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L.A. Tennis : Agassi Is on His Way at 17

September 23, 1987|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

It's questionable what people notice first when they spot 17-year-old Andre Agassi on the tennis court: his hair, which he wears in a two-tone punk style that can change on a whim, or his powerful forehand, often called the best this side of Ivan Lendl.

Either way, both produce the same kind of head-turning reaction. In Seoul last April, the press viewed him as a novelty. And crowds pulled for Agassi all week as he reached the final against Jim Grabb.

Even here, in Southern California, where Agassi wouldn't stand out in a crowd of local teen-agers, he is questioned about his hair.

The attention makes sense when you consider the homogenous makeup--obviously, with a few exceptions--of the men's tour. A departure from the norm, be it a diamond stud in one ear, or a liking for Motley Crue, stands out like a pro tennis player without a clothing contract.

Agassi wasn't inspired by any particular rock singer, saying he was inspired . . . well, by himself.

"I don't know, I just enjoy doing something with my hair," he said. "I'm going for it, who knows, I might go bald."

Indeed, Agassi is his own guy. He wrinkled his nose at the suggestion that his haircut might have been inspired by a member of a hard-rock band.

"Nope, no way," he said.

He dropped out of school before his sophomore year in high school and, now, speaks about school with the same sort of disdain a USC football player has for UCLA.

"I never liked studying, I never like opening books and learning," Agassi said. "I like to learn from experiences, like traveling the world."

Thus far, his travels have taken him from South Korea to Tokyo to Rome this year. And, he has managed to continue moving up in the rankings. At Stratton Mountain, Vt., he grabbed the spotlight by beating Tim Mayotte and Scott Davis last year and finished No. 91 by year's end.

Again, Stratton was the key to another Agassi breakthrough as he defeated Pat Cash and pushed Lendl to three sets last month. At the U.S. Open, he was the victim of an unfortunate draw, losing to Henri Leconte in four sets in the first round.

Agassi shrugged off that disappointment, though, and beat 12th-ranked Brad Gilbert and Robert Seguso to set up a meeting with Jimmy Connors in the championship of a special exhibition at Amelia Island, Fla., last weekend.

The match against Connors had a special meaning for Agassi because he once hit with his idol at age 4. Unfortunately, for Agassi, the day was somewhat spoiled when Connors succumbed to the heat and humidity and defaulted in the first set, down 4-3.

"I really wanted to finish it," said Agassi, who is ranked No. 69. "I would rather have lost to Connors in three sets than to play (David) Pate in the final and win it."

So, on Tuesday, the heat and a three-set match was nothing for Agassi as he defeated Jaime Yzaga, 6-1, 6-7, 6-2, in a first-round match at the Volvo/Los Angeles tournament at UCLA's L.A. Tennis Center.

"The heat wasn't so bad, it was just the smog," said Agassi, who next plays No. 5 Guy Forget. "Every time I took a breath, it hurt my chest."

Although Agassi played brilliantly in the first set and got an early service break in the second, Yzaga somehow worked his way back into the match. Yzaga broke Agassi back to pull to 3-3 and the two stayed on serve until the tiebreaker. Yzaga won it, 7-4, to push the match into a third set.

The two then stayed on serve until the sixth game in which Agassi broke at love. From that point on, Yzaga unraveled. "I knew I'd hit a lot of balls out there to go into the next round," Agassi said. "It gives me a lot of confidence now that I can go out there in a tough first round. I never like easy first rounds."

Which might explain why he would have preferred to finish his match against Connors. Back when Connors hit with the 4-year-old Agassi, he spoke with Agassi's father, Emanuel, afterward.

"He told him, 'When this kid grows up and he's able to beat me, I'll retire,' " Agassi said.

Notes

Among those advancing in other first-round matches included No. 1 Stefan Edberg, No. 2 Brad Gilbert and No. 3 David Pate. The only seeded player to lose was No. 4 Scott Davis, who dropped a 7-6, 6-2 first-round match to Gary Muller. Pate defeated 15-year-old Michael Chang of Placentia, 6-3, 7-6, in a featured night match. At the U.S. Open, Chang became the youngest male to win a match in the main draw during the Open era.

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