- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England Andre is a mental giant.
Andre Agassi rarely receives recognition as the game's best thinker. When he was a brash youngster pounding out three Grand Slam titles before his 25th birthday, he was viewed as a prima donna a player with outrageous talent but a suspect attitude. And when he slid into virtual tennis oblivion from 1996 to 1998, spiraling into what he called "emotional darkness" because of the distractions of a failed marriage to Brooke Shields, most members of the media wrote him off as a washed-up head case.
But over the last two years, Agassi has built a second career on his mental prowess. You don't win three Slams in a 12-month period after your 29th birthday on sheer athletic ability. You don't go from No. 141 (November 1997) back to No. 1 without a serious combination of confidence and savvy.
Some credit Brad Gilbert's coaching for Agassi's renaissance. Some point to the settling effect of Agassi's relationship with tennis legend Steffi Graf. But Agassi knows his mind has been the primary force behind his revival.
"The first time around, I relied mostly on raw ability," the 30-year-old from Las Vegas said this week. "The last couple of years, I've learned to lean on my ability to think my way through matches."
Wimbledon has provided a perfect example of Agassi's new approach.
The game's most renowned service returner, Agassi didn't exactly roll into Wimbledon this year. After winning 14 of his first 17 matches this season, including his sixth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, Agassi suffered through a series of second-round disasters in three of his last four starts. He retired in the second round in Atlanta (hamstring), basically quit his defense of the French Open mid-match (blisters) and pulled out of the pre-Wimbledon Queen's Cup with a sore back.
Since arriving at Wimbledon, though, he has somehow willed his way through the bracket at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club, setting up a rematch of last year's semifinal clash with Patrick Rafter.
"I was somewhat against the wall coming into this event just because I hadn't had the matches I wanted," said the second-seeded Agassi after breezing past big-hitting Mark Philippoussis 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-4 in yesterday's quarterfinals. "But I said all along, if I can get through the first week, I can start bringing out different parts of my game."
Yesterday Agassi showcased his caginess against the powerful Aussie, mentally manipulating Philippoussis.
Through most of the first set, Agassi stood on or inside the baseline during Philippoussis' service games. The 23-year-old master blaster recorded 10 aces in that first set, feeling totally comfortable with his position as the two entered a tiebreaker.
It was in that tone-setting tiebreaker that Agassi decided to plant his psychological land mine. On one out of every two Philippoussis' serves, both first and second, he suddenly moved well back to return, standing some four to six feet behind the baseline. The ploy seemed to unnerve the Aussie, who has never been known as one of the Tour's more mentally agile players. Agassi recorded a pair of early mini-breaks against his confused counterpart, served out the breaker and then coerced Philipoussis into a break-inducing double-fault with the same strategy in the third game of the second set.
"It wasn't like I was waving my arms as he tossed it, trying to get him to look at me," Agassi said of the ploy. "The idea was just to give him a different look… . I felt like if I backed up, he's going to have to take a little bit off and try to get in tight behind it. If he hits it 130 mph, I'm on it I'm going to return it at his feet. Sometimes it works out.
"You know, you have to understand people's strengths and weaknesses. You can't ask one person to have it all. You can't serve 140 mph and be fast and think well. It just wouldn't be right."
Translation: "Mark is somewhat mentally susceptible, and I thought I'd crawl in his head and bash about a bit."
Tomorrow, Agassi gets another Aussie in 12th-seeded Rafter. Agassi has beaten the resurgent serve-and-volley specialist in their only two matches at Wimbledon, including a straight-set slapdown in last year's semis (7-5, 7-6, 6-2).
"There's no weaknesses in Andre at all," Rafter said after eliminating Alexander Popp, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1). "And Andre is very adept at isolating your [weaknesses]. When he's on, he can play to your flaws make you very uncomfortable."
Don't think No. 1 seed Pete Sampras, who will advance to his seventh Wimbledon final in eight years with a victory over qualifier Vladimir Voltchkov, isn't growing increasingly more uncomfortable about the prospect of facing Agassi in a rematch of last year's final. Even at his best, Sampras has had his hands full with Agassi. With a sore left leg (tendinitis in his foot and shin), Sampras could find Agassi's weakness-whipping tactics both painful and pernicious.

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