AGASSI PREPARES FOR ONE LAST SHOT AT GLORY

11 June 2006

For an old dog he looks quite wonderfully well. Thirty-six years, 20 professional seasons and 60 career titles may be behind him, a chronic back problem may have kept the last two months to non-tournament recuperation, but as Andre Agassi prepares for one last great Wimbledon adventure there is a glow about him.

When he came in the door on Friday after three hours of practice in preparation for the Stella Artois Championships at Queen’s, which start tomorrow, he lit the room up – and not just because of the shining sky blue T-shirt reflecting the sunshine. A sheen of good health gleamed from the bronzed arms, the shaven skull and the dazzling teeth. At 5ft 11in he is bigger in person than he seems on court but carries no aggression with him. “It’s easy to feel good,” he says with a huge self-deprecating smile, “when you are not under pressure”.

It is said with an almost spooky serenity. There can never have been a man who plays so hard and yet speaks so soft. “You have a certain idea of your conditioning,” he continues, “but you can’t measure how you react to the ball, and how you respond to the other demands until you put it to the test. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle and for me movement is everything.”

There are also a lot of parts to fit the legend of Agassi together and they start with the eyes. They are huge, brown and almost timidly enquiring like a chihuahua’s. You start to accept that those famous stories of father Mike Agassi stringing tennis balls above the crib for the eyes to follow might be true after all. Andre Agassi, the super-hero whose feat of joining Don Budge, Rod Laver, Fred Perry and Roy Emerson as the only men to have won all four Grand Slam titles is attempted by Roger Federer this afternoon in Paris.

As he responds ever so courteously to queries about his fitness, his children, his wife Steffi Graf, his relationship with Federer, even – heaven help us – his views on Andy Murray (“a great prospect”), it’s an effort to remember that it all began very differently. That Andre had started as being the Las Vegas long-hair whom we all wanted to hate. That, after a Wimbledon first-round dumping in 1987, he spurned us before the epiphonic All England Club victory, defeating Goran Ivanisevic in 1992.

“I wanted to be here,” he said on Friday, “I missed the last two years and some in the early days, so there are some regrets. But now I am motivated enough and have enough respect for the tournament to get myself here in the best shape possible. Of course with my condition it can feel great and then suddenly change – out on the court, in the middle of the night, even taking the kids to the grocery store. But that’s not new, I have looked at every tournament in the last four years knowing it might be my last.”

That wistful note lends strength to the suggestion that the old man is indulging himself in one last turn in the sunset and that we should hurry round to the Stella tomorrow for his first-round match with Tim Henman before something gives. But that would be forgetting that as long ago as 1993 injuries were said to be threatening his career, that it was he of the Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras quartet who was thought most unlikely to last, that he slumped to 141 in the world when his first marriage to Brooke Shields foundered in 1997, and that his brutal re-conditioning regime saw him climb back to No 1 and add five more Grand Slams.

Most relevant of all it was only last September that Andre came through three consecutive five-setters before stretching Roger Federer to the limit in the US Final and receiving “an absolute living legend” tribute from his conqueror. Nine months is not that long a while. Beneath all the serenity you suspect there may still be some “raging at the dying of the light”.

As it is, he continues his circumspect theme. “It’s important to make sure you are rested,” he says, “and ready for the battle ahead. But that’s still a long way off for me now. I have been away for a number of months and I am coming back on to a surface that is not easy. It’s one step at a time. You close the door and don’t let the kids wake you up. Of course,” he adds with a chuckling reference to the former Queen of Wimbledon who now mothers their two children, “it helps to have an understanding partner.”

As for the nemesis that is Federer, Agassi just says simply, “he’s the best I have ever played against. He can squeeze you from every part of the court. There is just nowhere to go.” Once again there is a farewell chime with a sense of benediction only enhanced when he says that “It’s been an ongoing journey for me and one I have tried to allow as many people in as possible. It’s been an incredible life.”

He says the sweetest of things but somewhere underneath lurks just about the most ferocious competitor of them all. “I only hope,” he says of the young wolves who now reach for his rock, “that they will have to play the game of their lives to beat me”

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