Zestful teen Andre Agassi zooms into the tennis stratosphere

The top-ranked American man in tennis is: (a) John McEnroe, who ended an 0-for-Argentina streak with his Davis Cup victory less than two weeks ago.

(b) Jimmy Connors, who won his first tournament championship (and 106th of his career) since 1984 on July 25th in Washington, D.C.

(c) Bill Cosby, who has had plenty of time to fine-tune his game since the television writers' strike began.

(d) Andre Agassi, the soft-spoken, hard-hitting 18-year-old son of an Iranian immigrant and brother-in-law of tennis legend Pancho Gonzales.

Answer, of course: d.

For anyone living in a closet or doing rocket research for the past six months, Agassi is the teen sensation of international tennis. He leads all players with five Grand Prix victories - the latest coming here last weekend in the Volvo International - and has won more than $515,000 in 1988. He also won two Davis Cup matches last month in Buenos Aires.

Agassi's most recent triumph lifted him past two-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker of West Germany and up to the No. 4 spot in the latest world rankings, trailing only Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, and Mats Wilander. And by all accounts, he's going to get a lot better.

``He's only 18 and he's got plenty of time to do well,'' said Paul Annacone, who lost to him in the finals here. Adds Davis Cup teammate Jay Berger, a quarterfinals victim, ``He has a monster forehand; he just hits so big.''

Agassi's shaggy, two-tone haircut conceals a high-energy kid who regularly reads the Bible and wants to be a role model for other youngsters. He gets the celebrity treatment from the bubblegum set, but quickly wins adults, too, because of his enthusiastic play and his gentlemanly demeanor on court, where he lets his bazooka forehand and rapidly improving all-round game do his talking.

In short, he's 180 degrees away from the argumentativess and surliness which characterize some of America's other recent top players.

Despite his success, however, Agassi won't be part of the United States Olympic team in Seoul. The team was picked January when he was back in the rankings pack, and although Chris Evert was named to the women's team last week, US Tennis Association (USTA) officials have refused to follow a similar course with the men.

Agassi graciously shrugs off the snub, saying he has built his schedule away from the Olympics. He's more disappointed that people aren't making more out of the Davis Cup preliminary round victories. ``If we had lost, phones would have been going off the hook,'' he said.

He said when he was introduced here as ``America's No. 1 player,'' it was the first time he'd heard it that way and it was ``strange.'' He added, ``It's good, though. I like it. I've wanted this, you know, and I have more to do.''

When Andre was a toddler, his father had him hitting balloons with a table tennis paddle. Dad worked at a Las Vegas hotel, and strung tennis rackets on the side. At 4, Agassi was slapping the ball back and forth with Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg when they came to play in tournaments.

Tennis remains the first love of his still-young life. He has a girlfriend, but no hobbies, and he doesn't follow other sports very much. When he's home - as he is this week, resting before starting his tuneups for the US Open at the end of the month - he likes to eat out or simply stay home and watch television.

He drives a Corvette and concedes with a wide grin that car-buying could become ``my downfall'' now that he's starting to make big money.

On the tour, Agassi - who turned pro just as he turned 16 two years ago - travels with his brother Phil, 25, who played briefly on the satellite circuit. This year, they have been joined more frequently by Agassi's top coach, Nick Bollettieri, whose tennis academy in Florida also produced teen phenoms Jimmy Arias and Aaron Krickstein (Gonzales, despite his legendary status, has no role in Agassi's tennis development).

Arias and Krickstein rocketed into the top 10 a couple of years ago but have fallen off since then, partly due to injuries, although Krickstein remains a top-25 player. ``We're all individuals,'' Agassi says when asked if this concerns him. ``It's too bad they had problems, but that doesn't mean it will happen to me; I hope I'll learn from them.''

In the past year, Agassi has widened his tennis game beyond simply a bazooka forehand and eye-popping court speed. He has gained confidence in his serve, learned how to change pace in a match, and matured dramatically.

Andre arrived in Stratton after traveling more than 18 hours from Buenos Aires. While he tried to get his legs under him and shake jet lag, he also had to adjust from clay courts to DecoTurf II (the US Open surface), from 45-degree cold to 88-degree heat and humidity, from soft, spongy tennis balls to harder balls, and from sea level to 1,900-foot elevation, where the ball tends to carry farther.

He was in control but sluggish early, then overpowering in the last three matches. Annacone grinned and shook his head as he noted the kid in the innovative denim shorts returned shots ``like they were fed to him from a ball machine.''

Agassi's mental discipline is as much a key to his recent success. Instead of simply firing rockets at his opponent, he learned earlier this year while playing on clay in Europe to take his time and ``work'' his opponent, i.e., get him running back and forth, side to side.

At the Italian Open, as he prepped for the French Open (where he was a semifinalist) the idea of patience sank in while he was playing Martin Jaite of Argentina.

``I was playing so well. I was taking forehands off the rise, making (good shots), but he was running them down and he beat me easily. It was frustrating,'' he explained. ``I was thinking `How can you win on this stuff because you can't hit winners?' And I slowly came to realize `Why don't you work the person? You don't have to get off the court within an hour. Stay out there.'''

Agassi has adopted the same patient attitude in his approach to the game. He took off most of June, skipping Wimbledon because he's not yet confident playing on grass. And he doesn't rise and fall with his rankings, he said, because he's playing for the enjoyment and for improvement, not solely money or rankings.

``What people don't realize is I don't think it's a question of whether I win or lose. They say if my ranking falls I'll do this or that, but I'm not focused around that. I'm focused around improving.''

From the 400s two years ago to No. 90 at this point in 1987, and now inside the top five: Now, that's improvement.

Or, as Agassi said, ``I'm 18, I got to the semis in the French and I got [No.] 4 in the world. How much more can I ask for right now?''

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