When he broke onto the tennis scene in 1987 and 88, Agassi was the breath of fresh air tennis had looked for to follow in the footsteps of the teenage Boris Becker. While the young Becker was clean-cut and looked happy in white, Agassi was brash, had long flowing hair, and revelled in wearing denim shorts over lycra leg-warmers even at Grand Slam tournaments. When he surged to the French Open semi-finals in 1988 and took that year’s leading player Mats Wilander to five sets, most people loved it.
But Agassi got lost in his own propaganda. His comment ‘image is everything’ suggested he was more keen on promoting his brand than winning tennis tournaments. He reached the finals of the French and US Opens in 1990 but was beaten by the underdogs Andres Gomez and Pete Sampras, and then lost a five-set final at Roland Garros to the bull-like Jim Courier in 1991. He also skipped Wimbledon in 1989 and 90 because he didn’t want to swap his garish colours for the all-white required by the All England Lawn Tennis Club. He was becoming the embodiment of style over substance.
So when he won Wimbledon in 1992 – and won it from the baseline, which hadn’t seemed possible until then – Agassi had achieved redemption. He was on the Grand Slam roll of honour, and had his place in tennis history guaranteed. The monkey was off his back.
Only it wasn’t. The next few months proved very difficult and prevented him from building on his momentum. In early 1993 he had to battle a serious shoulder injury, indeed he showed up at Wimbledon as the defending champion with an altered service motion to protect the still fragile shoulder. It carried him to the quarter-finals where he lost in five sets to Pete Sampras.
But what happened over the next 12 months revolutionised Agassi. One of the first things he did was talk to Head. He had first broken onto the scene playing with a Prince racket, and won Wimbledon playing with Donnay, but he wasn’t convinced that either was his racket. So Head developed the Trisys 260 Radical, also known as the Bumblebee because of its yellow and black colouring, and signed Agassi on a provisional sponsorship contract.
Agassi used his new Head racket during the American hardcourt season of 1993, but at the US Open a pre-existing wrist problem flared up, which required surgery and a five-month absence from the tour.
He won his first tournament back in Scottsdale in February 1994, but it wasn’t until after Wimbledon that things really clicked. In March he had chatted with Brad Gilbert, a top-ten pro nearing the end of his playing career, and Gilbert had agreed to become Agassi’s coach. ‘I helped him to be simple,’ says Gilbert of his strategy with Agassi, saying the Las Vegan could do so much that sometimes he forgot the ‘meat and potatoes’ of playing tennis.
When Agassi beat David Wheaton after saving two match points in third set tiebreak en route to winning the Canadian Open title in July 1994, things were falling into place. He turned up at Flushing Meadows unseeded – in those days of 16 seeds, he was ranked 20th so missed out – but stormed through some fancied names to set up a fourth-round clash with his compatriot Michael Chang.
Agassi won the match in five sets, and said afterwards, ‘This is the best I have ever hit the tennis ball, absolutely. This is the culmination of a lot of things.’ He went on to beat Thomas Muster in the quarter-finals, Todd Martin in the semis, and Michael Stich in a one-sided final that lasted less than two hours. In doing so, he became the first unseeded champion since 1966, and sitting in the crowd was Frank Shields, the grandfather of Agassi’s fiancée Brook Shields, who had been the first ever unseeded finalist at the US Nationals in 1930.
Agassi retired in 2006 with eight Grand Slam singles titles to his name. Looking back, it seems inevitable that his combination of raw talent, willingness to take risks, and ability to stay in the zone mentally was always going to make him one of the greats of tennis. But without the actions he took in 1993-94 and the adoption of his Head Radical with which he won 37 of his 60 titles (including seven of his eight majors and the Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996), Agassi could have remained – strange as it may seem today – a one-Slam wonder.