Watching Andre Agassi play live was a revelation. The noise of the ball off his racket was like a rifle crack, so perfect was his timing. His flat-hit shots, often taken when the ball was still rising, made an entirely different sound from even that produced by the best players of the day such as Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl. Even in practice, seasoned tennis fans would stop what they were doing and go to see exactly what was making that noise.
Allied to this easy power was supreme control. Other players may have possessed greater strength – Marat Safin, Fernando Gonzalez and the like had huge forehands but would often miss long unless they were bang on top of their game. Agassi could seemingly play for hours at a consistently high level, making few errors while manoeuvring his opponent around the court. Nor could the American win lots of cheap points on his serve – standing at ‘just’ 5ft 11in he was never able to generate the sort of pace on his delivery that a Pete Sampras could. But his hustling, bustling style, his slightly pigeon-toed movement and, above all, his supreme down-the-line backhand enabled him to compete with the bigger hitters.
With his flowing locks (later revealed to be a hairpiece), earring and denim shorts, it would be easy to dismiss Agassi as a show pony, the embodiment of of his Canon advert catchline ‘Image is Everything’. Easy but wrong. Very wrong.
Agassi won eight Grand-Slam titles – more than John McEnroe, Becker or Edberg. He also won 17 Masters titles, which puts him in fourth place behind Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games, and was part of three Davis Cup-winning USA teams in the 1990s; his overall Davis Cup record stands at just five defeats from 35 live singles rubbers.
Above all, Agassi is only the fifth player in the Open era to have won a career Grand Slam. The current ‘big three’ have all done it, and so has Rod Laver, although when Laver won there were no hard-court Grand Slams – the US and Australian Opens were both played on grass. Agassi’s first Grand Slam was the epic 1992 Wimbledon win over Goran Ivanisevic and it wasn’t until seven years later that he captured the French Open title to complete the set.
In 1997 he had fallen to 141 in the rankings and his top-flight tennis career looked like it might be over, but Agassi defied the odds and returned to the very top of the game, ultimately spending 101 weeks as the world No1 and collecting 60 Tour titles.
Agassi always regretted that achieving in tennis meant forsaking his education, so he set up the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education in 1994 and to date has been involved with dozens of charter schools for underprivileged children across the USA.
A class act, on and off the court, Agassi turned 50 last week.
Happy Birthday, Andre.