How Steffi's love tamed Agassi
By Paul Malone
LIKE much of what happens in the lives of the rich and famous, we can only imagine what went on in the Melbourne hotel suite of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf on Tuesday night.
Agassi had said a few hours earlier in a chat with a former colleague that he had trouble keeping his eyes off Graf whenever she was at his workplace.
"Hi, honey," Agassi might have said to his wife as their 15-month-old son Jaden was being readied for bed while he returned as a quarter-final winner at the Australian Open.
"Did you like how I made you look good in front of John McEnroe, 15,000 Australians, the world's press and a few hundred million tennis fans around the world today?" he might have added.
When Agassi had told McEnroe in a post-match interview he could not keep his eye on the ball when his wife practised tennis with him, Graf had smiled from her Rod Laver Arena seat.
That seat has been her vantage point for all Agassi's matches, looking on with the Sphinx-like facade so familiar from Graf's days as one of the game's most relentless and successful players.
"She's in great shape. If you think I'm an inspiration at 32, you should see her at 33," said Agassi, who once quipped that his dream tennis match as a spectator would be for the nine-time Wimbledon champion "to play herself in high heels".
Security guards have been sitting either side of Graf at Agassi's matches, ready to whisk her back to the privacy of the Australian Open's player enclosure and ward off would-be autograph seekers and media queries.
But the first couple of tennis had tossed their fans a scrap of their lives and Australian fans, who have followed the careers of Graf and Agassi with a devotion rarely matched around the world, loved them for it.
Agassi's disclosure that Graf had agreed to come out of a 3½-year retirement to play mixed doubles with him at the French Open if he lifts his fourth Australian Open singles title this afternoon added a touch of warmth to the tournament.
Graf won four Australian Open crowns (1988-90 and 1994), making the prospect of a his-and-hers matching sets all the more alluring as Agassi enters the final against German Rainer Schuettler.
"Travelling with my family beats the alternative," Agassi said last week.
"To have the support of my family being with me makes all this possible. It wouldn't be easy right now for me to be playing if I wasn't."
Graf rarely gives interviews these days, but told the Women's Tennis Association's Advantage magazine last year that she did not miss competition after her 22-major career.
The German champion said she enjoyed cooking and even housework. Workaday mothers would be pleased to hear a winner of $A40 million in career prizemoney admit her daily timetable was determined by her son.
She also revealed Agassi was learning more German as their relationship progressed and he handled the pronunciation of German words better than most English speakers.
"I wanted to discover myself first after my tennis career was over but things worked out differently. Now I couldn't imagine my life being without Andre and Jaden," Graf said.
A prized paparazzi target in Europe for almost all her adult life, Graf was shocked by how openly Agassi lived in Las Vegas.
"Previously, Andre had no front gate. I was totally astonished that people could drive up without any security doors," said Graf, who now prefers to be known as Stefanie and is called "Stef" by Agassi in public.
"He'd never had a photographer there. Sometimes photographers pursue us as well. Sometimes we notice, sometimes we don't."
Still, Graf said she felt blessed and at home "wherever Andre and Jaden are".
"It's a different kind of happiness. In tennis, there was the happiness and satisfaction of doing something well," she told the magazine.
There have been times in Agassi's fallible and intriguing career when Australian tennis fans have relished seeing him in full flight – and this is one of them.
Sport allows the lives and careers of athletes to broken down statistically and it is clear that Graf has been very good for Agassi's tennis career, as well as off the court. Three of his seven career Grand Slam titles have come since Graf entered his life.
His winning percentage of 78.3 per cent from August, 1999 is better than his overall career level of 76.1 per cent and the period of his relationship and failed marriage to actress Brooke Shields (76.3 per cent).
But it does not necessarily follow that Agassi's greatest tennis successes have been when he has been happy in his personal life.
Like a songwriter who writes his best tunes when his life is in turmoil, Agassi built the foundation for his thirtysomething success with hour after relentless hour of training – at a time when his marriage to Shields was failing.
The winner of three Grand Slam titles, Agassi should have been one of the favourites to win the 1998 Australian Open, nine months into his marriage with Shields.
But he arrived at the event ranked as the world's No. 122 player.
He had been forced to play anonymous $US25,000 Challenger tournaments after losing the desire to play and do the training needed to be competitive.
Shields flew to Melbourne unannounced from her television sitcom set, arriving a few hours before Agassi was beaten by Spain's Alberto Berasategui in the fourth round as fans craned their necks to study her reactions.
From that moment, Agassi began to pull his career out of a tailspin.
By Christmas 1998 he was sixth and had pulled off the biggest one-year rankings jump into the top 10 in tennis history.
"According to the media, Brooke's the reason I got to No. 1, the reason why I fell and now she is the reason I came back. So God bless Brooke," Agassi joked.
In April, 1999, two months before he won the French Open to become the first man since Rod Laver to have taken all four major championships, Agassi and Shields confirmed they had separated.
It's unclear when Agassi developed a relationship with Graf, but they were reported to have been seen together in August, 1999, in New York, when she was only a month into her retirement and able to celebrate her new boyfriend's second US Open title.
Both had demanding, driven fathers and know the demands of tennis fame, although Agassi recalls having spoken to Graf only a few times when she was a player. They chatted briefly when they danced together as champions at the 1992 Wimbledon ball and again during a chance meeting at a German airport.
At the 2000 Australian Open, his second Melbourne Park triumph, Agassi refused to speak about their relationship but in October 2001 they married four days before the birth of Jaden.
Agassi's transformation from angry young man to family man has not stopped him blowing up at umpires once or twice a year, although no one seems to mind.
It's probably part of his appeal, as a human being capable of achieving great heights and able to poke fun at the times he has failed.
During his watershed Australian Open in 1998, Agassi said his tennis revival had been inspired by the bravery of Kate Reyes, daughter of his conditioner and close friend Gil, to recover from a broken neck suffered in a snowboarding accident.
"When I saw then what the little girl went through, if I had half the strength she had, I could have carried the entire world on my shoulders and still be No. 1," he said. "When your perspective is enhanced, the focus becomes clearer. I have more purpose."
It is all a world away from "Image is Everything", a corporate slogan for one of Agassi's US endorsements in the early 1990s.
And a world away from being called a "zen master" around the same time by a love-struck Barbra Streisand in a US Open courtside television interview.