A candid conversation with the class act of the game
Posted: Friday September 1, 2006 3:15PM; Updated: Wednesday September 6, 2006 12:01PM
Andre Agassi is acutely aware of his place in, and impact on, the game of tennis.
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NEW YORK -- I've been on the ATP Tour for 11 years now, and I've been a tennis fan for more than 20, but I'll be honest: Thursday night was the first time I sat and watched a five-set match from start to finish. If anyone could hold my attention for more than four hours, it's Andre Agassi in what could have been his final professional match.
Marcos Baghdatis played a worthy foil, pouring his heart and soul out on the court until his body literally gave out. Afterward he graciously and accurately summed up what Agassi has meant to the game when he said, "Whatever you say about him, it is not enough." I have been hanging out with Agassi quite a bit lately, and here are some of the things I'll remember.
A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of going to dinner with Andre and his coach, Darren Cahill, while in Cincinnati for the Tennis Masters event. It was an incredible privilege, and while the food was satisfying, the depth of conversation was the highlight.
I have always had a good relationship with Andre. He has been very good to me throughout my career. But I was still taken aback when, late in my first-round qualifying match, I saw Andre sitting courtside cheering me on. I had to do a double take. Then I had to pretend I didn't see him, as the pressure of wanting to impress him outweighed my desire to win the match!
There I was, playing the most rudimentary of matches in professional tennis, and I had one of the greatest players of all time -- on the brink of retirement -- giving me fist pumps, actually emotionally invested in my qualifying match. After I squeaked out a victory, I thanked Andre for the support and asked him if I could take him and Cahill out to dinner -- sort of a thank-you for everything over the years.
I knew the toughest part would be convincing Agassi to let me pay, since it would be the first time in all the interactions I have ever had with him that I would actually put my hand into my wallet. Andre has always been thoughtful and self-aware, but during this dinner, those qualities were even more pronounced.
What made it even more impressive was that, earlier in the day, he had withdrawn from the event after re-aggravating his back condition, thus leaving the U.S. Open as the last professional event of his illustrious career. I'm sure he had a million things on his mind, but instead of focusing on any of that, we spent the majority of the night dissecting my life.
He was sensitive and forthright on a wide variety of topics, ranging from how I could make the most of my talents to how to balance a relationship and my career. I picked his brain and challenged his memory on some of the most memorable matches of his career, how he morphed from image to substance, and his charity work. We spoke about his courtship of his wife, Steffi Graf, a story entertaining and inspiring enough that it is worthy of a full-length motion picture. (Check out this great story by Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith.)
Something else I'll always remember was how intriguing it was to hear Andre discuss how emotionally draining competition is for him. I know how tough it is on me, but I just figured that was because of my more limited athletic prowess.
I got the sense that tennis was more a means to an end for Andre than a true passion. He's almost a victim of his own talent. He is aware of the impact that his success can have on the game of tennis and on so many people's lives, and that it's up to him to push himself until he has nothing left to give.
Well, during this dinner in Cincinnati, it was obvious his gas tank was almost empty. But just as he's done throughout his career, when anyone counts him out, he comes back with inspiring performances.
Before the tournament began, I predicted he would make it to a blockbuster match with Andy Roddick, an absolute ratings bonanza and the exact stage on which Andre flourishes. An added wrinkle is the emergence of one of the few players who has been critical of Andre over the years: five-time U.S. Open champion Jimmy Connors, as Roddick's new coach.
Regardless of how Andre does in this tournament, his legacy is set. He will go down as the greatest ballstriker and entertainer and one of the most endearing characters in the history of this great sport.
Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He's competing in his 12th U.S. Open.