In praise of Andre Agassi
By Mike Steinberger
Published: January 13 2004
When the Australian Open begins next week, the spotlight will be squarely on Greg Rusedski thanks to his positive testing for nandrolone and his allegation that he and other players were given the banned substance by ATP trainers.
With men's tennis perhaps facing its worst scandal ever, what might otherwise have been the biggest pre-tournament story - the possibility that this could be Andre Agassi's last appearance at the Australian - will probably be relegated to the inside pages, which is a shame.
No, Agassi, the defending Australian champion, has not announced retirement plans, and it seems a bit ludicrous to be on the gold-watch watch for a player who only four months ago was a US Open semi-finalist and who finished 2003 ranked fourth in the world. Yet he is nearly 34, has a wife and two kids, and a limited number of miles left in his legs. Age will catch up with him sooner rather than later.
So while it may be too early to bury Agassi, it is not too early to praise him, or to try to put his career in some perspective.
Giving him his due is all the more important because there is a danger that once he is put on diaper patrol full time, he may not be looked back on with quite the appreciation he deserves.
Agassi will always be in the shadow of Pete Sampras. No shame there: Sampras may well be the best player ever. But when tennis buffs discuss the all-time greats, they inevitably categorise them by grand slam titles. With eight majors, Agassi is no slouch in this regard, but the numbers will never quite do justice to his career.
Apart from Rod Laver, Agassi is the only male player in the modern era to have won all four majors, and while Laver had only to contend with two surfaces, grass and clay, the American did it on three.
The Agassi legacy will also include some life lessons. When the youngster from Las Vegas, with his earrings, denim shorts, rat-tail hair and smug attitude emerged in the 1980s, his gift for the game was obvious, but for a long time his enormous potential remained just that. He lacked discipline and focus, and even after he had won a few majors it seemed he would never live up to the early promise.
The turning point was the 1999 French Open. Agassi had nearly disappeared from the game 18 months before, and entered the tournament seeded just 13th. His victory surprised him as much as anyone, and it was at this point that he seemed to realise how much time he had wasted and how much talent he had nearly let slip away. Since then, his commitment has been unwavering.
Most players pass their careers in a state of arrested development. Not Agassi; he has grown up on the court and will leave the game a fully formed adult, which is not something that can be said of a lot of tennis stars.
Reached in Melbourne, Agassi's coach Darren Cahill sidestepped the issue of retirement: "There is no sign of it, no talk of it, no suggestion of it." Cahill said Agassi had followed his usual brutal training regimen for the new season.
Cahill said the player was not sticking around simply to add to his grand-slam haul, nor does he have expectations that, if not met, might prompt retirement. "For him, the biggest motivation at this point is simply love of the game."
Yet it seems a safe bet that once his results start to slip, Agassi will not do an extended farewell tour.
American tennis has found its new saviour in Andy Roddick, who won last year's US Open and has more than enough charisma to fill the void Agassi will leave. Once he is gone from the game, Agassi will certainly not be forgotten; what matters, though, is how he is remembered.
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