A year earlier, Andre Agassi had been ranked No. 1 in the world. But now, in the summer of 1996, he was slumping badly, having failed to reach a quarterfinal since March. At Wimbledon, Agassi lost in the first round to a qualifier, 281st-ranked Doug Flach.
“He plays as if he’s Rod Laver and I play like Ralph Nader,” Agassi wrote in his autobiography, Open.
As July neared its end, though, one distinct tennis event highly motivated the 26-year-old Agassi: the upcoming Summer Olympics, to be played that summer in Atlanta. Agassi’s father, Mike, had represented Iran in the 1948 and ’52 Olympics as a boxer. In addition to that paternal connection, the idea of competing for something other than himself usually brought out the best in Agassi. He’d long proven himself a Davis Cup stalwart, playing a central role on three championship teams—’90, ’92, ’95. Now, Agassi would once again play under the stars and stripes; in this case, showcasing his skills and patriotism alongside athletes from all other sports.
In the hard-driven way that often marked his career, Agassi embarked on an intensive training routine under the eyes of his longstanding fitness trainer, Gil Reyes, and coach, Brad Gilbert. He ran up hills, worked out in the gym, hit tennis balls galore. By the time Agassi arrived in Atlanta, he’d regained his focus.
In the third round, down a set and a break to future ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, Agassi fought back to earn what he later called “an ugly, satisfying win.”
Now in the quarterfinals, on this day, July 30, Agassi faced his toughest test of the entire tournament. Wayne Ferreira, ranked 11th in the world, was fit, formidable and the owner of a forehand fully capable of going toe-to-toe with Agassi. Just the previous week, this man from South Africa had reached the final in Washington, DC. Still, in five previous matches versus Agassi, Ferreira had yet to win a set.
This time was different. Agassi squeaked out the first set 7-5. Ferreira won the second 6-4, compelling Agassi to issue what the New York Times described as “a stream of immoral language.” Ferreira went up 2-0 and served for the match at 5-4. On this day, Ferreira would serve 22 aces. Said Agassi, “There was nothing that went through my mind except to make him beat me, make sure I get the serve back, and make him work for it.” Agassi did just that, going on to take the match, 7-5, in the third. Said Ferreira, “Andre lifted his level a little bit and played pretty well in the last few games.”
Having rallied from the brink, Agassi continued to play inspired tennis. In the semis, he beat a surprising semifinalist, Leander Paes, 7-6 (5), 6-3. In the final, versus two-time Roland Garros champion Sergei Bruguera, Agassi was relentless, taking the gold medal match, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.
“A man drapes the gold medal around my neck,” Agassi wrote. “The national anthem starts. I feel my heart swell, and it has nothing to do with tennis, or me, and thus it exceeds all my expectations.”
Who will remain in this year's 21 & Under Club, and which new players will join them?
Find out all week on TENNIS.com and Baseline.
Monday, July 27: Sofia Kenin | Monday, July 27: Elena Rybakina | Monday, July 27: Alex de Minaur, Dayana Yastremska, Casper Ruud | Tuesday, July 28: Stefanos Tsitsipas | Tuesday, July 28: Thiago Seyboth Wild | Wednesday, July 29: Amanda Anisimova | Wednesday, July 29: Brandon Nakashima | Thursday, July 30: Coco Gauff | Thursday, July 30: Caty McNally | Thursday, July 30: Jannik Sinner, Iga Swiatek