Andre Agassi – the phoenix from the ashes
"My Roland-Garros journey was a long one, and yet it’s almost the first Grand Slam tournament that I should have won, because it’s where I had my first good results. But then it all got unravelled. I had to wait for a long time, until it got to the point where it was the only big title I was still missing. A long journey, and a testing one. But once I finally managed to win the tournament, I knew that I would no longer have the slightest regret about the decisions I had made throughout the years. I think that everything happens for a reason. If I didn’t win Roland-Garros when I was young, it’s because something was missing and I needed to look within myself to find the answers. When I succeeded in climbing that mountain, it allowed me to believe in myself and enables me now to believe in all the things that seem impossible at first glance. If I could turn back time, I wouldn’t change the slightest thing."
- Andre Agassi.
A star was born at Roland-Garros in the shape of Andre Agassi, but ironically, the French Open is where he suffered most, before finally rising from the ashes. This renaissance came in 1999, when he became the first man since legendary Australian Rod Laver to win each of the Grand Slam tournaments at least once. It was the moment that summed up his career, and was one of the most emotional ever seen in the history of Roland-Garros. Agassi was a phoenix, rising from the flames to write his name in the annals.
Agassi’s first real memory of Roland-Garros dates back to May 1988, just after he had turned 18. In his second appearance at the Paris Slam, his brutal, aggressive style of play saw him make it all the way through to the semi-finals, and helped take tennis to another dimension. "What he did was totally revolutionary compared with the way people were playing at the time," said Mats Wilander, who was the stand-out player that season but struggled mightily to overcome him in five sets before going on to win the final.
With Andre Agassi, tennis jumps into the 90's
As well as his in-your-face play, the American’s denim shorts and pink cycling shorts caught the eye as he quickly won over the public. He also ushered in his own era, dragging tennis resolutely into the 90s. History will remember that rainy day when he gave the photographers one of the most memorable shots of all time by pretending to play with an umbrella that he had borrowed from one of the guests in the loges.
He was among the title favourites from 1989 onwards, but from then on, nothing went according to plan whenever the kid from Las Vegas was in Paris. In 1990, he was upset in the final by soon-to-be-retired Andres Gomez and his easy-on-the-eye brand of tennis. A five-set defeat the following year at the hands of Jim Courier, fellow Nick Bollettieri alumnus and a year his junior, was even harder to swallow."I was the favourite in those two finals," said Agassi, "but I was under a lot of pressure. I was young though, and I thought that I had a lot of time ahead of me."
Agassi was as casual as he was brilliant, to the point of occasionally coming to Paris having only played one warm-up tournament. And over the years, he played a variety of different and not always flattering roles, ranging from teen idol to bad boy and washed-up star. Up to and including 1998, every attempt ended in failure, and not always glorious of that ilk. In 1995, he came to the Porte d’Auteuil as No.1 in the world and co-favourite for the tournament alongside Thomas Muster, and with a hair-cut that finally seemed to usher in another new era – that of Agassi adulthood.
1999 – the miracle on clay
Then in 1999, having won everything else there was to win (the Australian and US Opens and Wimbledon, as well as the Davis Cup, Olympic gold and the ATP Masters) yet fallen to No.121 in the world, a more mature Agassi, described by the press at the beginning of the fortnight as a "masterpiece teetering on the brink", finally conquered the holy grail – much to everyone’s surprise.
Having come within two points of defeat in the second round against home favourite Arnaud Clément, he then found himself a set and two breaks down in the Round of 16 against defending champion Carlos Moya. He also had to turn things around from two sets to love down in the final against another former "next big thing" for whom greatness had been promised from an early age – Andrei Medvedev. In the third round against Chris Woodruff, Agassi had also managed to pull off one of the most impressive "tweeners" ever seen at the French Open.
"That tournament was a microcosm of the life that I had led, against all probability," Agassi would later say. And it was there at the Porte d'Auteuil in spring 1999 that he would meet the German champion who would go on to share his life off-court, Steffi Graf.
Today, Agassi is still the only player to have won all of the major titles in tennis, and to have completed the haul in Paris... where it all began, and where Rod Laver was on hand to present him with the Coupe des Mousquetaires."I left the court blowing kisses to the crowd in all directions," he said in his autobiography, Open. "It was the most sincere gesture I could think of to express the gratitude that was running through me – it was that emotion which seemed to spark all the other ones. And I said to myself that in future, win or lose, every time I walk off a tennis court. I will blow kisses to all four corners of the planet, to thank the whole world." A world in turn that will be eternally grateful for what Agassi has given then.
Andre Agassi's record at Roland-Garros
51 wins, 16 defeats
1 title (1999) and 2 finals (1990, 1991). Andre Agassi has also won Wimbledon (1992), and the US (1994, 1999) and Australian (1995, 2000, 2001, 2003) Opens.
17 participations to Roland-Garros (the first in 1987, as a 17 year-old, and the last in 2005, as a 35 year-old)
43 matchs played on Centre court (the first in 1988, against Paolo Cané)
Notables wins over Jim Courier (round of 16 in 1990), Michael Chang (quarter-final in 1990), Boris Becker (semi-final in 1991), Pete Sampras (quarter-final in 1992), Carlos Moya (round of 16 in 1999), Andrei Medvedev (1999 final).