earful about how I can be better. It is great to see his passion for the game.

I do believe, as tough as the sport of tennis is, in order to succeed, you have to start early. And if you have to start early, there is a heck of a chance one of the parents is supporting or nurturing you in that direction. I think a parent plays an important role in many ways. I don't necessarily feel they have to be consumed with it or make it the end-all. I think it could be a very positive experience. But you always risk those lines getting crossed when it starts so young and it becomes so important.

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What are your thoughts on Jennifer Capriati's achive- ment here?

Long time and well overdue. A long time ago I thought when I saw her hit the ball  that she can strike the ball with the best of them off both sides. I hope she uses this as a stepping stone to stay fit, to stay strong and really believe in what she is capable of doing. I think it is going to be hard for her not to believe what she's capable of doing with what she’s been through. I think  that  is also a testament  to her spirit.

What do you want to be remembered for? When you put your racquet away, what do you want to be remembered for?

Hopefully there won't be a marking point where once the racquets are put away... for what I want  to be remembered for will continue. I think ultimately making a difference in people’s lives is what I cherish most, from an individual level to a broader base. However that changes, I hope I never lose the desire or the passion for that.

(The interview first appeared in the Sportstar issue dated February 17, 2001)

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