- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

At the grand old age of 33, Andre Agassi is running out of hills to climb.

And no, we’re not talking about the glute-searing sand dunes he likes to train on in the desert outside Las Vegas.

During his 14 years on the ATP Tour, Agassi has been a LeBron-like prodigy and a Jordan-esque superstar, authoring a Swayze-style skid and a Travolta-topping comeback.

Along the way, the No.1 seed in this week’s Legg Mason Tennis Classic has grown up. Gone bald. Gotten married (twice). Fathered a son. Captured eight major titles. Won millions in prize money. And cemented his place in tennis history with a career Grand Slam.

A little less than two weeks ago, Agassi even introduced his own fragrance line, perhaps the best — and certainly the best-smelling — indication of just how much he’s accomplished. (Hey, it worked for MJ).

Yet to hear Agassi tell it, he isn’t quite ready to skip the slopes for the ski lift. Not when there are plenty of personal peaks left to scale, starting with a potential sixth Legg Mason title.

“I have something to prove every day,” he said during a news conference yesterday at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center. “I’ll keep doing that until I decide not to anymore.

“I don’t have to prove it for the sake of how I look back on my career. But I have to prove it for the sake of getting better and proving to myself that I can do it, proving to my opponent that I can do it. The second you stop proving it, that’s it.”

So far this season, Agassi has proved plenty. Following a disheartening loss to longtime rival Pete Sampras in last fall’s U.S. Open final, Agassi opened the year by winning his fourth Australian Open title.

Since then, he’s triumphed at three other tournaments, notching a milestone victory at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston, an event Agassi last won in 1988 at the age of 18.

With his victory in Houston, Agassi became the oldest man ever to hold the No.1 ranking, ending Lleyton Hewitt’s 75-week run as the world’s top player.

Besides Agassi, only Jimmy Connors, John Newcombe and Ivan Lendl have reached the ranking summit after turning 30.

While Agassi’s Greatest Generation contemporaries — Sampras, Jim Courier, Michael Chang — fade quietly into the good night of exhibition matches and celebrity golf, the one-time shaggy-haired Rock ‘n’ Roll tennis icon continues to rage. Albeit sans the denim cutoffs and neon-pink bike shorts that were once his signature.

“[Retirement] happens for all of us,” said Agassi, who enters the Legg Mason with a 33-5 singles record this season. “You never know when it’s your last. That’s the bottom line. So you might as well make the most of it. It’s a great feeling to feel that way so often.”

The secret to Agassi’s age-defying success? Start with talent. Though time has wreaked havoc on Agassi’s hairline, it hasn’t diminished his greatest gift, the near-supernatural hand-eye coordination that has made him arguably the best returner in tennis history.

Couple Agassi’s reflexes with a vast reservoir of big match experience — more than a decade’s worth — and the result is a baseline version of Barry Bonds: A player old enough to know everything and young enough to still make use of it.

“It’s a game of instinct and reaction, but also one of decision making,” Agassi said. “You make better choices out there. You train smarter. You learn not to get in your own way, keep bringing the best part of your game and leaving the other stuff out.”

Much of Agassi’s improved tactical sense can be credited to former coach Brad Gilbert and current coach Darren Cahill, a pair of cerebral former pros. Agassi’s remarkably good physical condition, on the other hand, largely stems from his work with trainer and close friend Gil Reyes.

A former UNLV strength coach, Reyes first met Agassi in the Runnin’ Rebels weight room almost 14 years ago. The two formed a lasting bond, and Reyes since has presided over the intense workouts and vomit-inducing dune runs that allow Agassi to bench-press 350 pounds while outlasting players nearly half his age.

“I’m actually moving better [now], contrary to losing speed,” Agassi said.

In previous years, the Legg Mason served as Agassi’s final pre-U.S. Open tuneup, a place to calibrate his swing while working out the nagging kinks in his game.

Now that the tournament starts in July, however, Washington has taken on a new role. The Legg Mason will be Agassi’s introduction to the summer hard court season — and the sweltering temperatures that come along with it.

“It’s a lot hotter here [in July],” Agassi said. “So the conditions will probably be a little tougher. But I’ve always enjoyed playing here. My best friend [Reyes] went to school at Georgetown. I’ve spent a lot of time in this area. It’s a great place to push yourself and get ready for the Open.”

Though a younger Agassi sometimes could be spotted enjoying the District nightlife — often dropping by the Tombs, a campus bar across the street from Georgetown University — the current incarnation is all about tennis. And family.

Nearly two years ago, Agassi married former tennis star Steffi Graf, his girlfriend since 1999. The two have a baby boy, Jaden Gil, and expect a second child in mid-November.

Agassi, who in January joked that he would try to convince Graf to play mixed doubles with him at Roland Garros, said he draws motivation from his wife and son.

“That doesn’t come so difficult,” he said. “You go out there on the court, and your competitive juices always take over. This week I’m away from my family. And I’m not away from my family to be unmotivated.”

Agassi’s desire to win was evident at Wimbledon, where he entered as a favorite but lost a tight fourth-round match to eventual runner-up Mark Philippoussis. The unseeded Philippoussis needed five sets and a record-tying 46 aces to eliminate Agassi, who was shooting to become the oldest Wimbledon champion in the Open era.

“I was close,” Agassi said. “I had my chances. But I played against a guy that just stepped up better than I did on the big points. So you can’t have too much regret. It was disappointing to leave that early. But I’ve shaken it off pretty quick.”

Since then, Agassi has spent a few weeks away from the Tour, training with Reyes and spending time at home with his family. In mid-July, he became the spokesman for Aramis Life, a new fragrance bearing his imprimatur and the slogan “Life: It’s a Great Game.”

In return, Aramis is now the lead corporate sponsor for Agassi’s charitable foundation, which raises money for underprivileged children and funds a Las Vegas charter school built by Agassi.

“They’ve shown great interest in my foundation,” Agassi said. “It’s a big deal when you can find a sponsor with that kind of support.”

Still, Agassi isn’t about to stop and smell the roses. Let alone the rose-scented cologne. Not when his 33-year-old body remains sound. Not when his considerable powers remain intact. And not when there are still hills to climb.

Sandy or otherwise.

“Trust me, if my body was hurting every day, I’d lose motivation,” Agassi said. “If I was just sort of surviving, I’d lose motivation. But I’m still healthy. I feel good out there. And there’s still things to do.”

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