Last year at this time, Andre Agassi was in a completely different situation and a completely different state of mind.
Agassi headed into the Legg Mason Tennis Classic with no confidence after a disastrous first half of the year. Coming off wrist surgery at the end of 1993, Agassi had lost too many close matches and couldn't figure out a solution to his slump in '94. He ranked 20th, with one tournament victory and a 21-8 record that included three second-round losses going into Washington.
"Last year, I was struggling with confidence, and I was at an all-time low," Agassi said. "I wasn't feeling like I could win the close matches. I lost a lot of close matches. I lost a five-setter at the French [to Thomas Muster] and Wimbledon [to Todd Martin] and lost a three-setter to Pete [Sampras] at the Lipton Championships. I couldn't get over the hump."
Agassi proceeded to lose in the round of 16 to 74th-ranked Brett Steven in Washington. That would be his last low moment of the year.
Agassi drastically turned things around, becoming the first player to leap from outside the top 20 to No. 2 in one year. He rolled through the summer, winning four tournaments, including the U.S. Open, where he became the first unseeded champion since 1966. Agassi's record during the second half of the year was 30-5.
Since then, Agassi, 25, has overtaken Sampras as No. 1 in the world. He has won three titles this year, including the Australian Open, and he is heading into today's Legg Mason Tennis Classic with abundant confidence.
"I'm feeling as confident as ever," Agassi said. "I'm looking forward to [the Legg Mason tournament] since it is the surface [hard court] I grew up on. Every time a new surface comes up, you get excited about it. I'm excited about the summer."
Still, Agassi is coming off a tough loss in the Wimbledon semifinals less than two weeks ago. After going up a set and 4-1 against Boris Becker, Agassi appeared to be in control until Becker used a couple of breaks to gain momentum and the match, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6, over a stunned Agassi.
"Wimbledon was really unpredictable to happen, especially with my match record against Boris [8-3 before Wimbledon]," Agassi said. "It was just one of those days, and it was a good match. The bottom line was that I was just a short distance away . . . 6-2, 4-1. I liked my chances to go up two sets. I would have liked to get my shot against Pete on grass."
Despite the loss, Agassi's confidence seems to keep growing. A lot of it has to do with his coach, Brad Gilbert. The veteran player apparently has instilled desire back into Agassi since they joined forces in March 1994, after Agassi broke off with longtime coach Nick Bollettieri.
"[Gilbert] has had a big impact, and he has given me a lot of direction," Agassi said. "He has given me the opportunity to go out and do it. My direction was better in the past, but the desire might not have been there."
In the past, Agassi had been criticized for not being serious enough about tennis and perhaps wasting his talents. Now, Agassi has the world watching him fend off challengers to his perch atop the rankings.
These days, Agassi still faces criticism, albeit from a different perspective.
Becker recently said that Agassi received preferential treatment at Wimbledon by being scheduled to play on Centre Court five of his six matches. Becker, who played once on Centre Court before the semifinals, complained that Agassi's sneaker company of choice, Nike, influenced the Wimbledon schedule-makers as well.
"It cannot just be a coincidence that it is always Agassi at 2 p.m. on Centre Court," Becker said. "It would be interesting to see how he played if he was always Court 2 at noon. I think Nike had something to do with this. The company puts pressure on the tournaments, and money plays a big role."
Said Agassi: "I definitely got to play there [Centre Court] quite often, but I guess that would have to do with the schedule-makers," Agassi said. "I don't think that had anything to do with Nike, but he should take it up with Wimbledon. Wimbledon is the only event that TV doesn't influence the schedule."
Criticism aside, Agassi said that he is looking forward to his favorite season -- the hard-court tournaments -- and that tennis is close to, if not No. 1 in his life.
"I think [tennis] is a consuming thing, but there is no question in my mind that it doesn't mean you don't have a life," Agassi said. "As days go by, you think about how you can be better and things you have to do. It's that deep fire inside you that keeps pushing you to want to get there and practice and get to the tournaments early.
"When you are No. 1, you look down and see what others are doing to knock you off. You have to be a pioneer. I just try to maintain this level as long as I possibly can."
TOURNEY AT GLANCE
What: Legg Mason Tennis Classic
Where: William H. FitzGerald Tennis Center, 16th and Kennedy streets, NW
Who: Top-ranked Andre Agassi, defending champ Stefan Edberg, Wayne Ferreira, Todd Martin and MaliVai Washington are among those in the 56-player main draw.
When: Today through July 23
Tickets: Call (410) 481-SEAT.