Novak Djokovic and Andre Agassi seem like an unlikely pair of tennis stars to play at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island. But there is a good chance that their careers could get them seated together for a game of legacy match at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Agassi’s place at the second great tier of tennis legends is already assured.
The decades have passed since his upbringing in Las Vegas, where he developed his great ball-striking by hitting tennis balls against a fearsome ball machine he dubbed 'The Dragon'. His credentials list eight Grand Slam titles in 15 finals appearances and a legacy surpassed by only a handful of greats.
Djokovic has only recently made a bid for a table of legends with five Slam titles in nine finals appearances.
Agassi’s table may have a reservation sign with Djokovic’s name on it, but first there are a few more trophies to win.
Kings of Australia
Agassi loved the Rebound Ace surface that hosted 20 years of Grand Slam champions from 1988-2007.
He is the only player to win four titles on this slower hard court surface at Melbourne. It suited his groundstrokes and gave him the requisite time to be an offensive baseline player.
Djokovic promptly seized Melbourne’s first title on the Plexicushion surface that has been in play since 2008.
Though the court is supposed to play slightly faster with a lower bounce, it plays significantly slower than the U.S. Open courts. Djokovic added titles in 2011 and 2012, making a claim to be the new dominant player at Australia.
There is a strong possibility he could join Agassi with a fourth title to kick off the Grand Slam season in 2013.
At the 1995 Australian Open, Agassi appeared with a do-rag on his newly shaved head. He sported a goatee and a striped shirt, baggy shorts combination that had the media writing references to pirates. Sports Illustrated called him Baldy in an article following his impressive four-set triumph over Pete Sampras.
It was to be, perhaps, his finest match and his only Slam finals victory over his more dominant rival.
Agassi was a baseliner, but uniquely gifted and trained to hit tennis balls early—often on the rise to take reaction time away from his opponent. He was most offensive when controlling the center baseline with his precision pace and topspin, and firing away with both forehand and backhand.
Though not a defensive retriever, he had quick footwork and good trunk rotation to help generate efficient power.
At the 2008 Australian Open, the clean-cut Serbian, with the wild eyes and fun-loving demeanor, showed the tennis world his searing groundstrokes. Djokovic hit 50 winners in a straight-set semifinal victory over Roger Federer and cemented his breakthrough with the finals victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Though often categorized as a more defensive and grinding player, Djokovic also looks to attack from the baseline.
He devours high topspin by hitting the ball on the rise to the open court with flat scorching winners. He is the evolved reincarnation of Agassi’s ball-striking and Ivan Lendl’s power, but he is creating his own brand and style.
Djokovic, like Agassi, has learned more patience in harnessing his desire to hit every ball for a winner.
His aggressive tendencies more patiently coax the short ball from his opponent.
It allows him to ideally step into the court and find angles, preferably on his backhand side. Many times this can be more effective than trying to set up in the center of the court (where Agassi likes to operate), because Djokovic wants to handcuff his opponents with better angles and power.
He would also rather forgo slice shots and duel with fire, but opponents like Federer and Andy Murray can take away his powerful angles with their underspin and changes of pace. These are the times he must guard against complacency and over-zealousness.
It’s a fine line.
If he gives ground too far behind the baseline or finds himself scrambling to the corners, then he is likely being forced from his favorite spots and deflecting too many defensive lobs.
Defensive Minded Tactics
Agassi’s offense minimized the defensive deficiencies he could have.
His early few years of success at the French Open nearly garnered a few titles by outhitting his opponents, but he was clearly not a greyhound on clay. He couldn’t track down every ball and outlast the extreme topspin clay-court players of the mid-90s.
But his undeniable ball-striking talent, fitness and desire carried him on his magical run to capture the 1999 French Open.
What he could do was rattle big servers.
Agassi’s keen reactions and sense for returning serves became one of his immortal skills. It was this kind of athleticism that allowed him to shorten his stroke, take a low skidding ball on grass and guide it for winners.
He could be aced often enough, but there were times he seemed to see the ball in slow motion and reel off consecutive returns that would break the big servers. For proof, he performed this magic against attacking legends Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Goran Ivanisevic to win his 1992 Wimbledon title.
Perhaps only Jimmy Connors could claim equal success in return of serve with Agassi.
Or perhaps Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic may be the more consistent and efficient return-of-serve artist. He operates with the percentages to send back serves. His footwork is magnificent and his reach uncanny. If he stares at match points, he will gamble with steely nerves and go-for-broke success.
This match-point return of serve winner against Federer helped him pull the 2011 U.S. Open out of the fire.
He can grind and scramble and guide defensive lobs. His steps operate from springs, and he lunges with a contortionist’s body. Perhaps no player could blend defense to offense so naturally.
With this combination, Djokovic has been a tough player to put away in big matches.
A Tale of Two Legends
In his early years, Agassi was the image, the Nike flash and the charismatic splash.
He wore denim shorts and sometimes put on neon spandex. His flowing locks were a throwback to Greek gods and reminiscent of modern rock stars.
Then he learned to win.
He became patient, overcame career setbacks and shaved his head. He wore simple white polo shirts and became a family man. Age or temperance may have eased his spirit, but it never dulled his competitiveness.
In 2006, he fought to his very last match, and it’s fair to wonder if his talent could not have won a few more Grand Slam titles.
Djokovic hails from war-torn Serbia, where he once darted out to practice on courts between bombings. He exuded confidence and perhaps too much brashness in his determination to become the king of tennis.
Then it happened, and he pulled within two sets of holding all four Grand Slam titles. He became an ambassador and hero to Serbia, a gracious competitor and a mature human being.
He is a credit to tennis and a great champion.
In 2012 he will end the year ranked No. 1, but Djokovic knows that is not the ultimate goal. He possesses the belief that he can soon join the likes of Agassi and Connors, but this is only a possibility that comes through tireless effort, talent and opportunity.
In the meantime, the chair is still empty, but Djokovic would rather do more than sit at the second table at Newport, Rhode Island.
There are more Grand Slams to capture.