Eyewitness to History: Patriotism highlights Agassi gold medal

American tennis star Andre Agassi celebrates after receiving his gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Leander Paes of India (left) earned the bronze and Sergi Bruguera of Spain (center) took the silver medal. (Photo by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images)
Caption
American tennis star Andre Agassi celebrates after receiving his gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Leander Paes of India (left) earned the bronze and Sergi Bruguera of Spain (center) took the silver medal. (Photo by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images)

Credit: Gary M. Prior

Credit: Gary M. Prior

On the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution presents a series of retrospectives produced by the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute. The Eyewitness to History interviews offer the view of someone who was at a top moment on the Summer Games.

Andre Agassi was the top seed in men’s singles for the 1996 Summer Olympics. But after a loss to Pete Sampras in the 1995 U.S. Open final, Agassi had been struggling in the leadup to the Games.

Even in the early Olympic matches, he looked vulnerable, winning one match after two close tiebreakers and another after being down a set and a break. But he reasserted his dominance in the gold-medal match, winning in straight sets, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1, against Sergi Bruguera of Spain. He became the first American to win the men’s singles since 1924.

After the match, Agassi’s father Mike, who competed in two Olympics as a boxer for Iran, surprised Agassi by flying in for the final and coming down from the stands to give his son a hug.

Gary Hill, a former commercial real estate developer, was serving on the Georgia Tennis Foundation board of directors. When the 1996 Olympics organizers began preparations, they reached out to him for help in running the Stone Mountain facility post Olympics. Hill took on the responsibility.

He said seeing two Americans, Agassi and Lindsay Davenport, win the 1996 Olympic singles titles made his hard work worth it.

“I was actually on the end (of the stadium for the men’s final), so your head’s not going back and forth all the time. That’s where I was. I was in the back corner. I had a view that I liked.

“It was nationalism and patriotism at its best. It was an international Olympic match in the United States in the South and a hotbed of a tennis area with an American in the finals. And so, it was a lot of flag-waving, a lot of patriotism. … I think it (the patriotism) did change the atmosphere, but not the attendance because your tickets are bought ahead of time. Anybody who had tickets for the finals was going to come, but the amount of enthusiasm and American flags being waved and the amount of cheering for Agassi in that match was heightened because it was an American in the finals of the Olympics in the U.S.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anybody return serve better than Andre Agassi. He was a great counter-puncher. And he had a two-handed backhand, and even on wide serves out to his backhand, his return of serve was second to none. He’'s the best.

“I went to some of the practice sessions for the Olympics. When Agassi was practicing and having a side practice court, other pros would gather around that practice court to watch Agassi practice. That just didn’t happen. A lot of it had to do with his return of serve. I think the return of the serve had a lot to do with it (Agassi winning). And, they are being lifted up by the crowd. I mean, he was just, you know, the will for him to win.

“I went down to the tunnel (after the final) and, of course, he had to do the interviews and all that, afterward and it was a whole lot of cheering. But I came down to the tunnel where he goes into his dressing room. And a good friend of mine was in that tunnel, guy named Tom Gorman who actually lived in Atlanta post-playing career. He’s in his mid-70s now and was a former top-10 player in the world and the winningest Davis Cup captain for the U.S. ever (a record Gorman shares with Patrick McEnroe). And he was in the tunnel and stopped Agassi -because Agassi had played for him, (when he was) Davis Cup captain - to hug him and congratulate him. And I’m standing right there with him when all that was going on, and Agassi told Tom that that was as important to him as any championship that he had ever won, to win the gold medal in the Olympics in the U.S.

“Agassi won all four grand slams, which is a rarefied air to be in, because it’s very difficult for some of the top players to win both on clay and on grass - Australian Open, U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and the French, and the gold medal. Well, that’s the cherry on top in terms of his legacy, his place in history. So, his legacy is secured as one of the all-time greats for sure.”

Anna Marian Block completed this interview as a student at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.

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