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Agassi may finally have it: passion

For the moment at least, the tennis seemed to come first for him. On this day there was no ball hit too wide for him to reach, no point unworthy of his best effort. And as you watched Andre Agassi, once again, you found yourself thinking, "Maybe, just maybe, this is the day he grows up."

Always, you have to swallow hard to pull for Agassi. But always, if you like tennis, you try. Because Agassi, above any other male tennis player in the world, carries the best hope for the future of his sport.

Friday morning, as Agassi spanked Boris Becker in the semifinals of the French Open, there were signs. His skills never have been questioned, but his heart has seldom been located. Against Becker, however, Agassi's game finally seemed to match the brilliance of his outfits.

It hasn't always been that way. Too often, there has been more to endure than to embrace about Andre Agassi.

Oh, I want to like Agassi. I want to look at him and see the magnificent rebel that tennis has always had. I want to see another Ilie Nastase, another Jimmy Connors, another John McEnroe. Those were men who would take on the world _ heaven help the world _ even if they had to play with nothing more than a Ping-Pong paddle.

This isn't about being controversial. More than anything right now, tennis could use someone controversial to offset all those players from Personality Free Europe.

And it isn't about the trappings that Agassi-bashers usually embrace either. It isn't about his hair; Bjorn Borg had long hair. It isn't about his clothes; Payne Stewart wears funny clothes. It isn't about his commercials; Michael Jordan makes commercials.

What this is about is this: Passion.

When Connors yelled, when McEnroe pouted, there was a fire to it. More than commercials, more than glamor and, yes, more than etiquette, these men cared about the point being played. It was easy to admire how much they cared even when their actions were far from admirable.

Agassi? It seems that when he yells at the umpire, it's because his marketing research team has discovered that girls 15-18 will buy more T-shirts if he yells at the umpire a little more. Too often, you feel that he is driven by image _ his old byword _ more than by outrage.

Above all else, fans want to believe this about their sports heroes: that it matters. You want to believe that winning is the ultimate driving force, and that losing eats at them the way it would eat at you if you had their skills.

But check Agassi for passion, and so far he hasn't tested positive.

He has convinced people he has the tools for the game, but he hasn't convinced them that he has the love for it. Does he look at the No. 1 ranking and get hungry? Does it eat at him that he has not won a Grand Slam event?

Remember, this is a man who has tanked so many sets he should be checked for a scuba certification. He has faked every injury but diaper rash _ although that's the one injury no one would doubt. Since 1987, he hasn't played Wimbledon, the world's finest tournament, because he disagrees with its dress code.

This isn't to say that tennis doesn't matter to Agassi. It's just that on the list of things that matter, it doesn't seem to matter enough.

Last week, Connors left a match against Michael Chang with the score tied at two sets each, and the biggest upset was that Connors didn't stay out there until bones were poking through his skin. Because that's the passion with which Connors _ like him or not _ has played this game.

McEnroe had that fire. So did Borg, in his quiet way. And young players would do on-court impersonations of them.

And that is why tennis needs Agassi to honor his vow to grow up. Because if he will give tennis a little passion, the fans will too.

It has become a sport that has settled into second-level consciousness. America hasn't had a male tennis hero since wooden rackets were young.

More than anyone, Agassi can be that hero. If he can harness his flair the way he did Friday, if he can show his soul is affixed to the game, he will be the best reason to tune in tennis rather than the best reason to tune it out.

And if not ...

Well, Jim Courier certainly seems like a nice guy, doesn't he?

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