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He Needs to Stay Focused

“Image is everything,” Andre Agassi used to tell us in those TV photo commercials. Never mind substance.

Well, on reflection, image isn’t everything. It isn’t anything if it doesn’t come with performance attached.

You think anyone would give a rat’s rap for Dennis Rodman’s purple hair, dangling earrings, cross-dressing and toe-to-ear tattoos if they didn’t come with a rebounding title attached?

You have to be good to dare to be different. Otherwise people just look at you and snap, “Act your age!”

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Nothing succeeds like excess in this country, but stardom is getting in as short supply as anything these days. It is a chimera, as fragile as eggs, as insubstantial as a shadow on a wall. One day Ian Baker-Finch is winning a British Open, a few fortnights later he can’t break 90. Ditto Bill Rogers. Virtuosity leaves them like a thief in the night. A pitcher wins a Cy Young Award one year and he’s pitching in Norwich the next.

But nobody had a longer free-fall in the history of sports than Andre Agassi. One day, he’s winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, about five of every eight tournaments he enters. The French Open is the only Grand Slam event he hasn’t won.

He’s got the world at match point. Everywhere he looks is money. He gets a hundred thousand or so just to show up at your tournament. He’s married to one of the most beautiful women in the world.

He can’t go anywhere without a camera following, say anything without a microphone picking it up. He makes People magazine every other issue.

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He’s ranked No. 2 in the world in his sport two years in a row. Some months, he’s No. 1. It can’t get any better than that.

Then, all of a sudden, he’s ranked No. 122. He can’t even see Pete Sampras from there. He’s got all the recognition factor of a ball boy. He’s losing to guys named D. Flach in opening rounds. He’s rapping out in the first round at Wimbledon and the fourth round at the U.S. Open. He’s losing to guys who are 176th in world ranking.

It’s embarrassing. Tennis entrepreneurs are moaning.

Tennis always has been the most formful of sports. Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Rod Laver or Pete Sampras reaches the top, and he stays there. Bjorn Borg wins five Wimbledons in a row, four French Opens.

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You’re not supposed to go from No. 8 seeding to No. 122 in this man’s game. You don’t go from the No. 1 serve returner in the game to a guy who can’t get a racket on a lob. You don’t go from center court at Wimbledon to the outer courts at New York, to a spot in a tournament at Burbank.

Agassi always has fascinated the game anyway. He looks less like a Wimbledon champion than anyone since Bobby Riggs. He’s got short legs, short arms, he himself is short by today’s standards. He doesn’t look overpowering.

He doesn’t run, he scurries. He hurries everywhere, always managing to look as if he were 10 minutes late for an appointment or trying to catch a bus. His eyes dart all over the place like a gambler with a low pair. He’s ubiquitous on court.

He plays that way. He never misses a trick. He seems to have a sixth sense as to where the ball is going to land. Like a great outfielder, a Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays, when the ball comes down, he’s there waiting for it.

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You can’t get a serve past him. He could return a bullet.

His own serve is nothing to get drunk over--a modest 120 mph or so. But he can play on any surface. His tenacity is legendary. He has an arsenal of shots and, if he plays a game that sees him move into position to better field the shot, he is a master at calculating where his opponent might not be and to whistle the ball precisely there. “Sometimes, it seems like there are two of him out there,” a disgusted Aussie, Mark Woodforde, once observed.

But, you can see, with this arsenal, there is no margin for error, for nonchalance. Agassi has to play you 60 minutes of every hour.

Last year, he didn’t. “Last year, I was just fooling around,” he has acknowledged. He cannot play off the interest of his talent the way Sampras might be able to, he has to dip into the capital on every shot. “I have to hurt people,” he told a magazine interviewer.

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He breezed through a Washington, D.C., tournament like a wrecking ball earlier this year and, then, in the Mercedes-Benz Cup at the UCLA Tennis Center on Tuesday night, he took out the A-game to subdue young Bob Bryan of Camarillo, a young wild-card entry who is such a fan of Andre’s he has his bedroom at home wallpapered with Agassi posters.

His idol lived up to his expectations, 6-4, 6-3, but the young man showed such promise, someone might someday want to paper a room with his likeness.

He paid his respects to his idol, Agassi. “He’s classy, he’s flashy, he put me on my heels and kept me there.”

His idol, for his part, assented, “I have to find my way back. I have to channel all my energies into my game--100%, not 99% or 69.” The ball is looking “nice and fat” again, he said.

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If it’s a question of image, it’s coming back into focus better and better day by day and may soon overshadow the man once again.


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