ANDRE THE GIANT

Image is not everything.
That's a lesson the world's best tennis player has learned the hard way. On the slick grass rectangle that is Wimbledon's storied center court--a mystical place where he feared even to tread for three years--he learned in 1987 that you can smash flashy, Kevlar-powered rocket shots all afternoon long past some unpronounceable Russian standing on the opposite baseline. But if the Russian can make his way to the net and hit a series of crisp, angled volleys off that stuff, your power and your image go up in smoke. Just like that.

"My head wasn't really in the game," he said.
On the slow, treacherous red clay of Stade Roland Garros in Paris, he learned in 1990 that the substance of one Andres Gomez--strategy welded to patience--outranked his own brilliant recklessness. The very next year at the French, he learned that Jim Courier's rock-solid work ethic outclassed his own boyish urgency.

"I wasn't using all the tools," he said.
By early 1993 he was discouraged and disheartened and slipped to number 31.
In Washington last year, when low tide came, he learned that you can, as always, boogie onto the court wearing shorts that would fit Jackie Gleason and a head of hair that would fit Kim Basinger, that you can blow a hundred kisses to the wide-eyed girls in the expensive seats--and still get your butt kicked by, let's see here, someone named Brett Steven.

"I knew it couldn't get any worse," he said.
But he has learned. Image is not everything. Against all the odds, teen idol Andre Agassi last week became the world's top-ranked tennis player, unhorsing fellow American Pete Sampras. Despite his having won the last two Grand Slam events, the U.S. and Australian Opens, it was no easy task. The powerful, steady Sampras had been number one in the ATP computer rankings for 82 straight weeks and for 102 of the previous 104. Two full years. But the flashy 24-year-old Agassi, a guy the tennis experts said didn't have the discipline or the patience to reach the top, has done it--at least for now.

Coincidentally, this is the best thing that's happened to American tennis in a decade. The game is tired, the junior program in this country is in steep decline, and network execs openly yawn until they hear the word Wimbledon. A long-term Agassi-Sampras rivalry could be the tonic that perks people up. In the last golden age, after all, fiery John McEnroe did memorable battle with icy Bjorn Borg. Doomsday stroking machine Chris Evert slugged it out with powerful Martina Navratilova. A lot of America went to court as a result. But that seems like ages ago.

Agassi-Sampras could bring the legions back. Already these two are being hailed as the most scintillating individual matchup in all of sports--the Ali-Frazier of their time, the Williams-DiMaggio--and the friendly titans have only begun to fight, really.

Sampras's share of the stardom surprises no one. The lanky powerhouse, who also is 24, has developed the most awesome running forehand in the game; his big serve is one of the best in history; and his temperament, as cool as spring water, is ideally suited to the pressures of grinding travel schedules, changing court surfaces and the incessant demands of big-time tennis. Among the four annual Grand Slam events (the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon), only the French has eluded Sampras in the past two years. His name already appears on many Best Ten Ever lists, in the company of legends like Laver, Borg and Budge.

Almost singlehandedly, Sampras has also relegated the former Great American Hope, ex-number-one Jim Courier, to hot baths in his hotel room. Last month Courier finally ended a sixteen-month title drought by winning the Australian Men's Hardcourt Championship in Adelaide. Three years ago, we must remember, he was the world's most dominant player, winner of five Grand Slam events and dozens of other tournaments in 1992 and 1993. But, friends say, the emergent Sampras got so far inside Courier's red head two years ago that, for all the looking past, he started having trouble making it beyond the quarterfinals at Keokuk.

Can Agassi now lay the same kind of mind game on Sampras? Unlikely. Two days after losing his number-one ranking last week, Sweet Pete got knocked out of the Conde de Godo ATP in Barcelona, Spain, by a 21-year-old German named Oliver Gross, who weighs in at number 84 in the world. But that was probably a fluke. When Agassi beat Sampras two weeks ago for the Lipton Championship in Key Biscayne (he leads Sampras 2-1 in matches this year), the loser had no second thought about riding out to the airport with his old pal Double A, getting aboard his private jet and flying up to New York with him.

After all, they were going to see one of the secret weapons behind the new Andre Agassi.

That would be the willowy Brooke Shields. The former movie actress and star of Grease has provided stability in Agassi's tumultuous life and lots of loving support from the box seats. Her man may still wear the Archie Moore pants out there, the earring and the black socks, but even his new Death Row haircut seems to speak of a new sense of purpose, a new seriousness about the game.

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