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Is Image Anything? : Andre Agassi's Pitch Has Taken a Turn These Days: He Says Tennis Has Become His No. 1 Priority


Andre Agassi is trying to find himself. Has anyone seen him lately?

Actually, there will be confirmed Andre sightings beginning this week when the U.S. Open starts its two-week grind through the sunshine, the darkness, the heat, the cold, the wind, the calm and the chaos, or every single condition that suits Agassi as perfectly as hair the color of buttered socks.

You usually play big tennis tournaments like the U.S. Open to settle important arguments. The green concrete courts at Flushing Meadow serve as battlegrounds for the big issues of our day, such as who is No. 1, if that Edberg fellow can win his third consecutive Open title, and whether Barbra Streisand is going to show up again.

This is the Andre Influence. Since Agassi burst upon the pro tennis scene five years ago with his brilliantly neon shot-making and bleached blond mane, he somehow managed to blur the line between player and pop idol. Agassi didn't exactly invent the role of star tennis player, but he clearly expanded the gig and moved it into a whole other arena.

He became Andre the Client, part tennis dude, part rock-and-roll celebrity pitch man, which worked out fine until he started losing all those Grand Slam finals. Ranked No. 3 in the world at 18, Agassi lost in the finals of three consecutive Grand Slam events in 1990 and 1991.

Agassi found he had more critics than endorsements, so last year, he began a new life's mission and embarked on some serious soul-searching.

Here is what he found:

"The way I look at it, the one thing I take pride in is assessing myself objectively," Agassi said. "I consider that a necessity. So when I hear somebody criticize me, my first reaction is 'I really want to hear what you're saying because it may be important to me.'

"I'm from the mentality--'Why don't you like me?'--then let's talk about it and then at the end of the conversation either you're going to like me or I won't like me either."

Get it? Well, Andre likes himself just fine these days, which is good news for him and probably bad news for the people who have to play him. It's also good news for men's tennis, which has lost both Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe this year and with few exceptions now has players at the top whose favorite color is beige.

Agassi is the exception, although he isn't exactly at the top anymore. At No. 16, he is the lowest seeded player in the men's draw at the U.S. Open, but that's not the most compelling story line available.

The one Andre is following concerns whether a 23-year-old who flew to New York on his Lockheed Jet-Star, the head of Agassi Enterprises back in Las Vegas, the corporate giant, the "Zen master" object of Streisand's affections will put the 1993 U.S. Open trophy next to his 1992 Wimbledon hardware.

It's an interesting question, all right, but at this point, Andre wants to let you know one thing. He's serious about it.

"I am a tennis player No. 1," Agassi said. "I don't know if that's always been the case, but it's the case now. It's my priority, it's where my heart is. I really don't find myself struggling with where everything else fits. Everything else is a result of my tennis, and I kind of keep it there.

"I'm really at a stage in my career where I want to make it the most that I can. I'm willing to accept it wherever it may be. It's taken me a while, but I'm starting to realize what it is I need to do to make myself the best I can be. And the reason why I'm starting to realize it is not because I'm a slow learner; it's because it never was a priority with me.

"Tennis was always something I had to do ever since I was young. It became something that had to be No. 1 in my life. To a certain degree, I resented it. To a certain degree, I pushed it away from being the center of my life. I've never had any regrets about my life. But if I don't address these next five years the way I'm talking about right now, I will have some regrets."

The Agassi evolution probably began when he bagged the sport's biggest prize, the Wimbledon Championships, a bit more than 13 months ago. By doing so, he surprised most of tennis. Dressed in all-white with a white cap, Agassi came on looking like the guy who showed up to paint your house and left reminding everybody of Don Budge.

So far, it has been a pretty remarkable transformation for Agassi, although the on-court results are just now starting to come in. Since winning Wimbledon, Agassi has changed coaches, from Nick Bollettieri to Pancho Segura, missed more than two months because of a wrist injury, seen his ranking drop as low as No. 22 and witnessed peers such as Jim Courier and Pete Sampras leave him far behind.

It has been an altogether sobering experience for Agassi. "There's been a few awakenings," he acknowledged.

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