It was the Summer of Revenge for Andre Agassi in 1995. Decked out in his latest line of Nike clothing, but looking more like a pirate with his striped tennis shirts, facial trimmings, black socks and high-top shoes, he was the No. 1 player in the world and at the physical peak of his career.
The 25-year-old Agassi was a fearsome ball striker who had finally found the right blend of patience and percentages with coach Brad Gilbert’s baseline philosophy. He had combined his talent with hard work and intelligence, work ethic and purpose, and he had his sights set on ruling all of tennis for a long time.
He had won the 1994 U.S. Open and defeated rival and tennis king Pete Sampras in the 1995 Australian Open final. By the time he crossed the Atlantic in mid-April, he had captured the No. 1 ranking.
But what happened that summer was both triumph and tragedy, the kind of classic theater the Ancient Greeks revered, or, ironically, something that Agassi might have enjoyed at Broadway. It would be his high and low, defining a good portion of his career and changing the direction of tennis for the rest of the decade.
Agassi’s first real disappointment that year was losing in the French Open quarterfinals to Yevgeny Kafelnikov. One ill-fated lunge at a ball and he felt his hip flexor snap, according to his autobiograpy, Open. Could he have defeated clay king Thomas Muster in the semifinals? It would have been a Herculean task, but Agassi felt his career Grand Slam (He had also won Wimbledon in 1992) was there for the taking, expressing so in his book, p. 207:
As I leave Paris, I don’t feel defeated; I feel cheated. This was it, I just knew. My last chance. Never again will I be in Paris feeling so strong, so young. Never again will I inspire such fear in the locker room.
My golden opportunity to win all four slams is gone.
If Paris was the injury, Wimbledon was the insult. Agassi ripped through the top half of the draw and had curb-stomped Boris Becker in the semifinals for nearly two sets. He led 6-2, 4-1 (up two breaks), before the wheels inexplicably came off.
Becker rallied to the four-set victory, backed by the smug support of his oily-tanned coach, Nick Bollettieri, who was Agassi’s academy mentor and former coach. Becker went on to get blasted by Sampras in the final, but not before blasting Agassi in the press, calling the American an elitist and saying that Agassi was unliked by others on the tour.
Agassi responded with a summer fury that rattled the tennis world and had him at the doorsteps of Pantheon greatness. He and Coach Gilbert called it their Summer of Revenge, and they vowed to burn all the way through the U.S. Open.
Meanwhile, Agassi and Sampras saw the U.S. media push their rivalry to its pinnacle. They duked it out on the streets with their famed Nike commercial, all of which emboldened Agassi and alerted Sampras.
Reality was an Agassi blitz through North American hard courts. He endured heat and vomiting to close out Stefan Edberg for the title at Washington D.C.. He closed out Sampras in three sets for Montreal’s Rogers Cup. He spanked Michael Chang in Cincinnati. He saved two match points against Richard Krajicek at New Haven before winning that title.
Four titles in five weeks. Twenty straight wins heading into the U.S. Open. He was Keyser Soze to the rest of the ATP tour, wreaking havoc on the courts, pillaging trophies and leaving his competitors to wilt by the wayside. Demigod Achilles would have been less exhausted with his on-and-off-again forays in the Trojan War.
Agassi got his blood match with Becker in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, and he unleashed everything in a tension-filled match. Becker rallied from two sets down, stirring up the crowd and complaining to the chair umpire (in the fourth set, 3-3) that Agassi was getting advice from Gilbert. Gilbert merely looked aggravated as if he wished he could have a turn at Becker.
At 5-4 and staring at three match points, Agassi took a huge forehand cut at a second-serve return that disappeared through the deuce alley and into the night. He didn’t look at Becker with their attempt at a cursory handshake, and he walked off the court with an angry stoicism.
“Pete, if you’re watching, I’m coming,” he said to CBS sideline reporter Andrea Joyce.
But Agassi’s 26th consecutive triumph was a Pyrrhic victory.
The next morning, he woke up with severe pain, the result of his final, fatal swing to bury Becker. It was torn cartilage beneath the ribs, and he was only nine hours away from his final with Sampras.
Agassi was still assured the No. 1 ranking, win or lose, but the U.S. Open championship was most important. Agassi held the Australian Open and was looking for his second Grand Slam final win of the year versus Sampras. His rival had won Wimbledon, but was now trailing with points and the possibility of Agassi growing a mini-dynasty. All that mattered to both players was winning that second major in 1995.
Agassi was gallant, but overmatched. His ribs hurt, his serve was weaker, and he could not dictate as often as he liked from the center of the baseline.
The Pistol was sharp as always in a big match, and his baseline play even surpassed Agassi for all the important points. He served huge, finished overhead smashes and was Michael Jordan on the tennis court, awesome and seemingly unbeatable when it all mattered.
Agassi’s torn cartilage was a setback but it would heal soon enough. Not so his fighting spirit. He gave up trying to outlast Sampras for the year-end No. 1 ranking. He could not be comforted by the win streak or titles, but was instead wracked by agony, as he testified in Open p. 217:
I’m 26-1, and I’d give up all those wins for this one.
All that work and anger and winning and training and hoping and sweating, and it leads to the same empty disappointed feeling. No matter how much you win, if you’re not the last one to win, you’re a loser. And in the end I always lose, because there is always Pete. As always, Pete.
Agassi slowly drifted into his own tennis coma. His purpose felt empty and his gloom was heavy. His vigor had been drained, and his book details just how much the ‘95 final preyed at his resolve. “Since losing to Pete at the U.S. Open, I’ve lost the will,” he told trainer Gil Reyes on page 228 after getting bounced at 1996 Monte Carlo in 54 minutes.
How could he get up again and fight? He had been beat to death by a sack of oranges, leaving no outward bruises but left invisibly battered into the dark ages of his career.
Sampras continued his dynasty, but even so it only felt half-hearted. Without his great rival, and fighting through his own difficulties, he picked his moments, usually Wimbledon, but also in a semi-somnambulant condition, trying to find motivation to push back Michael Chang or bark at Patrick Rafter.
What if Agassi had won that 1995 U.S. Open? Would he and Sampras have created the mother of all rivalries? Would Agassi have gotten to 10 or 12 majors? Would he have been able to retire as Sampras' career equal? But there are no second chances with the past, only with the future.
For Agassi, his career could have been a tragedy if it had ended sometime in 1998. He would have been the original version of Marat Safin, doomed to feel the barbs and whispered scorns of lost potential after so much success.
But theater always has another act. Agassi would not end his career in defeat, but with a renaissance. And maybe redemption was only possible because of the ‘95 U.S. Open.
Like the mythical Roy Hobbs, Agassi made good on his own second chance. He would always be a reminder of what could have been in those lost years of 1996-98, but he reinvented his greatness.
He rose up in 1999, rallied for the French Open title and completed his career Grand Slam. As Sampras went down later that summer to another injury, Agassi returned with U.S. Open and Australian Open titles. This was no longer the ultra-tough early 1990s ATP field, but Agassi was smarter and had learned to appreciate his opportunities.
Two more Australian Open titles (2001, 2003) would follow, and there would be more memorable matches with Sampras and new hero Roger Federer.
By the time the Federer dynasty was in full gear, Agassi would finally find his body breaking down, his back painfully unable to chase down the fuzzy yellow ball. No matter, he no longer had to look back with fear or regret for giving up. He had redeemed himself as a champion many times over.
The Summer of Revenge could rest in peace.