Mona Shield Payne
Thursday, May 2, 2013 | 2:23 p.m.
In his nakedly revealing autobiography “Open,” Andre Agassi evokes vivid memories of a tennis machine conceived and built by his father, Mike. This contraption was dubbed “The Dragon,” and it was set up across the net, glaring at the young tennis star like a Velociraptor sizing up its prey.
The Dragon spat balls at the young tennis star with frightening frequency and velocity. The idea was to make Agassi a great player, of course, and it was no accident that during his pro career, he was known as one of the game’s greatest returners of serve.
Credit The Dragon.
But The Dragon has not been the only machine in Andre’s life. It just happens to be the most fearsome. There is another more compliant, but equally effective, machine that helped make him a champion.
And unlike The Dragon, out of commission for years, this one keeps giving.
It’s called the C.O.D. Machine, acronym standing for Change of Direction. The machine is the centerpiece of the fitness center and equipment showroom at Agassi’s Las Vegas headquarters, BILT by Agassi & Reyes on West Warm Springs Road. The Reyes in this famous partnership is Gil Reyes, who has been Agassi’s strength and fitness coach since 1989. Reyes was the strength coach for Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels during the 1989-1990 NCAA championship run and met Agassi when the budding tennis star was just 18 years old.
The two have shared in all of Agassi’s successes, his eight Grand Slam titles and comeback from the depths of Agassi’s career when he sank to 141st in the world rankings in 1997. Among Agassi’s achievements, they have added the top prize presented to designers of such machines, the FIBO Innovation Award in the training fitness category.
The crystal award, somewhat resembling a very large ice scraper used on car windows in Idaho winters, has been placed proudly by Agassi near the entrance of BILT headquarters.
For designers and manufacturers of fitness equipment, winning the FIBO Award is akin to winning a Grand Slam championship. Companies from around the world submit designs for consideration for the honor, given out by the international organization that recruits the best of the best among sports scientists, physicians and journalists. The voting panel evaluates sports-fitness machines that are at once imaginative, advanced, effective and safe.
But this is not a new concept, or even a new machine. Agassi and Reyes used a version of it during Agassi’s playing career, searching no farther than Reyes’ right wrist for inspiration. It happened on a flight back from the 1995 Australian Open, which Agassi won for his third Grand Slam title.
On that flight, Reyes was fiddling with a rubber band on his right wrist. Why he has worn a rubber band on his wrist since 1968 is not of consequence. As he says, “I have told stories about why I wear it, and they make even me cry. But there’s no reason for it.”
But while tugging at this rubber accessory, Reyes envisioned a machine that would be as pliant and springy as Agassi himself. Reyes was searching for a way to advance Agassi’s conditioning program without the jarring force presented by many exercise methods, principally squats, which Reyes says “are the best lower-body workout, and also the worst lower-body workout.”
Squats are great for accomplished athletes and bodybuilders, but if you happen to slip, you can get hurt. The bar adjusts, and when it does, the weight hanging from the barbell is not equally distributed throughout the body. For novice lifters, squats can be a pulled muscle waiting to happen.
Reyes had no formal training in exactly how to sketch or construct a machine that would simulate the positive effects of squat thrusts. Through a lengthy trial-and-error process, in which he taught himself to weld together the machine’s metal pieces, Reyes built the first version of the C.O.D. Machine — then kept it a closely protected secret for more than 15 years. No player who could benefit from using the apparatus would be privy to its design.
“No one came into our fitness center,” Agassi says. “Nobody knew what we were using.”
“This machine was built for one athlete: Andre Agassi,” Reyes says. “I had to build something that was as inspired as the person who was using it.”
But now that Agassi’s playing career is over, this machine is for the masses and can be applied to any athlete and performer who requires full-body fitness. A tiny French Canadian Cirque du Soleil cast member can benefit from the device as readily as a 7-foot L.A. Laker.
Crucial to its design is that the machine is ergonomically dexterous, meaning you can move in most any direction with any measure of weight building muscle strength throughout your body. The user’s posture is natural, not forced by an unyielding resistance of weights stacked on a bar.
A spring-activated weight stack on the back of the machine allows for variable weight distribution during the workout. It’s known as the “tensorflex principal,” allowing variable resistance for a more efficient exercise routine. The strain on the back and neck is reduced, and the user’s motion is fluid — the lateral and vertical movement does bring to mind a tennis player (say, Agassi himself) shuffling and skip-stepping across a court. It’s safe, too. Acutely competitive athletes worth millions can work with the machine with scant risk of injury.
“Everyone who uses it, from all different sports, says the same thing,” Agassi says. “They say, ‘This was built for me.’ It’s built for any sport.”
Locked away for private use for more than a decade, the C.O.D. is being rolled to the public because Agassi has no reason to keep it a secret any longer. The machine is part of the burgeoning BILT fitness empire, with more than 100 on back order today and plans to market the machine to five to seven countries. The retail price is $6,500. The market is clearly for use in fitness centers and by world-class athletes and performers.
Agassi seems a little taken aback that this idea generated by a cheap rubber band has received universal recognition.
“To me, it’s old news,” he says, smiling. “It’s not new to me. But what they have done with this idea is very rewarding. We really built this together, organically, and watching it soar is a little overwhelming.”
Agassi is asked if his wife, Stephanie Graf, has ever used the machine.
“Yes, and when she was using it, Gil said to her, ‘If you had used this during your playing career, who knows how many Grand Slams you would have won.’ She was 29 when she retired, and it’s scary to think how many more championships she would have had with this thing.”
Scary, as in good scary. C.O.D. scary. Not like The Dragon.