Is there a tennis player from the 1980s and ’90s who could hold a nation’s attention for 10 hours, the way Michael Jordan just did in The Last Dance? With all due respect to Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf and all of the other greats of that era, the figure who comes to my mind first is Andre Agassi.
The early hype, the flashy game, the catchy ad campaign, the bumpy road to the top, the eventual, joyful breakthrough: Like Michael, Andre experienced them all. While he didn’t become the dominant player of his era—that honor would go to Sampras and Graf—Agassi was the most-colorful and obsessively discussed player of that period.
For anyone looking to do a multi-part documentary on Agassi, the material is all there in his autobiography, Open, which was released in 2009 and is among the best-selling tennis books and athlete memoirs of all time. Even more so than The Last Dance, Open revealed a star player in all of his flawed glory. Agassi talked about hating tennis, taking meth, drinking before big matches and, most comically, losing a Grand Slam final because he was worried that his hairpiece would fall off in front of the world.
It has been 30 years since that final, which Agassi lost in stunning fashion at the French Open to Andres Gomez, a veteran who had never been that far at a major before, and never would be again. Since this is Roland Garros week, and since many of us might not have been ready to stop reliving the 1990s when The Last Dance ended, we’ll make Gomez’s 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Agassi our Rewatch of the week. Let’s roll the videotape.
Before Open, Agassi’s 1990 Roland Garros campaign was best known for its primary color: Pink. “Agassi in the Pink” was a common headline during that fortnight, referring, of course, to the compression pants that the 20-year-old was wearing under his shorts. Jordan helped end the short-short era in the NBA, and Agassi helped do the same for men’s tennis. Thirty years later, I wouldn’t say Agassi’s outfit looks sublime, exactly, but it doesn’t seem as ridiculous as it once did. According to Andre, his shorts weren’t even pink.
“I tell reporters: It’s not pink, it’s technically Hot Lava,” Agassi remembered. “I’m astonished by how much they care. I’m astonished by how much I care that they get it right.”
Despite the look-at-me clothes, though, Agassi was all business that year in Paris. The food, the sites, the art, the romance of the city? He and his brother Phil and his new trainer Gil Reyes spurned them all. Instead, they “lock ourselves in my hotel room, turn up the air conditioning, and send out for McDonald’s and Burger King.” When his coach, Nick Bollettieri, makes some noise about visiting “the frickin’ Louvre,” Agassi says, “I don’t want to see anything or anyone. I just want to win this f—-ing thing and go home.”
By the middle of the first week, it’s hard to see how Agassi won’t accomplish that goal. Three-time champion Ivan Lendl has skipped Paris to prepare for Wimbledon, and the top two seeds, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, have both lost in the first round. That leaves No. 3 Agassi as the highest seed in the draw. In the fourth round, he beats Jim Courier, and in the quarters he grinds down Michael Chang.
“I play with a chip on my shoulder, because I still can’t believe he has won a Slam before me,” the newly fit Agassi says of Chang. “I envy his work ethic, admire his court discipline—but I just don’t like the guy.”
With his win over Jonas Svensson in the semis, Agassi reaches his first major final. But no one thinks he’ll stop there.
“I’m facing Gomez, from Ecuador, whom I just beat weeks ago [in Key Biscayne],” Agassi says. “He’s 30, on the verge of retiring—in fact, I thought he was retired.”
Then, as Agassi says, “catastrophe strikes.”
Catastrophe, in this case, strikes in the shower. That’s where, the night before the final, Agassi feels his hairpiece “suddenly disintegrate in my hands…the weave is coming undone, the thing is falling apart.”
The next day, Agassi’s brother goes on a wild goose chase across Paris in search of bobby pins. After finally finding some, they use 20 of them to tie his hairpiece in place. According to Agassi, though, he spends the match worrying that it’s going to fall off and “land on the clay, like a hawk my father shot from the sky.” He pictures millions of incredulous fans leaning closer to their TVs and asking, “Did Andre Agassi’s hair just fall off?”
If Agassi’s wig was his worst enemy that day, Gomez also made for a formidable opponent. At the time, this was considered one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, because (a) everyone assumed Agassi was going to be the next great men’s champion, and (b) in those days, 30-year-old first-time Slam champs were pretty much unheard of. In reality, though, the result shouldn’t have been a huge surprise.
Gomez was the No. 4 seed, one spot behind Agassi. That spring he had won clay-court titles in Barcelona and Madrid. And in the semis in Paris he had dispatched an even better clay-courter, Thomas Muster. With Lendl absent and Edberg and Becker gone after Day 2, Gomez knew this was his chance, and he was determined to take it. As for Agassi’s wig issues, Gomez was quick to dismiss them as an excuse.
“Hey, I had my own problems,” Gomez told journalist Charlie Bricker in 2010. “I was 30 and playing a 20-year-old guy who was talking all tournament about how he was going to take on everybody.”
But Gomez had a game plan—keep the points short—and he stuck to it. In these highlights, we can see him trying to break up Agassi’s rhythm with high-bouncing topspin forehands and biting slice backhands; I’d forgotten what a sweet slice stroke Gomez had. He was also a more natural clay-courter than Agassi, and more adept at sliding into the ball.
By the third set, Gomez had abandoned the baseline and begun to rush the net. With perfectly placed drop volleys and stretch volleys, he made that fast-court tactic work on slow red clay. To Agassi’s dismay, Gomez’s serve only grew stronger as the match progressed.
As for the American, his strategy, to keep Gomez out there for hours and wear him down, never stood a chance.
“My game plan was fatally flawed from the start,” Agassi remembered. “Pathetic, really. It couldn’t work, no matter how long the match, because you can’t win the final of a Slam by playing not to lose, or waiting for your opponent to lose.”
It’s a lesson Agassi would eventually put to use in his eight Grand Slam victories. But it was a painful one to learn, and it will be two more years before he finally breaks through at a major. Afterward, he watches Gomez exult.
“He weeps. He waves to the cameras. He knows he’ll be hero in his native Ecuador,” Agassi says. “I wonder what it’s like in Ecuador. Maybe I’ll move there.”
Then he imagines the headlines: “Image is Everything, Agassi is Nothing.” “Mr. Hot Lava is a Hot Mess.”
Jordan’s last dance was a triumph, and Agassi’s would be as well, when he finally retired, clean-shaven and hair-piece free, 16 years later. But Andre’s story wouldn’t be as sweet, or as entertaining, if he hadn’t flipped his wig in his first one.