By Tom Gliatto
Updated April 26, 1999 12:00 PM

It became a familiar sight during the years when Brooke Shields and Andre Agassi were at their happiest: The radiant model turned actress sat glued to her seat in the stands, supportively I screaming her encouraging words as the tennis ace delivered his laserlike winners on the court below her. But Shields’s thoughts weren’t always on the match. “I spent a lot of time with her at tournaments sitting next to her talking about children,” says actress Melissa Errico, the wife of commentator and tennis player Patrick McEnroe. “I remember her saying what an amazing father Andre was going to be—that more than anything he was going to be unbelievable with children. Instead of seeing the hero tennis star that the whole world is cheering, she was saying, ‘He’s going to be a great father.’ ”

That may be, but Shields won’t find out firsthand. On Fri., April 9,10 days short of their second wedding anniversary, Agassi filed for divorce in Las Vegas, where they have a home. Later that day, the couple announced in a joint statement that they were ending their marriage with “the utmost love and respect for each other.” Perhaps, but the sudden split didn’t keep Agassi, who turns 29 on April 29, from competing in Hong Kong’s Salem Open tournament that weekend, part of his effort to reverse a career slump that began in 1997, the year he married Shields. In the finals that same weekend, he went on to beat Boris Becker in three sets. “To be honest,” says his friend and doubles partner David Wheaton, “he’s been playing some of the best tennis I’ve seen him play in a longtime.”

For Shields, 33, the star of NBC’s Suddenly Susan, the day back in L.A. seemed more like business as usual. Hours after the divorce papers were filed, she placed a personal call to Agassi’s Hong Kong hotel to make sure he was awake for his next match, according to her father, Frank Shields. Then later that afternoon, she paid a routine visit to the exclusive Lukaro salon in Beverly Hills. There, she had her famous auburn locks highlighted. “From what I saw, she looked fine,” says one employee.

But Shields, still reeling from the suicide of her close friend and costar David Strickland, has certainly known better times. Growing up in the public eye as a model and then child star, she was an alluringly beautiful if self-conscious young woman. At her nuptials in Monterey, Calif., she seemed poised and self-confident, eager to someday raise a family. But the marriage didn’t even hit the two-year mark. “Brooke was so afraid of failure,” says a Suddenly Susan colleague. “And here was a failure.”

The parents of both say they have no idea what went wrong. “I’m as much in the dark as anyone,” says Shields’s father, a Palm Beach real estate broker who was divorced from Shields’s mother, Teri, before Brooke was even a year old. “This is conjecture on my part, but that’s a full-time job, a round-the-world job, he’s got. They’ll probably see each other as much divorced as they did married.” Interviewed outside their Las Vegas home, Agassi’s father (and former coach), Mike, and mother, Elizabeth, said they had neither advance warning nor a clue as to why the couple split. “Maybe it’s taxes,” said Mike with a shrug, “maybe it’s publicity.” Andre’s mother nodded. “That’s the way it goes,” she said. Added Mike: “It is difficult for people with that high profile. Ninety-eight percent of all Hollywood people get divorced. That was the life they chose to live.”

Hyperbole, perhaps, but their marriage did seem odd, even by Hollywood standards. Shields and Agassi maintained two residences: a country-style, six-bedroom house in L.A. and a Spanish stucco home in Las Vegas. According to Agassi’s divorce petition, filed in district court in Clark County, Nev., the chasm between them stretched even wider. In the course of a mere two years, the court documents state, the couple had become so “incompatible in their tastes, natures, views and dislikes…[that] a happy marital status can no longer exist.” Shields, in her court response, denied his claims of incompatibility. And yet, she admitted to gossip columnist Liz Smith in March last year, the most time she and Agassi spent together each year was three weeks, tops.

Despite dwindling public appearances as a couple, they came together again for the March 26 funeral of Strickland, who hanged himself in a Las Vegas motel room March 22 at age 29. The emotionally troubled Strickland was one of the few remaining links between them. “It was almost as if Andre and Brooke were going to adopt David,” says a coworker from Suddenly Susan. The shocking loss of the man whom Shields called “my best friend” may have further exposed the fault lines in the marriage. “Brooke was really thrown out of the ballpark by [Strickland’s suicide],” says the coworker. “She wanted to protect David. He was like a wounded animal. She wanted to nurture him, probably because she wanted nurturing and wasn’t getting it from Andre.”

Apparently, what she was getting from Andre was a good portion of grief. Shields is extremely reticent about her personal problems—”She’s perfect, like a mannequin,” says the coworker—but the actress has occasionally hinted on the set at marital unhappiness. “Little things would come out,” says the source. ” ‘Things aren’t going so well, but we’re going to try and work it out,’ or ‘It’s just a bad day, but everything is going to be okay,’ or ‘Oh, it’s his temper, but it’s okay.’ ” Agassi’s boyish charm had previously won him women’s hearts, from Barbra Streisand’s in the early ’90s to “even old ladies’ at “Wimbledon,” says his former coach Nick Bollettieri. But Agassi could be an intimidating, demanding presence when he visited the show’s set. “Everything shut down, and everyone let them have their space,” says Shields’s colleague. “Even when times were good, if she didn’t pay attention to him right away, there was a problem. He seemed pretty overbearing.”

And yet, say friends, in the beginning Agassi could not have been more devoted. Prior to Andre, Shields’s official date book included such names as Liam Neeson (who once claimed he considered marrying her), TV Superman Dean Cain (a classmate from her years at Princeton) and, yes, Princess Diana’s doomed Egyptian playboy, Dodi Fayed, in 1985. Two years into her relationship with Agassi—which began in 1993, when mutual friend saxophonist Kenny G and his wife, Lyndie Benson, urged Shields to send the tennis star a mildly flirty fax—Shields told Vanity Fair that her love for Agassi “continues to be such an important part of my life. It’s something like I’ve never experienced.”

Agassi took on the role of Shields’s nurse when she was hobbled by foot surgery in 1994; he carried her from room to room to spare her having to get around on crutches. And, Shields said, Agassi was the one who gave her the confidence to sever her troubled, 30-year professional relationship with her mother and longtime manager, Teri, now 65, and sign on with his manager instead. (The mother-daughter relationship “is on the mend,” says a neighbor of Teri’s in Haworth, N.J.). Shields told PEOPLE several months ago that Agassi would ask, “What are your dreams?” and “Do you realize that you can do it, always?” As Shields began to earn critical and popular respect with Susan, now in its third season, “Andre said he was energized by all her success,” says tennis journalist and Agassi pal Peter Bodo.

But as her career ascended, his began to wobble as he tried on the role of “total husband,” says USA Today tennis writer Doug Smith. “The tour took a backseat to Brooke’s career, and consequently he dropped off the map.” In 1997, the year after he won a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics, Agassi pared back his playing. Though he has earned more than $15 million since he took to the pro circuit at age 16, he was a frequent loser and watched his world ranking plummet from its 1995 high of No. 1 to No. 141 two years later. As his own stature declined, the pressure of being “Mr. Brooke Shields” grew. “That was not the reality of his life,” says Bodo. “Andre is not the hang-around-the-celebrity-wife kind of guy.”

When Agassi swung back into action last year, says Bollettieri, who coached him for a decade, “Andre really had to put his nose to the grindstone. To come back from being someone who is dropping off the rankings to someone who is back on top again required a lot of training and a lot of traveling.” In 1998, he took his racket to tournaments in at least nine countries; this year, having climbed back up to No. 11, Agassi has played in Sydney, Tokyo and the United States.

For all the hours she spent watching Agassi at tournaments, Shields was not about to organize her life around stadium seats under a blazing sun. “What’s she going to do? Hang out in Cincinnati hotels?” says Melissa Errico. “I remember Brooke saying that her career was doing better than ever, and she said she was just beginning to explore her life as an actress.” If her box office radar doesn’t register as strongly as Gwyneth Paltrow‘s, the onetime star of such movie flops as 1992’s Brenda Starr has slowly been rebuilding her movie career. In the drama Black and White, costarring Robert Downey Jr. and due this summer, she plays a documentary moviemaker (in dreadlocks, no less).

In the end, says writer friend Peter Bodo, the couple’s divorce amounts to double fault. “If you have a traditional concept of marriage, a sacrifice has to be made by either person or the marriage is in peril,” he says. “Neither of them was willing to make that sacrifice.” Not that there weren’t sweet moments sprinkled over the final year of marriage. Last summer, when the couple adopted two cats from an animal shelter in Las Vegas, they “seemed so good together,” says a shelter worker. Similarly, the couple held hands and beamed in Las Vegas last September at the annual Grand Slam for Children auction and dinner, an event put on by Agassi to benefit abused and neglected kids. After singer Marc Cohn sang “True Companion,”as he had at their wedding, he suggested that “maybe Andre and Brooke should renew their wedding vows tonight.” And last New Year’s Eve, in the presence of 50 guests, “they seemed very much in love” at their annual bash, says Agassi’s physician, George Fareed.

It was one of their last appearances together. Though no one knows for sure, Shields may have been anticipating trouble when she told PEOPLE last December of an abrupt conversation with her husband. “I said to him today, ‘What do you want to do for dinner? Do you want to come by the set?’ ‘He said, ‘It’s very important for me today not to have plans.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I think that’s indicative of where we are right now.” And in a story on coping with heartbreak in February’s IN STYLE, she seemed quite familiar with the topic. “Wait it out and know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I think the light is the knowledge that you don’t need someone else and that you can be happy alone.”

As for the musings about starting a family with Agassi, they ceased some time ago. “The time line has changed,” Shields said late last year. “I would have thought by now, I would have had children. Although there’s no perfect time to have children, I know now is not the time.” These days, she and Agassi are both back to playing singles.

Tom Gliatto

Meg Grant, Johnny Dodd, Kelly Carter and Amy Brooks in Los Angeles, Jennifer Longley in New York City, Andrea Pawlyna in Hong Kong, Don Sider in Palm Beach, Fannie Weinstein in Miami and Ken Baker and Melissa Schorr in Las Vegas