Colorful teen-ager Andre Agassi emerges as new US tennis hope. Wild hairdo attracts fans, while explosive forehand dazzles foes
Stratton Mountain, Vt.
Andre-mania? It's amazing what a two-tone hairdo and a bazooka-style forehand - especially the hairdo - can do in terms of grabbing attention. Throw in the fact that American tennis is thirsting for an heir apparent to the veteran Jimmy Connors and the wandering John McEnroe, and you've got a fertile environment for someone to create a small sensation.
So, meet 17-year-old Andre Agassi, the latest Great American Tennis Hope. Somehow, Andre looks as though he should be carrying a guitar instead of a tennis racket - but looks can be deceiving.
It's the hair.
Pro tennis has come a long way from its staid and formal days of old, and the past decade has seen many players wear headbands, from Bjorn Borg to McEnroe to this year's Wimbledon king, Pat Cash of Australia. But nobody has a head of hair like Agassi: dark at the roots with bleached endings, short on the sides with a lion's mane at the back.
McEnroe, who beat Andre in the quarterfinals of the Volvo International at the Stratton Mountain resort here last year, said he should get a haircut. Ivan Lendl, who struggled before dismantling the teen sensation in a three-set semifinal at this year's $315,000 tournament, said he knew nothing about his young opponent except that he had a powerful forehand. Pause. ``And long hair,'' Lendl quickly added.
There's more to this kid, though, than a wild hairdo or a teen-ager's excitement with life on the nomadic pro tour. He seems to have his head on his shoulders; he keeps his mouth shut when he plays; he's as tenacious as an IRS auditor in running down every ball on-court - and he has this explosive forehand that you can't ignore.
And - perhaps the key - his brother Phil travels with him, so there's no going haywire, no awe over being on the pro tour - no nonsense.
``Andre's got a lot of street smarts,'' says Phil, 24, who was once a small-time tournament player. ``He's not like so many other teen-agers - [he has] no smoking, no drinking, certainly no drugs. He loves tennis and he won't do anything that's going to threaten what he can do in tennis.
``He's the baby among the four kids in our family, and it's not as hard keeping him focused as people first think when they see his hair,'' Phil adds.
If the pro tennis tour spent more time at this luxury playpen in southern Vermont, that would be just fine with Andre, who plays giant-killer in the Green Mountains.
A year ago, after being a pro about six weeks, he knocked off Tim Mayotte and Scott Davis here, reaching the quarterfinals before finally bowing to McEnroe. This time, he stunned Wimbledon champion Cash en route to reaching his his first Nabisco Grand Prix semifinal.
``I like the Volvo and Stratton,'' Agassi says. ``This altitude [2,000 feet] helps my game because I put so much topspin on the ball. And the people are great, which is a big help, too.'' (On Monday, the Monitor learned, Stratton Mountain officials were talking with Agassi about becoming the resort's touring pro.)
Overall, though, Andre still has a way to go to reach the upper echelon - as shown by his current No. 90 spot in the pro rankings.
``He didn't play like 90th,'' Lendl said after this year's semifinal, ``but there must be a reason for him to be 90th [instead of higher].''
That reason is called youth. Despite his impressive showings in the Volvo International, Agassi knows he still has more to learn as a pro. He wants to work on his net game, which gets overlooked, since he tends to spend more time at the baseline firing laser beams over the net.
``Why come in,'' he said after one match, ``and take a chance on my opponent hitting a good passing shot when I can score my points by staying back?''
Later, though, he acknowledged in an interview that he needs to broaden his game, which was developed at the Florida tennis camp of groundstroke guru Nick Bolletieri.
``I'm in this for the long haul and I need to do more,'' Agassi said.
While Bolletieri lost some of his luster in recent years when prot'eg'es Jimmy Arias and Aaron Krickstein fizzled after rocketing into the top 10 rankings, Agassi - who pronounces his name ``AG-uh-see'' - said he hopes to learn from their experience.
``Jimmy had elbow problems, for one thing, but he and Aaron also left Nick when they got up there,'' he points out. ``I couldn't - I wouldn't - do that. In fact, I'll be down there in a week or so to work with Nick before the US Open [which begins Aug. 29].''
When he ousted Cash in the second round, he was understandably pleased, but he didn't allow himself to get carried away.
``If I'm capable of beating Cash, I'm capable of beating anyone else,'' he said, ``but it's all a matter of the day and the circumstances. I could have lost, too, so I try to think only of the next round.''
Agassi was introduced to tennis as a sprout. His father, who immigrated from Iran when he was 19 and is a waiter captain at a Las Vegas hotel, knew how to string tennis rackets - which he sometimes did for Connors when the latter was playing there. That gave the family an ``in'' to the some of the top players - and young Andre was the principal beneficiary. As a four-year-old, he was hitting tennis balls with Connors, at 8 he was dubbing around on-court with Borg, and so on.
When he was 13, Andre went to Bolletieri. He entered his first pro tournament at 15 in New Orleans (with Phil by his side) and turned pro a year ago.
Now in his last year of high school, which he is finishing via a correspondence course, he displays uncommon wisdom for his age. And he chuckles at the mild charge his hair sets off at first glance.
``Hey, I'm just a person like anyone else,'' he says. ``If my hair does that, do I have a problem or does that person have one? It's a little silly.''
Despite the powerful forehand, Agassi admits he was a little in awe of being part of the pro pack. Once he realized he ``belonged,'' however, he settled down - and his play continues to improve.
``For one thing, I've become more positive,'' he says. ``Last year I would get negative if something went wrong, but now I'm more positive, and the little things don't get me as easily. I've got my confidence and know I can play with these guys.
``And I've learned not to quit, to keep fighting in a match, not give up anything,'' he adds. ``I think I've got my head on straight.''
Even if the tresses look a little wild.