Key Biscayne is kind to Agassi
March 28, 2004
KEY BISCAYNE -- Another Nasdaq-100 Open. Another opening weekend. And there was the amazing Andre Agassi, back again Saturday night and hitting the unlikely trifecta of winning his first set in 14 minutes, hitting a final serve of 122 mph and being cheered for flashing his bare torso while changing shirts a month from his 34th birthday.
"I don't know if that's sort of sympathy applause by now or not," he said.
From pop idol to proud papa, from teenage hairball to thirtysomething cue ball, from Barbra to Brooke to now Steffi Graf and their two boys, what a journey it has been through tennis and time for Agassi. And continues to be. And promises to remain for as long as Agassi keeps threatening titles, which he still does by stepping on any court -- especially this one.
Pete Sampras got bored. Boris Becker grew tired.
Agassi is still going. He ranks fifth in the world. He won four titles last year.
Do you grasp what's at work here? Do you understand the rare body of work being put out by this body of Agassi?
It doesn't do Agassi justice simply to say he's the oldest active player on the tour. Let's put it in fuller context. The second-oldest player is Todd Martin at 33. He is ranked 62nd. Meanwhile, the four players ranked above Agassi are all at least a decade younger, starting with top-ranked Roger Federer at 22.
Agassi once was criticized for wasting his talent and now deserves notice for squeezing every drop from the calendar. The closest player to Agassi in the top 25 is eighth-ranked Tim Henman. He's 29. Nearly five years younger.
"When I came out, they considered me the hardest-hitting player," Agassi said. "I hit the ball so hard. Now that's not what makes me better than some guys. It's other things. Because everybody hits the ball so well."
Growing up has rewards. Growing older has rewards. But staying on the stage long enough for everyone to watch you grow up, then older, while winning all the way must be Agassi's ultimate reward. Ours, too. The image-is-everything teen has bloomed into as good a spokesman as tennis star.
How many times has a player dropped out of sight either to injury or incompetence before being allowed to mature into full-fledged adulthood?
Tiger Woods and Serena Williams are now in the news for branching their lives beyond their respective games. This is met with anguish by those needing their names to drive these games. Williams took time off for fashion design and acting. Woods got engaged, watched Stanford basketball and said when asked what he'd do after having three over-par rounds last week at Bay Hill last week, "Have a beer."
"You start to realize that golf is not the end of all things," Woods said recently, like that universal truth was a personal revelation.
Agassi saw that light years ago. He never allowed his life to be stunted by greatness or stifled by expectations. He skipped 10 Australian Opens and three Wimbledons either because life was too short or grass was in play. All of it fed the idea he didn't care enough, wouldn't win as much.
But the fascinating part by now is how he keeps going past the point anyone expected. He made some concession to age and family, playing in a career-low 14 tournaments last year. But he won four.
"I don't think it's about the accomplishments that keeps me out here," he said. "It's about pushing myself to get better and still feeling like I can do that, still feeling like I can win if I play my best tennis."
On Saturday, Agassi beat the 26-year-old Mariano Zabaleta, 6-0, 7-6 (1). In windy conditions, he missed one first serve in the first set. He made one unforced error. He then was asked whether he considered the first match the most important for gauging play in a tournament.
"The next one is always important," he said.
This is his 18th trip to Key Biscayne, same as the U.S. Open. He has won five titles here, starting in 1987, when he was 17 and would detour through a kitchen with his bodyguard after matches to sidestep the screeching teenage girls.
On Saturday night after winning he walked down a line of mostly children, signing autographs for several minutes. Graf had left a few minutes earlier with their children. How times have changed. How Agassi has changed with them. But how, oh how, does he keep playing like this?
Blowing a kiss to the crowd
Andre Agassi blows a kiss to the crowd after his straight sets victory over Mariano Zabaleta during the second round of the Nasdaq-100