September 18, 2000 12:00 PM

When it came time to cut off her hair, Tami Agassi turned to an expert–younger brother and veteran baldy Andre. Three months earlier, Tami, 31, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and now she wanted to lop off her hair before chemotherapy would cause her to lose it. And so at Andre’s Las Vegas home one night last April, the tennis star whipped out his clippers and went to work. “Then Andre and [brother] Phil disappeared into the bathroom and came out with totally bald heads,” says Tami, laughing at the memory. “They shaved as a show of support. For me, it was a good way to start this journey.”

Along the way, though, Tami and her tight-knit family received another shock: Just seven months after Tami’s diagnosis, her mother, Elizabeth, 62, discovered that she too has breast cancer. A clearly dazed Andre, 30, broke the news to CBS tennis reporter Mary Carillo on Aug. 28, on the eve of the U.S. Open; three days later the tournament’s top seed and defending champion was trounced in the second round by unseeded Frenchman Arnaud Clement. “I’m very focused,” Agassi insisted afterward, but his sluggish play said otherwise. “He’s a very sensitive, emotional guy,” says CBS U.S. Open analyst Patrick McEnroe. “It’s very hard for him to block it out.”

It has been a tumultuous year for Agassi, who last September began dating retired tennis champ Steffi Graf–his first serious relationship since his 1999 divorce from Brooke Shields–and this July hurt his back in a car accident. In January Tami had just started working as director of business development for an Internet firm in Seattle when she discovered a lump in her left breast. “My ultrasound doctor was 98 percent certain it was benign,” she says. “But to me 98 percent wasn’t good enough.” Athletic and competitive like her siblings Andre, Phil, 37, and Rita, 39–she attended Texas A&M on a tennis scholarship–Tami consulted a specialist who determined the lump was cancerous, then opted for a double mastectomy and chemo over less radical treatments. “I felt like I was going to war, and I chose to be very aggressive,” she says. “I want to be around for a long time.”

Then in August, Elizabeth Agassi, the family’s emotional center–though her Iranian-born husband, Mike, 69, a former boxer, was the driving force behind Andre’s tennis rise–learned of her own cancer and underwent a mastectomy. “The surgery was hard on her, but mentally she is doing well,” says Tami, whose prognosis–like her mother’s–is favorable. “Part of that is because she watched me go through it.” Part of it also, Tami knows, is the support she received. “Andre is very caring and loving,” says Tami, who shares her Seattle ranch house with a roommate. “He called me a lot, like all my relatives. I don’t know what I would have done without my family.”

As for Andre’s stalled tennis career, he has had to deal with adversity before. From 1995 to ’97 he plunged from No. 1 ranking to No. 141, then climbed back to the top last year. “Even an Andre Agassi is not invincible,” says his former coach Nick Bolletieri. “But I’m hoping he can go out a champion.” Back in Seattle, his sister thinks he already is. And she has a trophy of her own to prove it: a glass egg filled with the dark hair Andre took from his sister in the spirit of brotherly love. “I’ll keep that,” says Tami. “It’s a memento from my battle.”

Alex Tresniowski
Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles, Lucia Greene in New York City and Linda Trischitta in Miami

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