For long periods in his 20 years as a professional tennis player, Andre Agassi didn’t get the kind of success he should have achieved. He turned pro when he was just 16, went on to win eight Grand Slams, but he took a while to establish himself – both on the court and in tennis fans’ hearts.
This isn’t to say that the world wasn’t made aware of his rare talent from the get-go. The American burst onto the scene in 1986 and had won seven ATP titles and over $1 million in prize money by the end of 1988. That year, he also set an Open Era record for most victories as a teenager. That record stood until 2005 when Rafael Nadal broke it.
Soon enough, Agassi started making headlines more often but not always for the right reasons. He became popular for his flashy attires on the court, even appeared in a commercial that claimed “image is everything”, and was known for his aggressive, bad boy attitude in general. Testament to that was his absence from the Australian Open for his first eight years on tour and his refusal to play Wimbledon from 1988 to 1990 because of the many traditions that the All England Club follows.
On the court, Agassi had done enough to show that he belonged at the biggest stage. He reached the semi-finals of the 1988 French and US Opens but couldn’t push further. Then came a run of three losses in Major finals – the 1990 and ‘91 French Open and the ‘90 US Open. Although he had just gone past his teenage years at that time, the burden of not being able to win his first Grand Slam had started to weigh him down.
And then came Wimbledon 1992, which brought along with it an extraordinary result.
No many had billed Agassi to find a breakthrough in Grand Slams on his least preferred surface. He had returned to Wimbledon the previous year (after skipping it for three consecutive years) and reached the quarter-finals. He was one of the top players in the world heading into Wimbledon 1992 but considering the depth of the draw that year, he was definitely not one of the favourites.
Agassi, though, went on to have a dream run. He defeated former champions Boris Becker and John McEnroe before getting the better of Goran Ivanisevic in the final to lay his hands on a Grand Slam winner’s trophy for the very first time. The long hair, earrings and attitude were all still there, but now he had tennis’ most coveted prize to show off too.
In a 2012 interview with The New York Times, Agassi reflected on how much that Wimbledon 1992 triumph meant to him. He said that the victory was crucial for him as it served as validation in his own head more than anything else.
“As hard a critic as everybody was, I think the thing that was misjudged about me consistently over the years was how much harder of a critic I am of myself,” said Agassi. “Sure, I felt the vindication of the people who told me I couldn’t do it or the times I read I couldn’t. I absolutely felt that, but not more than the ghosts that I managed to exorcise in my own head. And so what I had proven to myself was a much greater emotion to me at that moment because of all the failures I felt like I had.
“The sad part of all of it is that Wimbledon felt more like a relief at that stage of my career than a celebration. I wouldn’t say relief trumped it. Relief was a significant component of what I felt, and that is the unfortunate part.”
Darkness before another dawn
The 1992 Wimbledon title was expected to kick-start a consistent run on the court for Agassi. But that didn’t quite happen. He managed to win the 1994 US Open, 1995 Australian Open, the 1996 Olympics gold medal, and even reached the No 1 ranking. But these successes brought along with them plenty of setbacks as well. In 1997, his wrist injury resurfaced and he could play just 24 matches during the season. The worst was yet to come, though. That year, he even failed an ATP drug test and would later go on to admit that he had been using crystal methamphetamine.
Fortunately, for him as well as the sport, Agassi didn’t allow that dark phase to spiral his career into oblivion. He went back to the Challenger circuit to work on his game. In 1998, he came back after working hard on his physical fitness and mental health to climb from 110 in the rankings to No 6. He won five titles that year and had started to once again look like the player he was always meant to be.
And then came French Open 1999, which helped him create history and established him as one of the sport’s all-time greats.
Clay had always been a surface he thrived on – it was at the French Open that he reached his first Grand Slam semi-final (1988) and final (1990). On May 24, 1999, he finally got his hands on the La Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy by coming back from two sets down to defeat Andrei Medvedev in a final. He became the first man since Rod Laver to win all four Majors in the Open Era. It was an incredible return to glory for the American, who was down in the dumps not long before.
“It was the greatest moment on the court for me because there were so many things I was overcoming,” Agassi would admit in an interview with Eurosport years later. “I should have won it ten years earlier but I didn’t. I had climbed my way back from 140-something in the rankings and felt that it was probably my last chance. That match came with a lot of pressure. But that victory gave me a sense that I would never again have any regrets on the court. It freed me to play inspired tennis from there on.”
The 1999 French Open success wasn’t the end of the roller-coaster ride for Agassi. Grand Slam titles, injuries and bouts of disinterest in the sport remained the central theme of his chequered career.
At the end of it all, though, after adding four more Majors to his tally, he admitted that the 1992 Wimbledon and 1999 French Open titles were his biggest achievements in tennis.
“I value a trophy by what it took out of me,” Agassi said in that interview with NYT. “Wimbledon 1992 is up there with the French Open in 1999. That’s how much they mean to me. They are a reminder, a reminder of what we can overcome if we just refuse to quit.”