Monday, April 7, 2008
Agassi left unequivocal mark on Key Biscayne championships
By Matt Wilansky ESPN.com
Agassi won six titles at Key Biscayne, more than any other player who stepped foot on that event.
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- The transition of Andre Agassi from a flamboyant rebel to his late-career maturation has been well-chronicled. From a swaggering, sometimes petulant teenager with world in the palm of his hands to one of the most respected, amiable players in the game, he was undeniably one of tennis' most beloved figures during his career.
But here on the grounds of Crandon Park, the site of the just-completed Sony Ericsson Open, the impression Agassi left in his 19 years is far more simplified.
And one pithy word sums it up: championships. Six, to be exact.
His triumphs here at the tournament deemed the fifth major far outweighed the well-publicized trials and tribulations that defined a significant portion of Agassi's career. It's an accomplishment anyone who has spent any appreciable amount of time playing would like to have ownership of.
"Remarkable," tournament chairman and founder Butch Buchholtz told ESPN.com. "[His success] helped in every way, from television to ticket and sponsorship sales. These are not easy tournaments. The best always show up and there's a lot riding on the line."
Agassi's first Key Biscayne title, in 1990, was not only a defining moment in his career, but in ways changed the perception that only laser-like servers could win. He was a baseline punisher squaring off against a diametrically opposite opponent, Stefan Edberg, in the final.
"It was a breakthrough," Buchholtz said. "Agassi was your classic baseliner in an era of serve-and-volleyers. His return was also dominant and it disarmed some of the big servers. Subsequently, people became less intimidated by that style of play."
After a hiccup in the third set, Agassi won the match convincingly. It was also a declarative moment that his arsenal, drive and determination were on par with the alpha dogs at that time -- Edberg, Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl.
It was four years later, though, in one of the top moments of Agassi's career -- the 1994 Key Biscayne final versus archrival Pete Sampras -- that stands out for Buchholtz.
"It was a classic example of the person Andre is," Buchholtz said. "Pete was sick to his stomach the night before the final. The doctors said they could get him to play with enough IV and fluids. On Sunday, Pete woke up feeling weak, unsure how he was going to compete. Andre, with first-place prize money and major points on the line, told the tournament to give Sampras all the time he needs until he was ready. They did, the match was pushed back -- and Pete beat him."
How many players have that intrinsic sense of altruism with so much riding on the line? And how many would go to the lengths Agassi did to make sure the fans were treated to a competitive final at his own expense?
"Can't think of many," Buchholtz said with a chuckle.
A year later Agassi avenged that loss. Embroiled in a tight third-set tiebreaker, he eventually prevailed against nemesis Sampras, capturing his second Key Biscayne title.
Even after a series of desultory performances that plummeted Agassi to a world ranking of 141 in 1997, he was able to circumvent the distractions and criticism to reach the final of Key Biscayne five months later. On that day, though, Agassi was overmatched by Marcelo Rios.
Still, it was a testament to his comfort level at this event and the devotion he felt the fans deserved.
Andre Agassi won 17 Masters Series titles, including championships in seven of the nine events in the series.
"People loved him here," Mike Bryan said shortly after advancing to the men's doubles final. "I've looked up to him since I was 10 years old. He has a great personality and gave the fans their money's worth. He played this tournament like it is the fifth Grand Slam. It's not an easy tournament to win but his success speaks for itself."
His record six titles, 61-13 record and 10 semifinals appearances are the tip of the iceberg. Agassi is the only ATP player to pull off the hat trick at Key Biscayne (2001-03); he was the youngest winner (19 years, 10 months in 1990), the oldest (32 years, 11 months in 2003); and in the early 2000s he won 20 consecutive matches.
And while Key Biscayne was the venue of the majority of his feats, Agassi finished his career with a record 17 Masters Series shields in all. But a macrocosmic look at his résumé often misses out these precious titles that underscored a large chunk of his 21 years on tour. The garden-variety follower will likely recount the images of Agassi collapsing to his knees upon winning Wimbledon in 1992 or the look of disbelief upon completing the career Grand Slam at the French Open in 1999.
Those milestones, of course, are unassailable, but from the outset, the Masters Series were the true source of his success. Between 1990 and 2003, Agassi failed to win one of these tournaments in a single season on just five occasions.
"These are real credible tournaments," Buchholtz said. "Slams are instrumental but there's also a price to pay for failing at [Masters Series] events. It can really affect your year-end outcome."
For those who think the path is any less onerous in the Masters Series than Grand Slams -- think again.
Despite having one fewer round than majors, the fields aren't watered down with players who are a mere blimp on the radar. Early-round matchups are not walkovers at the Masters Series, and it only evolves into a more laborious climb from there.
Consider this stat: In eight career Grand Slam titles, Agassi's average opponent ranking was 62.7. In his 17 Masters Series: 40.9.
Buchholtz, who has a mid-'90s-era Agassi photo emblazoned on the wall directly behind his desk, noted that while Key Biscayne has always been a landing point for the top-echelon players, the other Masters Series events have gained more and more momentum over the years because of the points allotted and the harsh penalties accrued by the absentees.
It's been three years since Agassi last competed in Key Biscayne and five years since his last championship. But his footprint, legacy and records are not forgotten.
Most importantly, "It's the one event he had more titles than his wife, Steffi," said Buchholtz. "And Andre -- he liked to talk about that."
Matt Wilansky is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.