Hail Andre's giant step to maturity Agassi closes door on doubts with Open masterpiece U.S. OPEN

September 12, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi was dead wrong, of course. Image isn't everything.

He knows that now, undoubtedly.

The rock star's image he so carefully cultivated couldn't possibly compare to the feeling of playing the kind of tennis he did in winning the U.S. Open.

Suddenly, the sport's most famous underachieving dude was in complete control of his game, his tactics and his emotions. The goofy nonchalance that had defined him was completely gone, as if it had never existed.

He didn't flinch for two weeks as he motored through the draw playing flawlessly, locked into some sort of higher state in which, clearly, he didn't believe for a moment that he could be beaten.

There was none of the airheadedness for which he was famous. (Until he had beaten Michael Stich in the final yesterday and Tony Trabert of CBS asked him to comment and all he could say was "Wow.") No fluff, no hint of vulnerability, not an ounce of fat anywhere.

He played every point as if the score didn't matter. Get the ball. Play the point. Get the ball again. C'mon, let's go. His pace was rapid, supremely confident, a pitcher in the midst of a 25-win season, Gibson, Seaver, as if he knew he was going to win and was in a hurry to get there.

It was a revelation, no less than that. A guy who was known for his wandering mind and fragile emotions, a guy who used to throw away at least one set a match (and occasionally entire matches), suddenly was as silent, purposeful and focused as Bjorn Borg.

How could any image, no matter how lucrative, compare to the feeling of totally mastering a game that was making him miserable as recently as five months ago?

His performance in the final differed little from the six that got him there. It was like a cool bath in spring water, everything fresh, clean, pure. He hit his ground strokes on the sweet spot. Put his shots in the corners and on the lines. Played the percentages, hit to the open court and kept Stich running. Gave 21,000 fans and a national TV audience a tennis lesson.

He won the first seven points of the match, took the first set in 24 minutes and never wavered, never offered Stich a chance to rally. Stich's last break-point opportunity came in Agassi's first service game. Agassi made only 14 unforced errors in 198 points, virtually an error-free performance.

Stich was the nervous one, giving away one-fourth of the points in the match.

To Stich's credit, he did settle down, serve well and play tougher in the second set, but Agassi came through when it mattered, in the tiebreaker that all but settled the outcome. Serving at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, Agassi drove a heavy first serve to Stich's backhand. No choke in the boy, not this time. Stich netted the return.

In the 11th game of the third set, Agassi beaned Stich at the net and finished off a service break to go up 6-5. As the players sat during the changeover with the late-afternoon shadows now covering the court, the crowd clapped and cheered, exhorting Agassi to finish things off. Symbolically, he didn't even hiccup. Five points and out. Cut the cards. Let's do it.

Only when the last point was over did Agassi finally let down and show the rest of the world that he was as amazed at his performance as anyone else. He threw his racket, sank to his knees and said, "I don't believe it."

Who did?

He never blinked. He lost three sets in seven matches. He won a fifth set from Michael Chang, the toughest guy in the world to beat in five. He didn't give Stich a chance.

"There were times [before] when I might have found a way to lose a match like this," Agassi said. "But that is behind me now."

The story will become a well-told one now. How Agassi, floundering, approached tour veteran Brad Gilbert in March at a tournament in Florida and asked for help. How Gilbert basically slapped him and taught him to concentrate, play hard and do all those things grown-ups are supposed to do. How Agassi came to New York and smacked everyone.

"Brad's involvement is a vital piece," Agassi said. "He has brought to my game an element I have never had. I actually believe now that not only can I overcome my weaknesses as far as mentally being focused and determined, but I can actually become stronger [mentally] than most of the guys I play."

He was a grown-up for these two weeks. A consummate pro. Suddenly. He said it couldn't compare to winning Wimbledon in 1992, his other Grand Slam title, but it may carry more weight. When he won Wimbledon he came from nowhere and went right back. His success had an illusory, temporary feel to it. This doesn't. This feels real. This is something you can hold in your hands.

It was a command performance, rich in substance, brimming with confidence. A performance that suggests more is coming. A performance that explains that an image isn't everything, but nothing. In the face of such substance, nothing at all.


Unseeded players who have advanced to the men's final at the U.S. Open:

1930: .. .. .. ..Frank Shields

1938: .. .. .. ..Gene Mako

1939: .. .. .. ..Welby Van Horn

1957: .. .. .. ..Mal Anderson (champion)

1963: .. .. .. ..Frank Froehling

1966: .. .. .. ..John Newcombe

.. .. .. .. .. ..and Fred Stolle (champion)

1971: .. .. .. ..Jan Kodes

1994: .. .. .. ..Andre Agassi (champion)

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