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On top of his game

Tennis star hits peak when many begin downswing

By the time he was 3, Andre Agassi was already playing tennis.  

(CNN) -- At an age when most tennis pros begin to consider retirement, Andre Agassi didn't let a career slump keep him from becoming one of the world's top players again.

Today, at 31, he's in better shape than ever.

"I am moving better. I am fitter and I am bringing experience, so that allows for a pretty airtight package," Agassi said.

Agassi's No. 1 ranking by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) is in sharp contrast to four years ago, when he had sunk into the worst losing streak of his career.

Then married to actress Brooke Shields, he was earning millions of dollars in endorsements, but ironically his tennis game was off. He had dropped to his lowest ranking ever at 141, according to the ATP.

"It's like I had to either play or stop," Agassi said.

A racket in his hand from an early age

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Andre Kirk Agassi was born April 29, 1970, in Las Vegas, Nevada, to Mike and Elizabeth Agassi. His father was a native of Iran and his mother American.

Mike Agassi was a Golden Gloves champ who boxed for Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. Settling in Las Vegas, he became a tennis pro at the Tropicana.

His passion for sports, especially tennis, was evident as he built a mini-training camp in his back yard for his three eldest children, Rita, Philip and Tami. Equipment included a full-size court, which Mike Agassi himself laid, and a tennis-serving machine rigged to fire balls faster than the usual speed.

But it was the youngest Agassi, Andre, who was a tennis prodigy. At age 2, the future pro was running around with a racket taped to his hand and sleeping with a tennis ball over his bed.

When he was 10, he was beating up-and-coming champs such as Pete Sampras and Michael Chang.  

"(My dad) was convinced if my eyes are going to move around as a little baby, I might as well be looking at a tennis ball," Andre Agassi said.

"He practiced every afternoon, all afternoon. He practiced every weekend, all weekend. He practiced every holiday that I can recall," said family friend and manager Perry Rogers. "It was just what they did."

By 10, young Agassi was winning against some of the same players he would face later in Grand Slam tournaments -- Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang.

Three years later, Mike Agassi needed help training his young prodigy. He turned to Nick Bollettieri, a famed coach who had started a tennis boarding school for youths in Bradenton, Florida.

"Mr. Agassi was very domineering. ... Tennis. Tennis. Tennis. Tennis," Bollettieri said. "He had the ball machines out in the back. They had the ball machines in every room."

Andre Agassi turned professional at 16 and, with Bollettieri's help, rose to No. 3 in the world two years later.

The young champ had a bad boy reputation, plenty of endorsements, but no Grand Slams.

"That was tough for Andre," Bollettieri said. "The billboards, the money and everything else that went along with it. You have to win, too."

Victory at Wimbledon

Agassi turned pro in 1986.  

In 1992, Agassi decided at the last minute to go to Wimbledon. He advanced to the finals against the odds.

"I didn't need that pressure to feel the pressure because I was already putting it on myself," Agassi said. "I wanted to win. I wanted to not just make it to the finals. I wanted to see what it felt like to win."

Then, in the last match against Goran Ivanisevic, who had already broken several records in the same tournament, Agassi prevailed.

The victory was unexpected, but Agassi felt a weight had been lifted, he said. Soon after Wimbledon, his relationship with Bollettieri, who had been something of a father figure, began to unravel.

Bollettieri said he felt Agassi was starting to squeeze him out of coaching. After 10 years together, Bollettieri resigned.

"We've had our ups and downs, but he helped my career a lot, and there just came a time when it needed to be different," Agassi said. "For what reasons, I am not sure. I don't even completely understand even today."

Bollettieri said he regrets the way he handled the split.

Nick Bollettieri, right, coached Agassi for nine years before their split in 1993.  

"I made one of the gravest misjudgments ... when I wrote that (resignation) letter," Bollettieri said. "You look back and say, 'How could I have done that?'"

Agassi then turned to fellow player Brad Gilbert to coach him. Soon after, he clinched the U.S. Open in 1994, the Australian Open in 1995 and the Olympic gold medal in 1996.

Life off the court began to accelerate when he met Shields in 1993. Mutual friend Lyndie Benson, wife of saxophone player Kenny G, suggested the two should meet. Agassi and Shields talked on the phone and faxed each other messages for six weeks before they met.

"They could completely relate to each other. They were both working on getting their careers where they wanted," Rogers said. Their experience as child stars also drew them closer, he added.

After a nearly four-year courtship, the two married April 19, 1997, in Carmel, California. Shields' career seemed to be on the upswing with the NBC sitcom "Suddenly Susan," but Agassi began to lose one match after another.

"It's probably clear to me before it's clear to anybody because I know what I am feeling even before I go out there and lose that match," Agassi said. "I was just losing every time I played. And I couldn't beat anybody anymore."

In November 1997, Agassi sank to the lowest point of his career, ranked at No. 141. The struggle with his game began to put a strain on his marriage.

Ten days short of his second wedding anniversary, Agassi filed for divorce. At age 27, when many players think about quitting, Agassi was determined to win again.

Gilbert, Agassi's coach and friend, talked with him about the possibilities of a comeback. "If you want to re-dedicate yourself," Gilbert told Agassi, "I'm there with you. But if you don't want to re-dedicate yourself, we're not doing each other any good."

On the comeback trail

Agassi won the U.S. Open in 1994.  

Soon after, Agassi began a strenuous training routine and healthy diet.

"It's a combination of a lot of weight training, a lot of cardio, sprinting, working on hills, combined with the tennis court," Agassi said.

Gilbert described the training. "He's running so hard. His body is aching so much. His legs are on fire. His lungs screaming as he is sprinting up the hill, and on his face, you see the look of pain, but you also see the look of purpose," he said.

In 1999, Agassi won the only Grand Slam title he had not yet claimed, the French Open. He became the first man since Rod Laver in the 1960s to win all four Grand Slam events.

But tragedy struck just as Agassi began to climb back into the spotlight of the tennis world. He learned that his mother and sister Tami both had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

"It was a pretty difficult time," Agassi said. "It was also pretty eye-opening in many ways, personally."

Two days after he publicly revealed the news, Agassi lost in the second round of the U.S. Open. He then decided to spend time with his family in Las Vegas and took off two months from tennis.

The tennis star was victorious at the Australian Open in 1995, but he couldn't hold on to his U.S. Open title that year.  

"There was nothing more important than his mom's health and his sister's health," Rogers said.

Agassi said his sister Tami and his mother are now feeling better.

The tennis star isn't only focused on his family or his game. He enjoys the company of Steffi Graf, the only other tennis player who has won all four Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal.

"She's an amazing woman," Agassi said of Graf.

They have been together since Graf retired in 1999 with an amazing 22 Grand Slam titles. The couple is expecting their first child in mid-December, 2001.

Off the court, Agassi spends time giving back to his hometown. His foundations gave nearly $1.5 million last year to help at-risk kids in Las Vegas, including Child Haven, a children's shelter; construction of a new charter school; and the Agassi Boys and Girls Club.

"I have never met anyone who is more honest and more forthright," Gilbert said. "He's got the kindest heart that I have ever met."

But now that the former bad boy of tennis has matured, how many more years can he continue to dominate the game?

"I don't know how long I can do it for, or how long I choose to do it for, but I want to do this for a number of years," Agassi said.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16