Andre Agassi and the Last Crusade
Andre Agassi and the Last Crusade
Andre Agassi has enthralled tennis fans for almost two decades with one of the most compelling careers the game has seen. And, when the time comes, Agassiís style will be to leave with a bang. By JO SIRMAN.
And then there was one. Man by man they have all stepped down, the other great Americans of his generation. Jim Courier was the first to go back in 2000, and after a year of soul-searching, Pete Sampras bowed out at this year's US Open. Michael Chang made his scheduled farewell to the circuit at the same event. Leaving only Andre Agassi.
Andre Kirk Agassi is, at 33, the oldest of the gang of four who dominated the game for more than a decade. He was the oldest singles player to contest this year's Tennis Masters Cup by six years. He is the oldest man to have held the No. 1 Entry Ranking. Who would have thought that, when he turned professional at the age of 16, one of the many superlatives that would attach itself to his name would be ëoldest'?
So Agassi's story continues to fascinate, and his iconic status grows. For 17 years the world has followed his transition from teenage rebel to household name to respected spokesperson for his sport, through his rise to the top of the game, his plunge down the rankings, and his climb to the pinnacle again. It now waits to see how the final chapter will play out.
It became clear at the start of 2003 that Agassi was not done yet. He arrived at the Australian Open having gone two years without winning a Grand Slam title, but any doubts about his ability to claim an eighth were swept away by his commanding performance there. He lifted his fourth trophy in Melbourne, this time for the loss of just one set, defeating Rainer Schuettler 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in the most one-sided Grand Slam final for nearly 19 years.
All this, and it had been almost 31 years since any man as old as Agassi (he was then 32 years, 272 days) had won a Grand Slam tournament. Rather than showing signs of tiring, the challenge of pushing back the advancing years seemed to be spurring him on. ìFor me, it's about challenging myself, pushing myself. I can live without the competition. I can live without the hard work. But I can't live without knowing what it feels like to try to accomplish something that I question if I can.î
After Australia, Agassi stormed through the first part of this year, playing ñ as has been his way in recent years ñ sparingly, but to great effect. By the end of April he had won four tournaments, adding the Siebel Open in San Jose, the NASDAQ-100 Open Tennis Masters Series event in Miami and the US Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston to his collection. More seemed a foregone conclusion. But then his title campaign stalled.
Surprisingly, after Houston, Agassi did not reach another final all season before the Tennis Masters Cup, although two ATP semifinal appearances, another at the US Open, and a quarterfinal finish at Roland Garros, all from six events played post April, can hardly be deemed a failure. He had not played competitively since the US Open, choosing to sit out the last eight weeks to be around for the arrival of his second child, daughter Jaz Elle, born in October.
Houston and the Westside Tennis Club was kind to Agassi in 2003, notwithstanding his straight-sets loss to Federer in the final of the Tennis Masters Cup. Not only did he win his last title there, but that title led him to the No. 1 Entry Ranking for the fifth time in his career. He ended Lleyton Hewitt's 75-week stay at the top and, at a day short of 33 years old, became the oldest man ever to hold the No. 1 ranking.
Just as significantly, Agassi's performance in Houston in April was a victory for age over youth, achieved with a defeat of Andy Roddick in the final. Much has changed since then though; Agassi went on to suffer his first loss to the younger American at Queen's Club, and the next three Slams were to go to men whose average age was 21 years, eight months, nearly 12 years younger than Agassi is now.
The eight-times Grand Slam champion has succeeded in driving back time's winged chariot so far, but how long can he repel the younger players snapping at his heels? His performances against and alongside the likes of Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Roger Federer in 2004 will be a factor in how much longer he stays in the game. Following the retirements of Chang and Sampras in New York, Agassi's reign as the only active American man to have won a Grand Slam tournament was short-lived, as the mantle was assumed by Roddick, now under the guidance of Agassi's longtime coach Brad Gilbert. The symmetry will not have been lost on Agassi.
Earlier on at the US Open, Agassi had said, ìI don't think any athlete really has an idea of how things are going to end for them. For me, like I've addressed before, I feel a strong sense of obligation to this game for everything it's given to me.î That sense of obligation prompted the creation of the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, which in 10 years has raised more than $23 million to create educational and recreational opportunities for underprivileged, abused and abandoned children around Agassi's home in Las Vegas.
The Foundation is sure to play a significant part in Agassi's retirement plans, although they were still on hold following his last match, when he lost to Ferrero in the US Open semis. ìI just got to go back to work. Something would have to change drastically for me not to be back.î
So for now Agassi is still challenging himself, still setting the standard for his fellow players. But there are clues as to how he will eventually go, since he has said, ìIt wouldn't be my style to sort of carve something out, do a farewell plan. That wouldn't be my thing.î It seems more likely - and more in keeping with the Agassi story - that he will emulate wife Steffi Graf, who took her leave at the top of the game in the wake of a last Grand Slam title at Roland Garros.
Which suggests there is more to come. However he writes the final chapter, for the time being Agassi is still in the hunt, and will continue to fascinate us all until the end.
- Reprinted from the Official Commemorative Program of Tennis Masters Cup Houston.
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