It's time Agassi plays for keeps

September 10, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi is saving the U.S. Open. While he's at it, he should try saving his career, too.

As much as the tournament has been fine theater this year, with a spate of upsets, consistently interesting tennis and one genuinely classic match (Jaime Yzaga-Pete Sampras), today's Super Saturday would be a dud without Agassi, the one current player capable of stimulating passion, pro and con, in the seats.

But it's time for Agassi to prove that his career will amount to more than padded television ratings and all those cameras and shoes he has sold. It's time for him to build a foundation of results to support his blaring hype, which inaccurately suggests that he has been a relevant player for all these years.

The truth is that he is a 24-year-old disappointment at this point, a one-hit wonder, winner of one major tournament, Wimbledon in 1992. If you think that is unfair, you have never seen him play as he has here. You have never seen his fastball ground strokes from both sides. You have never seen him take opponents' balls on the rise, breathtakingly early, and blast them back, a rare skill. He is the real deal, so talented that he could win Wimbledon without a serve. He should have won three or four majors by now.

Instead, he has made a lot of loud commercials and dated singers and actresses and let his mind wander far from the task at hand. He has provided some laughs and had a good time himself, which isn't a crime, but the fact that he has made his run to today's semifinals as an unseeded player, ranked 20th in the world, is testimony to his lack of ambition and focus and all those things real championship players possess.

It is frustrating to watch him play as flawlessly as he has here, because he so seldom has. He could easily be locked in a rivalry with Sampras, trading ground strokes and major titles at the top of the rankings. Instead, he has cheated his sport at a time when it needed players with distinctive personalities and a sense of theater.

But here's the thing: It's not too late. Agassi has four years left until he is old in tennis years. Four years to match his style with some substance, to become more than a one-hit wonder. He is just now on the verge of what are supposed to be the prime years of his career. He has time to make a difference.

Winning the Open is the place to start. His opportunity is golden. Not that beating Todd Martin today and Michael Stich tomorrow will be easy. Martin is a rising star with a heavy serve, an Australian Open finalist and Wimbledon semifinalist this year. Stich was No. 2 in the world last year. But Martin has a sore groin and Stich is inconsistent on hard courts. Neither can match Agassi's ground strokes.

But will the shockingly purposeful Agassi of the past two weeks show up? Agassi and his new coach, Brad Gilbert, insist that he will. To hear them talk, Agassi has undergone a fundamental change since Gilbert began coaching him in March.

Gilbert, 33, is a shrewd veteran who won a lot of matches despite average talent. His competitiveness, intelligence and sheer prickliness made up for his lack of skill. "I won a lot of matches that I shouldn't have won," he said the other day. ("And I've lost a lot of matches that I shouldn't have lost," Agassi said.)

Gilbert, who has written a book called "Winning Ugly," has climbed into Agassi's head and, if this tournament is any indication, succeeded in getting him to concentrate and play intelligently, not just mindlessly aim for the lines and blast away. Encouraged by the results, Gilbert talks about Agassi's reaching the top three in the rankings next year and winning three of the next eight Grand Slam tournaments.

Winning the Open would be a major step, no doubt. Fairly or not, you go down in history as something of a fluke unless you win more than one major. As a Wimbledon and U.S. Open winner, Agassi would forever be legit, more than just the goof hawking cameras in canary-yellow clothes.

As for whether this might be the beginning of a lasting renaissance, let's let him prove that before we bite. It is wise to beware of any coach's lasting impact; few coaches last more than a year or two. And Agassi has done this before, put together runs of fabulous, headline-making tennis. His problem has been keeping it up for more than two majors in a row. He just hasn't had the attention span before. Why should we believe he does now?

In any case, he has a lot to prove this weekend, to himself as well as the tennis public. CBS and the tournament's organizers are thrilled and relieved, of course. With his hair and his Brooke and his outstanding dude-ishness, Agassi remains nothing if not boffo box office. But that's old news. Whether he has finally gotten serious about his profession is the issue now.



Stadium Court * Men's singles semifinal -- Michael Stich (4), Germany, vs. Karel Novacek, Czech Republic.

* Women's singles championship -- Steffi Graf (1), Germany, vs.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain.

* Men's singles semifinal -- Andre Agassi, Las Vegas, vs. Todd Martin (9), Palm Coast, Fla.

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