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It's Personal for This Trainer

Agassi works harder than ever after Paris setback so he doesn't have to retire at 35.

July 31, 2005|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

The bald truth, of course, is that the end of Andre Agassi's tennis career is a lot closer than the shaggy-haired beginning.

So when Agassi pulled up lame at the French Open in May, suffering a sciatic nerve injury while losing in the first round, he and his trainer/longtime confidant had to ask themselves a difficult question: Was this the end of the line?

They feared the worst.

"Either we were going to surface and rise above or we were just going to be swept away," Gil Reyes, who has trained Agassi for 16 years, said Saturday. "It was just that simple. Unfortunately, it was that dramatic as well."

At 35, his contemporaries long retired, Agassi knows his days in the sport are numbered, his exit just around the corner, if not right up the street.

One false move could bring the rocking chair.

"We're more scared now than we've ever been," Reyes said after Agassi's 6-4, 6-2 victory over Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina in the semifinals of the Mercedes-Benz Cup at UCLA's Los Angeles Tennis Center. "He understands it: a 35-year-old athlete being asked to not only withstand the rigors of tennis, but, let's face it, [a sport] being played a little differently these days. These guys are coming up awfully big, awfully strong, good athletes. And they've grown up watching guys like Andre play and wanting to knock the cover off the ball. There are no more gentlemanly rallies out there, so the toll it takes on the body is different.

"So, of course we were afraid after the French. My biggest fear was that a doctor would decide when Andre retired. That was a nightmare to me. I've always wanted it to be on his terms. We still fantasize about how to go out, still talk about it, and I had nightmares about a doctor being the one who said, 'He's done.' "

Agassi must have too, because, according to Reyes, he was back in the gym five days after flying home from Paris to Las Vegas. He returned to the ATP Tour this week at UCLA, ran through a watered-down field and today could join Jimmy Connors, Roy Emerson and Frank Parker as the event's only four-time winners.

"I respect him more now, if that's possible, than I ever have," Reyes said of Agassi, "because I know the doubt and the pain and the uncertainty that were inside the four walls of that gym when we came back from Paris."

Because of the pain in Agassi's back, which was injected with cortisone, Reyes said he had to eliminate about 60% of the player's regular exercise routine.

"We could not end his career in the gym," the trainer said.

After a difficult first 10 days Agassi slowly responded and, according to Reyes, "He did not miss one day in training. And he had every reason to take a day or two off. For crying out loud, he's 35, he's paid his dues, he's hurting. But the guy was in there every single morning, same look in his eye, same trust in his eye, that he wants it, he wants it bad. He's hungry right now, he's focused."

Credit Reyes, Agassi said.

"Gil is the reason why I've won more Slams after the age of 29 than I did before," he said. "He's the reason why I'm still out there playing this sport at a time in my life when I can really understand and appreciate it.

"These last eight weeks were just another testament to that. We addressed every question with purpose and got our answers."

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