Andre Agassi's rise to No. 4 in the world has been punctuated with cheers from crowds this year in places such as Stuttgart, West Germany, Indian Wells and Paris, all of it coming in acclaim of this precocious teen-ager who has been having a ball in 1988.
The funny thing is that the only time people have found fault with the 18-year-old is when he up and caught one.
A little background: In the midst of a one-sided Davis Cup match last month against Argentina's Martin Jaite, Agassi decided to showboat a bit, in light of his 6-2, 6-2, 4-0 lead. So, Agassi caught Jaite's serve, giving the Argentine a game, and, giving the crowd at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis club a fit. Clearly, the gesture backfired as the fans whistled and booed Agassi.
Even teammate John McEnroe, no saint himself, was surprised.
"Andre's young and naive, but that was unbelieveable," McEnroe told Sports Illustrated. "Too much ham, too insulting to the other guy. Hopefully, he learned a lesson in a spot where it didn't hurt the team."
Agassi, who lost to No. 1-ranked Ivan Lendl, 7-6, 6-2, Thursday night in an exhibition at the Forum, was amazed at the stir his gesture caused in South America and in the United States. In his mind, he felt people should have focused more on the U.S. team finally getting out of the minor leagues with the victory over Argentina.
"It's amazing to me how everybody just jumped on that," said Agassi, who will play in the Volvo/Los Angeles tournament in late September. "As if, I've claimed to be perfect. . . . Here it is, everybody talks about me being the next American hope, mainly to help bring the Davis Cup back to our country. I go down there, I give it my best shot, I win both matches and they dwell on the fact that I caught a tennis ball. So, as far as that goes, no I don't think I'm going to catch any more tennis balls."
Maybe the problem was that people were starting to think this kid \o7 was \f7 perfect.
He has won five tournaments on the men's tour in 1988, more than any other player. After his first major tournament victory, in Memphis, Agassi gave his racket to a woman in a wheelchair and rushed over to hug his parents in the stands. And, when an opponent hits a good shot, he'll often applaud the effort with genuine admiration.
Agassi might be setting a good example for others, but, at times he knows it's going to be difficult to follow his own act. For one, the grind of trying to keep up his enthusiasm for the game, which is no problem yet. As Agassi pointed out on Thursday, life can get like this on the tour: You throw the racket in the air about 25 feet after your first tournament victory. Ten feet after the second. Pretty soon, you calmly walk to the net to shake hands.
"In the beginning it's very easy to get excited," he said. "After awhile I can see how it can get too routine and I think that's very possible. I think it could be a bit struggle in the future."
But for now, that seems far away. In 1988, Agassi's future seems to have arrived prematurely. He was No. 80 last summer and climbed to No. 25 by the end of the year. After reaching the French Open semifinals, he reached No. 6. This week, this is the men's tour hierarchy: Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and . . . Agassi.
"If you had asked me a year ago, 'Say, would you want to be ranked fourth at the end of next year?' " Agassi said. "I would have said, 'No, no, that's a little too quick for me.' But it's been coming in stride, I've been improving as I've gone along. It's been reassuring to know I didn't get here by winning, say, a Grand Slam tournament. It's a few tournaments here and a few more here. It's a pretty consistent year. It's not too soon."