(Reuters) - Heading into his maiden Grand Slam final on the red clay of Roland Garros in 1990, Andre Agassi said a prayer.
One of the game’s greatest entertainers, Agassi had sought divine intervention not for major success that had eluded him since he exploded onto the scene in the 1980s but for his unkempt, shoulder-length mane to remain undisturbed.
The Las Vegas showman with a big forehand was harbouring a bigger secret — the wig that he had been wearing for years to hide his thinning hairline had come apart a day earlier and had been hastily repaired with several pins.
“My wig was like a chain and the ridiculously long strands in three colours like an iron ball which hung on it,” Agassi, who turns 50 on Wednesday, wrote in his autobiography “Open”, originally published in 2009.
“With each leap I imagine it falling into the sand... I imagine millions of spectators move closer to their TV sets, their eyes widening and, in dozens of dialects and languages, ask how Andre Agassi’s hair has fallen from his head.”
Agassi’s anxiety threw him off his game and handed Ecuador’s Andres Gomez his only major title, while the American would end the year trailing younger rival Pete Sampras, who had opened his Grand Slam account at the 1990 U.S. Open.
But the player who drew a new generation of fans to tennis with his rebellious nature and flashy style was just getting started, capturing his first major at Wimbledon in 1992 after shunning the event from 1988-1990 due to its all-white dress code.
He went on to lift the U.S. Open title in 1994 and, after shaving his head on the advice of his then actress girlfriend Brooke Shields, the Australian Open crown in 1995 before adding an Olympic gold at Atlanta 1996.
Agassi’s marriage to Shields in 1997 and his loss of form due to wrist injuries meant he played only a handful of matches that year, as his ranking dropped to a dismal 141.
It was a period, as he candidly wrote in his autobiography, during which he used the recreational drug crystal meth and lied to the governing body of men’s tennis to escape a ban. No action was taken by the ATP at the time.
Following a spell on the second-tier Challenger circuit to rediscover his form, a more mature Agassi climbed back up the rankings and in 1999 — having gone through a divorce — sealed a career Grand Slam by winning the French Open.
Life had come full circle and the success moved Agassi into the elite club comprising Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as only the fifth man to win all four majors.
Success eluded the American when he lost to great rival Sampras in the 1999 Wimbledon final but he ended the year ranked number one after beating compatriot Todd Martin to win the U.S. Open.
Playing his best tennis, Agassi captured the Australian Open three times between 2000 and 2003 to take his career Grand Slam tally to eight, overtaking John McEnroe and Mats Wilander.
Agassi’s rise coincided with his blossoming romance with Germany’s former women’s number one Steffi Graf, who he married in 2001 and has two children with.
At 33 Agassi became the oldest man to hold the sport’s top ranking, a record that has since been broken by Roger Federer, and won his 60th ATP crown in 2005 in Los Angeles.
A chronic back injury meant his flamboyant career would end a year later at the U.S. Open.
Agassi briefly coached Serbia’s Novak Djokovic from 2017 to early 2018 but he now spends much of his time involved in educational initiatives and his charitable foundation in Nevada.
Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar