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On This Day, 1997: A 141st-ranked Andre Agassi takes "step in the right direction" at Las Vegas Challenger
Though he lost the final to world No. 202 Christian Vinck, that week marked the first time in '97 the American had played five matches at a single event.
Published Nov 16, 2022
Once a tennis player becomes a pro, he or she rarely—if ever—has the chance to compete in front of a hometown crowd. Andre Agassi had two such moments. True to Agassi’s roller coaster-like career, they represented extremes of the tennis journey.
In September 1995, Agassi helped lead the US Davis Cup squad to a semifinal victory over Sweden. It was played in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace. In front of a national TV audience and 12,400 partisan fans that included his girlfriend, Brooke Shields, Agassi beat seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander in straight sets. Agassi was then the world No. 1.
Two years later, Agassi returned to play another event in Las Vegas. But the setting was much different. Over the course of 1996 and ’97, Agassi’s ranking had plummeted. Deeply demoralized by his loss to Pete Sampras in the ’95 US Open final, Agassi felt increasingly unmotivated.
In ’97, Agassi skipped the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He married Shields that April. At the US Open, Agassi turned in what for him was a modest effort, winning three matches before losing in the round of 16 to eventual champion, Patrick Rafter.
One month after the US Open, Agassi lost in the first round of a tournament in Stuttgart. By then his ranking had slipped to 102. Immediately following that defeat, Agassi met with his coach, Brad Gilbert. Gilbert continued to believe Agassi could win plenty of tennis matches—that is, so long as he doubled-down on his training regimen. As Agassi wrote about that moment in his autobiography, Open, “I hate tennis more than ever—but I hate myself more . . . Maybe doing what you hate, doing it well and cheerfully, is the point. So you hate tennis. Hate it all you want. You still need to respect it—and yourself.”
Soon after Stuttgart, Agassi received a phone call informing him that he’d failed a drug test. How Agassi resolved that was a matter he’d explain in depth years later.
And so, as a tumultuous year neared its end, Agassi had chosen to rededicate himself to the tennis. With his longstanding trainer and close friend, Gil Reyes, Agassi began to train rigorously. By early November, now ranked No. 141, Agassi entered an ATP Challenger event in Las Vegas. The venue was familiar: the campus of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “As Gil and I pull into the parking lot,” wrote Agassi, “I think of how far I’ve come, and how far I haven’t. These are the same courts I played on when I was seven.”
It was a far cry from the ATP Tour. From the eclectic and delicious buffets of the Slams to airline-like food. Minimal ballpersons. Three balls per match. Turn your own scorecards. Small crowds. All this for a potential first prize reward of $7,200.
Agassi won four matches to reach the final. Two of them had taken three sets, including a semifinal victory over 77th-ranked Grant Stafford—the only opponent Agassi faced all week ranked inside the Top 100.
In the final, Agassi took on Christian Vinck. In 2001, Vinck would attain a career-high ranking of 101 in the world. On this day, the German left-hander was ranked No. 202.
Aided by serving five aces, Vinck easily won the first set, 6-2. In the second, Agassi went ahead 4-1. But as Vinck said after the match, “I think he's not in top shape like when he was No. 1 . . . He made a lot of easy mistakes he wouldn't have made two years ago.” Capitalizing on that, Vinck won six of the next seven games.
“I thought I had time to work into the match,” Agassi said following the 6-2, 7-5 loss, “but he played more aggressive than I anticipated, and I forced myself behind the eight ball.”
The week in Las Vegas had been the first time all year Agassi had played five matches at a single tournament. “It's a step in the right direction, to say the least,” he said. “That's how I gotta look at it. It's frustrating and discouraging (to lose the championship), but it's something I have to shake off.”
A week later, Agassi won a Challenger event in Burbank, California. By early ’98, he’d made his way back inside the Top 100. And by the end of ’99, Agassi was once again No. 1 in the world.