Beyond Agassi's flash, there is substance

Phil Jackman

July 22, 1991|By Phil Jackman

WASHINGTON -- It's probably safe to say most tennis fans show up half-inclined not to like Andre Agassi.

For openers, there are those vacuous "Image is everything" TV ads for something called rock 'n' roll tennis. Doubtless, the steeped-in-tradition net crowd isn't comfortable with Andre's psychedelic outfits and the fact he's being marketed in rock star fashion.

Then there's the matter of bypassing the game's holy grail, Wimbledon, a couple of times, and his penchant for otherwise tweaking the nose of the establishment. Even John McEnroe, at the peak of his self-induced torment, wasn't so bold as to refer to Grand Slam muckity-muck Philip Chartrier of the French Open as "a bozo!"

However, watch him play a few times, listen to him talk and be completely objective during the experience and it's hard not to come away singing the lad's praises.

Agassi is an exciting show on the court and getting better all the time. Afterward, he's a glib, duck-no-question interview whose powers of expression and logic are impressive.

After beating Petr Korda, 6-3, 6-4, for his second straight Sovran Bank Classic title yesterday, Andre dissected the match with the same dispatch he had Korda.

"My goal was to make it a physical match," he said, "and the hotter the better. I had a hunch Petr would slow down because he likes to play a lot of quick points and maybe his condition isn't the best."

Right on the money. While Agassi took the week's weather of hot, hotter and welcome to Hades as a fact, Korda let the on-court triple-figure temperatures get to him, moaning, "Four days in a row in the heat was too much for me; it slowed me down a half-second."

And in the face of Agassi's fearsome ground strokes, his purpose, his rollicking return of serve, his quickness and his suddenly potent serve, the wonder is Korda stood up to the onslaught so long (65 minutes).

On his motivation opposing a field he so clearly outclassed in the rankings, Andre said, "Of course I feel I can play better if I'm challenged more severely, but I never go into a match thinking it's going to be easy.

"You can't limit yourself to playing big tournaments and big players all the time, because we [the top guns] may not get through the earlier matches . . . and that wouldn't give you enough play. Going against the best as well as the other guys teaches you how to focus for different type matches."

On the fact, despite a few trips to finals, he hasn't won a Grand Slam title yet: "I don't have any problem with not having won a 'major.' I'm not going to put added pressure on myself; that would serve no purpose. I think that has been part of Ivan Lendl's problem in London."

On his overplayed absence from Wimbledon prior to this year: "I passed up the tournament for the right reasons. Every year, I need four, five, six weeks, maybe even two months to train, to get stronger. Otherwise, I'll burn out. Spending that time training made me a threat to win any tournament."

It certainly transformed him from a young guy with stunning strokes but questionable strength and endurance into a dynamo of power who doesn't look it but packs 175 rock-solid pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame.

"Sure, I missed the fun of the atmosphere there [Wimbledon] and competing, but I feel what I accomplished during the time was well worth it. In fact, I'm beginning to think that maybe grass will end up being one of my stronger surfaces.

"On grass, you have to be quick. It's good if you can hit the ball on the rise. You have to be able to hold your serve consistently enough so that you can put pressure on the other guy's serve. The fact that I was two points away from the [Big W] final against Boris Becker, on what is probably his best surface, tells me I'm a threat."

Back to motivation: "The weak spot in my [1990] season was what happened to me after I won in Washington. I wasn't good at all. I lost early in three tournaments and wasn't as confident as I should have been going into the [U.S.] Open. I can improve on that showing and solidify my ranking [currently No. 6]."

Meanwhile, the only way he can improve upon his performance in the last Slam event of the year is to win at Flushing Meadow since he was a beaten finalist last September.

After that, he figures to make some tournament directors and fans upset as he takes time off to rest and train.

In many ways, Agassi is a latter-day Jimmy Connors: independent, intensely competitive, a bit of an outsider and not cut from the same cloth as most tennis players.

Whereas, as Arthur Ashe once said, "Connors was trained much like you'd train a boxer by Bill Riordan," seemingly a good portion of any problem the public might have with Agassi is the way he's presented. One good move is he got rid of those ridiculous bodyguards.

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