Don't count out Agassi at the Open
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Matthew Cronin / tennisreporters.net
Posted: 18 minutes ago
The eternally optimistic Andre Agassi is planning on competing in the 2005 U.S. Open and says he's hoping to play the next.
You have to believe that's what he desires, because he said much the same last year and made good on his vow.
But the 35-year-old's body is one year older and certainly more war torn. He's had three cortisone shots into his bad back already this year and hasn't been able to play for two weeks running since May.
Since a swollen sciatic nerve in his back struck him down at the French Open, he's played all of two events: Los Angeles in late July and at Montreal two weeks ago.
Will Andre Agassi make an improbable run starting next week and claim his third U.S. Open crown?
He put on a standout performances in both of them, winning L.A. over a relatively weak yet ambitious field and then taking down a strong set of contenders in Montreal (including Gaston Gaudio and Greg Rusedski) before falling in three sets in the final to Spanish wunderkind Rafael Nadal.
The Las Vegan then decided to rest another two weeks before the Open, because few athletes pay more close attention to their bodies than Agassi does, and he has promised his wife, the legendary Steffi Graf, as well as his coach, Darren Cahill, and his trainer, Gil Reyes, that he won't compete unless he's 100 percent.
Because, even at full strength, Agassi's not racking up the titles anymore. (He's won two in the past two years.) If he's going to even hope to make a dent in New York, he had better be feeling as fit as he has all year, because in the past two years, he hasn't proven that his body can take the amount of pounding necessary to go all the way in New York.
"Eight weeks ago, I wasn't sure if I was playing tennis again," he said. "So to be out here feeling healthy and being able to move and hit my shots, that part alone feels great to me, let alone actually playing well. So now all of a sudden I'm faced with the reality that I can actually go enjoy the Open this year because I'm doing a few things right, which is nice to feel. I like where I am right now."
As well he should be, because Agassi has a puncher's chance of winning the tournament, given that things break very, very right for him. That means no marathon matches early, no incredibly tough draws and no rainouts that force him play on back-to-back days. Because although he can still ball with 98 percent of the tour, he has not shown in the past two and a half years (which dates back to when the nerve in his back first started killing him) that he can sustain his level in three-out-of-five set matches over a two week period in seven matches straight.
The two-time U.S. Open champion has been a tremendous competitor in New York during the past three years, but in every loss he took (to Sampras in the 2002 final, to Juan Carlos Ferrero in the '03 semis and to Roger Federer last year), he looked a little spent.
Last year, he played Federer tougher than any other player in the tournament, and had it not been for a gale of a wind pushing chairs around the court in the last two sets of the Swiss' five-set victory, Agassi may have won that contest. However, there was no guarantee that he would have beaten Tim Henman in the semis and certainly not Lleyton Hewitt in the final.
But if a few of the big stars get upset, the 2005 Open is dry and he gets on an early roll, it would be hard to argue against his experience.
"You always get excited more when you feel like you have more of a chance.," he said. "Paris doesn't excite me at all anymore because I just associate it with pain, meaning physical. So you're sort of glad to be a part of it, but you're limited to how much you can really enjoy the experience when you're surviving, you know. But the US Open is different. I feel like there's just a lot of matches I can play on my terms, and certainly the home crowd. Every one is so unique to itself. I do look forward to the Open's personality. It's a great place to play."
Unfortunately, Agassi can't apply his terms to everyone. Men's tennis has a clear big five right now: Federer, Nadal, Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin. Four of those are former U.S. Open champs and one of them — a 19-year-old Spaniard with a vicious lefty forehand and blinding speed — just kicked Agassi's butt in the third set of the Montreal final. Without question, Agassi certainly is a more proven pressure player in NY than the relative greenhorn Nadal, but he's not a better player and if he couldn't knock out the tireless teen in a two-out-of-three set match, what chance does he have in three-out-of-five?
"I laughed at the prospect of playing Nadal when I was 19, just his strength and his speed and all that stuff," Agassi said. "You watch how the game continues to improve. I've prided myself on my continual efforts to rise to those challenges and to get better. But, yes, the game's going to get better with or without me, so I'd rather it be with me."
Grant Agassi his improvement in the areas of court stewardship, consistency and with his serve. But he's not as fast as he once was and doesn't whale his groundstrokes like he used to. Moreover, what chance does he really have to stop the remarkable Federer, who has beaten him seven times in a row, just won his 22nd final in a row in Cincinatti and dearly wants to bag his second Slam in a year in New York?
Not a big one, but Agassi wants to keep coming back for more. Unless his back completely seizes up and his doctors tell him that he'll have to undergo surgery, he won't be pulling a Sampras — walking away full of ambiguity, retiring a year later and not looking back without apparent regret.
Or at least that's what Agassi says now. But should he win the title in the style that his old rival Sampras did in 2002, don't dismiss the possibility out of hand, even if Andre himself does at the moment.
"It would be great to win, but I have no interest in putting a nice little bow around my career and handing it over to anybody," Agassi said. "I'm going to keep giving everything I've got to this sport. It's been so good to me. I couldn't hope or even expect for it to give me any more. So I go to the Open with the intention of hopefully bringing some inspiration to those who take a few hours out of their day to come watch me. That's what I look forward to."
Andre Agassi forever