When Andre was born in 1970, Mike was amazed at the size of the baby's eyes, and how attentive they were. It was this that first alerted Mike to the possibility that here at last, could be his champion. He noted that baby Andre had the ability to follow a ball with his eyes without turning his head and so, just a few days old, Andre's coaching began. The stories are endless about how Mike strung tennis balls above his son's crib, of balloons being fixed to his high chair. As Andre grew and developed, so too did his ability. Andre, still just a toddler, was soon hitting salt shakers so hard that he would break the windows in the house - the glazier was soon to become a frequent visitor to the Agassi household! Andre's most prized toy was his racket and he would take this to bed with him, cuddling it in his sleep. Incredibly, by the time Andre was two, he was able to serve overhead on the full size court in his yard.
His father coached him in a unique way and his methods were looked on by some as severe. But Andre thrived in the loving atmosphere of his home, wanting so much to please his father. Andre's famed double-fisted backhand developed out of need - he was too small to hold the racket in one hand! He learnt to work hard in a family of hard workers. Betty at this time was working for the State of Nevada Department of Employment, where she worked for 27 years and retired a couple of years ago.
Mike is now considered a kind of 'Doc Emmett' (Back to the Future) figure in tennis, described by some as a genius for his teaching methods, he was also an independent thinker, dismissing the tennis pro's usual methods. "It's easy to tell people to bend their knees and get the racket back, there are 12-15 (tips) that all the pros know. But there's nobody to teach you how to hit a ball 125 mph or with no pace." But that's exactly what Mike Agassi set out to do with Andre. And what he achieved.
Mike purchased ball making machines, tinkered with them to make them hold more balls, to deliver different shots and to fire them faster and harder than anyone had seen before. Andre would spend hour upon hour, alone in his yard, pitting himself against the machines until he was exhausted. The local kids would come and watch him as he took on more machines, faster and faster. The skill and timing necessary to beat the machines was developing his magnificent return of service game and unsurpassed hand/eye co-ordination.
But Mike wasn't just giving lessons to Andre, he gave free lessons to the local children as well, including Mary Rowan that I met in Las Vegas a few Christmases ago. She told me Mike always demanded nothing more than their total attention. He was instrumental in changing her game to a winning one, concentrating on one aspect of it until she got it right. Mary vividly remembers returning off the serving machine, "You wouldn't even stand in the return position (facing the net), you'd stand sideways with the racket back - because that puppy was humming!" She told me that Mike would love the kids round and would devote hours of his time to them. They all helped collect up the huge amounts of balls left on the courts after a session with the machines, using scoops and Mike's special 'blowers'.
Mike's thoughts on developing a champion were way before his time. His ideas were that you needed to start training at a young age, that the child and coach needed to love the game and the coaching needed to cover all aspects of the game including techniques. He explained how important it was to hit the ball on the rise, to be inside the baseline, hit early, hit the ball as hard as you can, fearlessly - to hit out and through the ball. Generate power by timing and 'breaking' or 'snapping' the wrist, using torque generated by the whole body to get maximum speed out of the ball. And, a strong credo of his - hit many, many balls until you get it right! Mike estimated once that Andre hit more than a million balls a year between the ages of 5 and 13.
Because of Mike's contacts as a Showroom Captain and his son's precocious talent, Andre was becoming something of a local phenomenon. When Connors came to town, Mike strung his rackets and asked the then world No. 1 to hit balls with his boy. Andre's memories of that time are clear, "I remember looking at him on the other side of the net and saying, 'some day, that's what I want to be.' It was that feeling of being able to affect people." The following year, Mike introduced Andre to Borg, when he came to town.
Andre, now aged eight was just as driven as his father and would often have to be persuaded to leave the court, begging to have just fifty more balls. His racket would be his constant companion. That and the five year old girl who lived next door - Wendy Stewart. The girl next door would go on to idolise Andre for years and from the first, they would spend hours together, Wendy throwing him balls to hit or the pair would sit watching TV, holding hands. They would ask to run the net together as ball boy and girl at tournaments.
Manny began entering his young 'Champion' in local junior tournaments. Even at this age, Andre was soon being described at these events as 'unbeatable' and was soon playing children one, two and three years older than himself - and beating them! Andre quickly grew out of these events and Mike looked further afield for tournaments Andre could play - most of them in California - hundreds of miles away.
The strain on the family to travel to these functions each week must have been dreadful. Most weekends, Betty would pack up the family and drive to the tournament site and get things organised, Mike following later once his shift was over. Their homely appearance at these usually classy 'Country Clubs', together with Mike's 'in-your-face attitude and his single-minded desire for Andre to win must have irked the members of the places they played. Mike became notorious for his outbursts when his frayed temper erupted at courtside. Mike was fiercely protective of Andre and his family and this attitude was often taken as threatening. It's said though, that although the family were close, the children were high-spirited and strong-minded, taking after dad with their tempers.
Andre's first significant success came in 1982, when he won the 14-and-under Indoor Doubles trophy with Roddy Parks. The next year, he would again win this event, this time his partner was Ty Tucker. Ty would later on be instrumental in encouraging Andre in what would become his trademark 'mane' hairstyle.
The young Andre attended the First Good Shepherd Junior School - and he hated it for most of the time. He preferred instead to spend his time swimming or skateboarding, enjoying the outdoors much more than the classroom. As he grew older, his curious lifestyle distanced him from his peers. By the age of twelve, Andre must have felt like a robot as he faced the ball machines, day after day - and he began to rebel. At first it was about school, then the monotony, then against his father's strict regime. He began to hang around with a group of boys much older than himself, venting his inner anger and frustration, drinking and making trouble. The gang would cruise the 'Strip' in flashy cars, eyeing the girls and drinking beer. "There's only two ways to go in Las Vegas when you're a teenager," explained Agassi years later. "Good or bad. There's no middle road." For a while, Andre was bad.
Although at first Andre enjoyed the challenges of the tournaments, they must have been a terrible strain on him. Mike would accept nothing less than a win - nothing else was acceptable. To begin with, that's what Andre did - perhaps benefiting from his older opponents, people he was not expected to beat. But soon, the wins stopped and Andre grew frustrated and bored.
Mike watched as his son turned from dedicated boy to delinquent before his eyes and seemed powerless to stop it, his dreams of a future tennis champion evaporating in the desert heat. He was desperate to find a solution that would enable his son to become the champion he dreamed of - and tame the rebel son he had become.
About this time, Andre was to meet someone who would become a life-long friend, Perry Rogers. However, they did not get off to a good start! Leaving the court in a fury after losing a match he should have won, Perry offered some words of consolation to Andre. Andre snarled a response, 'what did he know!'. However, Andre would later regret the snub and seek out Perry to apologise. The friendship blossomed from then on.
They became inseparable, going to the movies or out for a meal or exploring the desert around Las Vegas. Perry too, played tennis and the two would talk for hours about the dreams they had, about their future. It was just as well that the loner Agassi had found a true friend, for his life was about to be turned upside-down.
First came a change of school, from the gentle intimacy of the church school to the rough anonymity of Cashman High. All too soon, Andre began rebelling in the confines of the school regimen. About this time, Mike Agassi was to find a solution to his son's growing rebellion.
Watching a TV programme one day, he watched a programme about a revolutionary type of tennis camp, run by Nick Bollettieri over in Florida. A camp full of young tennis hopefuls that would provide his son with the challenges he needed and, perhaps even more importantly, it was a camp run with strict rules. Andre would later tell how his dad knew it was the right place for his son when he found out it was run like a boot camp and saw how the kids cried because of the tough regimen. Andre can laugh about it now but at the time it must have felt like a crushing blow to his free spirit.
Of course, by this time, Andre could see that Mike could no longer give him what he needed - he needed tough practice partners and discipline. And - it would be something different. Andre was torn. Although he dreaded the thought of leaving the security of his home and a loving family, yet he knew if he was ever to realise his father's dream of becoming a tennis champion, he would have to go.
Andre spent the last night of freedom with his friend, Perry. In one last expression of independence, he was given $100 spending money and provided with a limousine in which he could cruise his beloved Las Vegas and the Strip for the last time. The pair visited all their favourite haunts, sampling their favourite foods; chicken fingers in Tramps and drinking milk floats. They talked for hours. And then it was time to go - a journey of 2000 miles, on his own, in what he was soon to think of as a hostile environment.