agassi-grafIn tennis, love means zero, nothing. It’s a number players aim to surpass as soon as setting foot on court. But two champions, the best known of them all, embraced the word and created a match tennis didn’t bargain for.

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This may be old news. But in the book of the greatest love story in tennis land, it stands alone.

In 1999, Steffi Graf won the French Open, after not having won a Grand Slam title for almost two years, in one of the most emotional and controversial finals in tennis history. Martina Hingis, then 18, who ended Graf’s 377 weeks at no. 1 (a record unsurpassed by any other player, man or woman), dismissed the older woman as way past her prime. With Graf battling injury after injury, coming into the finals unprepared and unexpectant, it looked as if Hingis was going to prove her point. She was three points away from the title (the only Slam she hasn’t won), when, in a dramatic turn of events, she suddenly threw a tantrum after having failed to challenge a shot that was called out. The rest is history. Never before has a stadium filled with 16,000 people turned their backs on a contender (that was an understatement, they mercilessly booed Hingis till the very end) and fully supported another. The sea of people waved and cried Steffi! Steffi! throughout, and they got exactly what they wanted. Their chosen one was crowned champion, her sixth and last French Open title. She was 29.

That year also marked Andre Agassi’s return to the ranks after dropping out of the top 100. He also recently got divorced from then wife, Hollywood actress Brooke Shields. When he defeated Andrei Medvedev that Sunday afternoon, he became only the fifth man to capture a Career Grand Slam (winning all four Grand Slam titles, in a span of several years). Even his contemporary and greatest rival, Pete Sampras, did not manage to win the French, which many considered to be the least exciting of the majors. He was 28.  

 

Who would’ve thought then, in the midst of all the excitement, that in the resurgence of a sickly looking tennis brought about by these two remarkable legends, a match more beautiful than the ones they’ve pulled off separately is in the works? When the romance finally came out, the world was astounded. It was almost unimaginable. But then it became clear, in the most dramatic and exciting year of their respective careers, what could be more fitting than for their lives to merge completely? They are two very different people, but uncannily the same. They both grew up in the public eye; their fathers are both tennis, soccer, and boxing fans; they dominated, struggled, and both came back grandly; they both have a foundation for children; they both love U2; and reportedly even have the same favorite movie of all time, Shadowlands!

Today, Andre Agassi is a well-loved superstar, not only for his talent, but for his charisma, sportsmanship, and good deeds. But it wasn’t always like that. Sure, from the start, he was popular. Maybe the most popular ever. He was the wild child, the rebel. He challenged the rules, boycotted Wimbledon (which he would later acknowledge as the most important tournament) for all its traditions, shouted at umpires, and wore loud, outrageous outfits to match his long, unkempt hair. But he was the entertainer. The showman. He opened himself for everyone to see. It didn’t hurt that he was a heartthrob as well. He played all that to his advantage, even headlining a campaign that purports “Image Is Everything,” leading many to believe he was more about style than substance.

Steffi Graf is arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, winning 22 Grand Slam titles in a stellar career that is unlikely to be duplicated by anyone from the current WTA ranks. In 1988, she won what is to be called the Golden Slam, by winning all four Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal, all in one calendar year. But she was known as the cold one, the ice queen. She demolished opponents with the ferocity and precision of a machine that is programmed to win. She didn’t care much for the spotlight; she guarded her privacy almost obsessively. She hardly ever smiled, and although known to be a consummate professional and a respectable person, she didn’t make it a point to socialize and gain friends within the tennis circle. She was there to win. And she won all there is to be won. Amidst injuries and tons of personal problems.

  Years later, Andre would reveal that he had admired Steffi the first time he saw her. He tried once, in 1992 (when they both won Wimbledon), to get near her, but to no avail (as told by Andre to Gary Smith, author of the current Sports Illustrated article “Coming Into Focus,” an interesting look into Agassi’s life and career). She had a boyfriend then. The one she would be with for the next seven years. Andre then married Brooke. But it didn’t work out. It was said, he left her. His tennis suffered. His ranking dropped big time – no. 141! He hit rock bottom. But then he began to restructure his life, started his way back to the top (became world no. 1 in two years time), and rekindled an old fantasy. In his own words, he “stalked her big time.” He managed to track her practice sessions, scheduled his right after hers, hit with her, gave her cards, flowers, pursued her until she gave in. He had always admired her from afar, but this time, when they finally got the chance to get together and engage in serious conversations, he was taken by what appears to be “the pillars of her life.”  She had just broken off with her long-time boyfriend then. One she acknowledged, but never really talked about. She said that although it took longer for her to realize its potential because she is the reserved one, it suddenly became clear that what Andre and she have is something special and unique. He came at the right time. He showed her the path to her next role in life. Since then, she never looked back. To the world, it was a revelation. It would be one of the most celebrated affairs in sports history. They became paparazzi targets, tabloid fodder; people followed their every move. He was starting to be known as a man of substance now, of more considerable talent than he was ever known for, a far cry from his former self. When Steffi announced her retirement in 1999, she was all set to enjoy the life she never got to have with tennis. She wanted to travel the world, capture pictures, continue her work as WWF ambassador, and pursue other goals. But Andre changed all that. By the time she turned her back to competing, she re-entered the world of tennis in the most unexpected fashion. She became an avid tennis fan. You’ll always see her in the stands, watching Agassi play. She will always be the introverted one, but she surprised everyone by allowing herself to be seen publicly with Andre. Public display of affection from one Steffi Graf was not something the world expected to see. But she was his loyal one. His no.1 fan. She sat on the stands during Andre’s matches, sometimes hiding on the cheaper seats to avoid attention. But the cameras will always get her. They know she won’t be missing.

Years later, when Agassi announced his retirement, we look at the great Steffi Graf and understand why. He had given everything to tennis. As had she. Nobody understands each more than the other; no one is better suited for each other. Who would have thought that the brash American kid would end up with the shy German lass? Who could have imagined that years later, when his wife was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (an accolade he himself will receive in five years), he will tug at the hearts of everyone who was there to hear how his wife “brought light into his life?” As he presented the “greatest person he had ever known,” he told her that although she spent many years of her life competing, “right here where we stand, in the ears of your children, and right now in my heart, you have no rival.” So what says his wife? Well, for her, “He’s just perfect.”  She said, in her acceptance speech, that “Tennis has allowed me to get to this incredible journey,” then turning to her husband, “but the best part about this journey, is it has led me to you.”

Maybe, in the future, we’ll see them in the sidelines, proud parents to possibly the most genetically gifted tennis players on the tour. 

 It’s a long shot, but tempting to dream about. Tennis brought them together. It was their life. History books will record all their achievements. We can look up how many unforced errors they have committed or aces they had dished, but in all of their hits and misses, finding each other is the biggest winner of them all.

        

 LINKS:

 Transcript of Andre’s speech at Steffi’s Hall of Fame induction: http://www.budcollinstennis.com/touraments/tourney-graf-hof-04.html

 – To watch the video of the speech, go to http://www.intenn.com/, go to Free Issue, Special Tennis Features, then click “Not a Dry Eye in the Crowd”

An interview with Andre about family life: http://www.mlifestyle.com/pages/issue_3v2/cover.asp

2004 Vogue magazine article “Meeting your Match” http://no1steffi.googlepages.com/truelove.htm

German magazine “Freundin” 2006 interview with Andre and Stefanie (translated version):

 http://groups.google.com.ph/group/alt.fan.steffi-graf/browse_thread/thread/f2ec4bc4d3801855/514b07411b74f386#514b07411b74f386

How to be Good by Gary Smith (reprint of the Coming into Focus article)

Part 1: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,,1892180,00.html

Part 2: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,,1892198,00.html

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