May 29, 2001

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Boy to man

Rohit Brijnath

Of all the words written, in praise and in condemnation, and he was worthy of them both, on James Scott Connors, a haunting paragraph writing by Bill Nack, about Connors' boorish legacy, is most widely repeated.

It reads thus:

"There will come a time when Connors is 50, that he will be sitting alone in an airport between flights over a cup of coffee faced with the shards of his past. He will be a man then and he will wish that as a boy he has done it better as Borg had done it. Borg will never so suffer his past..."

Nineteen years from now Andre Kirk Agassi will be 50, and he too will wish, in a different way, that he had done (some of) it better.

The shards of his past will cut him too, his memory will wound him, for rarely has a man for so long done so little with so much. His gifts, of hand-to-eye were extraordinary, his wrists kissed by the angels of creativity, but he seemed not to care. It was like Picasso content being a house painter, or J.R.Tolkien satisfied writing grammar text books.

Andre AgassiBut Agassi's tale is not to be tragic one, it is instead a story of sweet redemption. His wasteful past will not darkly torture him, for he has illuminated his present with greatness. A cautionary tale has been turned into an inspiring one. At 31, he, and we, discovered that under Las Vegas neon lies a brave, beating heart after all.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said recently, "There is hope for us all. God's standards are quite low." Agassi would know all about that.

Tennis players arrive on the circuit to win, and for champions it becomes the very heroin of their existence; they wish to be modern Alexanders, stylish conquerors, makers of history. Agassi decided instead to star in his own sitcom, he was turning tennis into a Hollywood show, all fiction and no fact.

He was a star, not a champion and he didn't know the difference.

He'd utter inane quotes like "I'm about as happy as a faggot in a submarine" and then trot off to Bible-reading classes. He'd trash traditionalism with his denim shorts and have Barbra Streisand acting like a hormonally-imbalanced teenager in the players box, then slouch on the office couches of psychotherapists and motivational speakers. He had natural gifts McEnroe would admire, yet ate McDonalds, let his weight balloon only to have Sports Illustrated write, "his thighs touch".

He'd be accused of having his post-victory celebration on court after winning Wimbledon 1992 orchestrated by Nick Bollitieri, yet he'd do such work for underprivileged youth that he'd be handed the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian award.

He earned headlines, not titles.

* He has 7 Grand Slam titles; Lendl had 8, Pete has 13.

* He'd never defended a Grand Slam title till he won the Australian this year.

* He'd been to 9 Grand Slam tournaments between 1996-98 and not reached even a final.

* His ranking was No.91 in 1986, No.3 in 1988, No.24 in 1993, No.2 in 1995, No.122 in 1997 and No.1 in 1999.

* He's got 48 titles since his first in 1987 while Pete has 63 since his first in 1990.

As he explained himself to Esquire years ago, "Maybe I was rewarded too quickly. I came at a time when tennis needed somebody, when tennis was looking for another American, I had so much notoriety before I really accomplished great things. For me to be doing Nike and Canon commercials and never winning a Grand Slam tournament, that left me with a bad rap --- all image, no substance."

When he shaved his head perhaps he became the anti-Samson, for he grew in strength.

The boy who skipped Wimbledon thrice now has become the man who espouses its traditional values. The boy who changed cars, girlfriends and hair colour with alarming alacrity became the man who saw wisdom in retaining his coach Brad Gilbert. The boy who threw away sets like a soldier with no heart for a fight, turned into a man who digests the value of every point. The boy who lifted his shirt to show us his hairless chest now as man does it to let us gawk at his muscle.

The man has written a glittering epilogue which has rescued the boy.

And there is something quaintly beautiful, and oddly romantic, that as the French Open begins, his 44th Grand Slam tournament, in his 16th year on the circuit, finally, he is tennis' primus inter pares.

In 1999, he won two Grand Slam titles and ended the year No.1 and still Pete's shadow lingered; not now.

Now he is the best tennis player in the world.

He can still lose in the first round of the French to the dangerous Thomas Johanasson. But if he does, he will not be lacerated by criticism, cut by cruel barbs, dismissed for not caring. Instead they will say, rightly, that he is a slow starter and excuse even his occasional silliness.

At 50, over the coffee, between flights, he will still wish he had done it better as boy. But he'd empty his cup and rise with a smile for he'd know he'd made up for it as a man.

Rohit Brijnath

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