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A CROWD PLEASER : Andre Agassi, 18, Is Enjoying Tennis and Is a Joy to Watch

May 24, 1988|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

You think Andre Agassi is a tennis phenom at 18? What would you have thought when he was a baby, just learning to walk, tilting about the Las Vegas household with his own shaved-down racket and giving salt shakers and ashtrays two-fisted forehands through the picture window?

You would have thought he was either a tennis phenom or a very bad boy is what you would have thought.

Nearly 18 years later, tennis phenom seems to be the handle of choice. His punk haircut and denim shorts--as far as the tennis Establishment is concerned, he may as well outfit himself in leathers--might lead some to hold out for a mischievous side. There is that.

But with two tournament victories in successive weeks, a forehand John McEnroe called the hardest he ever saw, a near top-10 ranking, a 16-1 record on clay, including Monday's opening-round win in the French Open--well, he's a phenom for the purposes of this story.

Of course, the contributing factor in Agassi's critical and commercial ascendancy, from prospect to phenom, is the void left by the likes of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, the last U.S. players to hold the top ranking in world tennis. Understand that most people's awareness of tennis in this country began with the boom in the early-70s, when Connors just happened to emerge as the best in the world. And then, blurring over Bjorn Borg, McEnroe came along. Most people think world tennis means U.S. tennis.

"So, now there's this sense of panic in the United States," says Robert Lansdorp, who has coached a phenom or two in his time. Remember Tracy Austin? "They're looking for the new hope. And everybody who shows some success . . . " Remember Jimmy Arias? Aaron Krickstein?

The tennis experts will remind you. And they caution not to be taken in by this explosive talent, this likable kid with the pile o' hair, this next No. 1 player. He's just 18!

"Talk to me after two years," says Arthur Ashe, when asked to anoint Andre the giant. Yet, the tennis experts inevitably fall to the task and, yes, anoint him anyway. Their caution aside, they've already been taken in.

"He's got an unbelievable amount of charisma. Very, very electrifying, a real crowd-pleaser," says Charlie Pasarell, who watched him play in his Newsweek Champions Cup at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells this year, extending Boris Becker in the semifinals.

"Number 1? Obviously he has yet to prove himself. He's yet to win a Grand Slam event, which would be a great indication. Yet I personally think he will. If this was a bet, that he'd be in the top 3-4 players in the world, I'd take it."

Davis Cup Coach Tom Gorman, who had earlier taken Agassi to Peru for team play, says, "I wouldn't want to look into a crystal ball, but he sure is making all the right moves in all the right directions."

Ivan Lendl, who happens to be the No. 1 player, said this in advance of the French Open: "He could be the superstar Americans are dying for."

To be sure, he does have a way to go. His serve is a little rough, he needs more work at the net and his stamina is not yet big league. But his progress, over 18 months on the pro tour, has been so spectacular that it is difficult not to be hopeful.

He was ranked No. 91 after 1986, No. 25 after 1987, and was No. 12 two weeks ago after winning the U.S. Clay Court Championships and the Tournament of Champions on consecutive weekends. And he had won the U.S. Indoors earlier.

Put that on graph paper and see where he's pointed.

Aside from his rise, there is the matter of his comportment on the court. Or even off it. It is impossible to discuss Agassi with anybody who has come across him without running into this: "And he's just the nicest kid."

Although he bombed out of the Italian Open last week, he won over the Roman crowd with his sportsmanship. Fans accustomed to a U.S. player bellowing over each lost point were stunned to see this kid clapping his racket at his opponent's winning shots.

It is strictly a measure of his personality that Agassi was the center of attention at the final of the tournament. After all, he had been ousted two days earlier.

"He's delightful and refreshing," agrees Ashe. "He obviously believes he's part entertainer as well as part athlete, the way he likes to interact with the crowd. And I don't think it's affected. I like it a lot. I just love it."

Pasarell says: "He creates a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, and in a stylish way. He's a great showman and a great sportsman."

This last is no small point. Agassi is either a calculating kid or just lucky in his timing, coming along, as he has, at a time when McEnroe's antics are no longer thought cute, when folks are ready for some center-court graciousness.

And is Agassi ever gracious! Agassi, who has made his revitalized spiritual life a topic off the court, seems to practice the gospel on it.

"You don't have to argue every point," says Pasarell, kindly.

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