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Steve Flink: Agassi Gets Personal in Charity Event

3/15/2010 8:00:00 AM


 by Steve Flink

When four of the luminaries in men's tennis took the court for the “ Hit for Haiti” exhibition last Friday evening at Indian Wells, most of us felt that there was no way we could go wrong. Justine Henin and Martina Navratilova had already joined forces for an enjoyable and good-natured victory over Lindsay Davenport and Steffi Graf. That meant it was time for Roger Federer and Pete Sampras to test their doubles skills against Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi. It was a rare opportunity for the fans at Indian Wells and Tennis Channel viewers to see perhaps the two greatest players in the history of the sport as a tandem, as Federer and Sampras took on arguably the most ferocious competitor the game has yet seen in Nadal and one of the most renowned athletes of the modern era in Agassi. 

It was by all measures a dream matchup featuring four legendary figures who have amassed a total of 44 majors among them. But from the early stages, I was uneasy as I sat in front of the television late at night observing this contest. The players all wore microphones to enable appreciative fans to hear some amiable banter between the players.  Yet Agassi seemed to believe that gave him a license to demonstrate that he was the greatest entertainer on the court, the man with the sharpest wit, the player who was going to overwhelm everything and everyone else with the force of his personality.

Agassi’s ego was spinning largely out of control; in many ways he was like a comedian who was trying out some new jokes without sufficiently gauging whether or not his audience would approve of his material. Just as importantly, Agassi misconstrued what was inside the boundaries of good taste, deliberately yet inexplicably trying to humiliate and demean Sampras with an unacceptably mean-spirited display of misguided humor. He made Sampras feel deeply uncomfortable and embarrassed. He put Federer and Nadal into a place they didn’t want to be. And he made everyone who was watching question his motives and judgment.

Allow me to take you back to the scene and the situation. The exhibition began amidst an atmosphere of geniality, with all four players getting their bearings. From the outset, Agassi was full of incessant chatter--- much more than any other player. Federer managed to bring the best part of his personality across in some amusing exchanges with Agassi, but Sampras and Nadal simply tried to play good tennis and enjoy themselves without saying much.

Sampras held serve in the opening game and Nadal answered with a hold of his own for 1-1. With Federer serving in the third game, Agassi stepped up his routine with a barrage of comments. He told Federer at one stage, “You are not that intimidating. You are very Swiss.” Federer took it all in stride and laughed freely, then won the point of the night to take his team to 30-0. Agassi and Nadal were rifling away off the ground, directing everything at Federer. Federer made one tough volley after another. The eighth time Agassi-Nadal went at the world No. 1, Federer angled away a glorious backhand volley for a winner.

After that point, Agassi said to Federer, “God, you’re good.” After Federer went to 40-0, he failed to put away a high backhand volley, and Agassi sent a screamer behind Sampras for a winner. Agassi was not letting a moment pass without a comment, and he exclaimed, “God, that felt good!” But Federer held on for 2-1, acing Agassi down the T in the Ad Court. Agassi challenged the call, but the replay revealed that the ball hit the line. In the following game, Agassi upped the verbal ante as he served to make it 2-2. He bellowed at one point, “You know what 10,000 kids are saying right now? Who are those two old bald guys playing with Federer and Nadal?”

That was a genuinely amusing remark, and Sampras countered with, “I’ve got a little [hair] left. You are like Kojak over there.” Agassi replied, “Pete, we all know. The secret’s over so let it go. It’s liberating. “It was difficult to figure out what he meant, but he still had not yet drifted over the line of decency. Not quite yet. Agassi held on for 2-2, and then Sampras served in the fifth game. Here Federer endeared himself to the crowd. Agassi was wearing his long, black sweatpants, so Federer said, “Why don’t you take your long pants off? We want to see your legs?” Agassi answered, “They [my legs] haven’t seen the sun for six months.” He went ahead and pulled his pants up above his knees, and then tastelessly said, “Here they are. I am not even wearing underwear for crying out loud.”

That was a clear sign that he was starting to lose his way behind the microphone. With Agassi talking before, after, even during points, Sampras, perhaps distracted and put off, lost his serve. Nadal promptly held for 4-2. In the seventh game, Federer was taken to deuce, but he won the “Sudden Death” point to hold his serve. As Federer set up to put away a smash, Agassi tried in vain to distract him into an error, childishly yelling, “Miss it, miss it!” Federer kept his cool.

With Agassi still talking almost nonstop--- his act was wearing thin-- Federer and Sampras broke back for 4-4. And then, in the ninth game, Agassi left everyone aghast at his behavior. After Sampras had moved to 40-0 on his serve, Agassi started goading him. “You always have to go and get serious, huh Pete?”Sampras double faulted for 40-15, and then said, “Okay, Andre, I will joke around a little bit. I will imitate you.” Sampras proceeded to do a nice job on the Agassi pigeon-toed walk, drawing loud laughter from the crowd, bringing a big smile to Agassi’s face.

Sampras could tell that Agassi wanted to respond. Agassi said he wanted to impersonate Sampras. “Go ahead,” said an affable Sampras, probably expecting Agassi to do his usual imitation of Pete wiping perspiration off his forehead. But Agassi ventured into entirely different and darker territory. He pulled out the pockets of his sweatpants, and said, “I don’t have any money. “ A moment later, Agassi added, “No, no, wait. I have got a dollar.” That was a clear reference to an anecdote Agassi had used in his book “ Open”, when he told a story about Sampras giving a valet in California in the nineties a $1.00 tip, pointedly trying to portray Sampras as a cheapskate.

That had already caused some discomfort between the two Americans after the release of Agassi’s book, as word got back to Sampras that his old rival had disparaged him more than once in his autobiography. In any event, already knowing that Sampras was unhappy with the cheapness of his “empty pocket” imitation, Agassi added insult to an already considerable injury with his next comment last Friday evening. He said sardonically to a visibly distressed Sampras, “Oh, it is all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

Now Sampras had reached his limit on patience and tolerance. As he served at 40-15, with Nadal ready to return from the deuce court and Agassi staying back at near the baseline with his partner, Sampras let his old rival know explicitly that enough was enough. He hit his first serve directly at Agassi, who was able to avoid getting hit because he was so far back in the court. But Sampras had made his point emphatically. After he did that, he said, “If that’s the way you want to play…”. Agassi retaliated with another unseemly line, saying, “It’s better than being a valet driver with you pulling up.”

Surely flabbergasted by his opponent’s level of vitriol and unsavory conduct, Sampras said, “There we go. I am a bad tipper. I am sorry Barack Obama.” Clearly, he was trying to make a point in a roundabout way about taxes in the upper income class, but more than anything else Sampras was understandably out of sorts and dismayed, with good reason. Not long after, Sampras said to Agassi, “You got personal with me.” Agassi disgracefully replied, “No, no, no. Everybody knows it already Pete. It’s nothing personal.”

 After the release of Agassi’s book, Sampras had heard from various people about negative things Agassi had said about him in the book. They had spoken on the phone, and Sampras seemed to believe they had cleared the air. That was what made the Indian Wells incident all the more hard to comprehend. Agassi had been uncharitable to say the least toward Sampras in his book. Sampras had been willing to move on, but Agassi was rubbing salt deeply into old wounds. In the book, the way he described the alleged $1.00 valet tipping incident seemed contrived. The book is written entirely in the present tense. Agassi gets to the eve of his 2002 U.S. Open final against Sampras, and tells the reader that the night before the big match he finds himself reflecting on something that happened with Sampras in the 1990’s.

He takes the reader on a journey back to California, where he and his coach Brad Gilbert are having a meal in a restaurant. Sampras is dining with others in the same place, and on his way out he says hello to Agassi. Then Agassi and his coach Brad Gilbert make a bet on how much Sampras is going to tip the valet. When they leave, they approach the valet, who tells them Sampras had given him one dollar. Agassi uses the story to illustrate to his readers how different he and Sampras are in that regard.

So why in the world would he go back there on Friday night and demean Sampras in that fashion? I will answer that question shortly. Meanwhile, let me finish our journey through the “Hit for Haiti”. Sampras held on for 5-4 as Agassi’s banter receded. At 6-6, Sampras served to Agassi at 30-40 and released a vintage thunderbolt wide to the backhand that Agassi could not handle. At deuce, on the “Sudden Death” point, Sampras exploited his slice serve out wide to the Nadal backhand and the Spaniard had no play. With Nadal serving at 6-7 and match point down, Sampras followed his return in, made a tough low forehand volley, took control at the net, and sealed the match with a beautifully angled backhand crosscourt volley winner.

Sampras and Federer had won 8-6. And yet, not surprisingly, the sparkle of the occasion was diminished considerably by Agassi’s indefensible behavior.  He had indeed gotten “personal” with Sampras. He had wittingly decided to make his rival look bad in front of a packed house and a substantial television audience. But, as was the case when he tried to disparage Sampras in the book, Agassi had instead made himself look miniscule and vindictive.

Why would he have lowered himself to that abysmal standard? My view is that he has never come to terms with the fundamental fact that Sampras was a much better tennis player than he was. Sampras won 14 majors, six more than Agassi. Sampras prevailed in 20 of their 34 career head to head meetings. Sampras was the victor in four of their five final round appointments in Grand Slam events. Sampras was 4-0 over Agassi at the U.S. Open, including final round victories in 1990, 1995, and 2002, not to mention an epic quarterfinal clash in 2001. Moreover, Sampras was 2-0 over Agassi at Wimbledon, taking their only battle in the final of the world’s premier championship in 1999.

And so Agassi apparently remains resentful that he was outclassed by his foremost rival. What he did at Indian Wells was to spit in the eye of decency. He essentially ruined an evening that everyone assumed would bring out the best in the players. Agassi has been deservedly lauded for his more noble side, for his philanthropic pursuits, for the terrific preparatory school he runs in Las Vegas. He has been revered for the many ways he has shown himself to be larger than the game he has played so skillfully. But at the “Hit for Haiti”, he was way off the mark, and he let both himself and the game down very badly.

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