As a player, the U.S. Open is the top of the mountain
Posted: Wednesday September 6, 2006 12:34PM; Updated: Wednesday September 6, 2006 5:30PM
Tennis legend and five-time U.S. Open champion Jimmy Connors has been a fixture at this year's Open as Andy Roddick's coach.
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NEW YORK -- The 2006 U.S. Open will always belong to Andre Agassi, but while it paled in comparison, my 12th year here will be the highlight of my year.
This tournament is one of the rare cases on the sports calendar when tennis crosses into the mainstream. It was a perfect setting for Andre to walk away from the sport -- its biggest attraction on the grandest stage.
While I have enjoyed moderate success at the U.S. Open during my career, having reached the third round in 1997 and '99 (I lost to David Ferrer in the second round this year), it has always been an incredible experience playing here. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I attended the Open all the time. Now, to actually participate every year is always a surreal experience.
I'm lucky to have some of the greatest perks in the history of the workplace. I get to hang out, practice and compete against the greatest tennis players in the world. I turn around in the locker room, survey the restaurant and the players' lounge and everywhere I look are legends of the sport, both past and present.
This year, most of my highlights had nothing to do with anything that happened on a court. One of my all-time tennis heroes, Jimmy Connors, has been around this summer because of his newly formed coaching relationship with Andy Roddick. While I'm sure that infusing Roddick with a jolt of confidence was Connors' first priority, the indirect benefit to me was getting to hang out with the player who was the subject of my fifth-grade book report.
These are the kinds of experiences that make me pinch myself. Last week, while I was home practicing at my parents' house in New Jersey (where my dad built a court modeled after that of the U.S. Open), I walked by an old picture of my two brothers and me with Aaron Krickstein and the great Connors, taken after a pre-tournament practice at the Open nearly 20 years ago. Now I see Jimbo in the locker room and get to discuss my matches and strategy with him.
I have so many great stories like this. I just hope my memory doesn't give out before I get a chance to absorb and savor them all. Last year, the night before the Open began, I was collecting my things in my locker after a late practice and found myself alone in the locker room with Roger Federer.
I know Federer pretty well, and I saw he was carrying a framed plaque. When I asked him about it, he walked toward me to show me the humanitarian award he had just received. On his way out, he stopped and turned to me and said, in the most sincere tone I have ever heard, "Justin, I just wanted to wish you luck in the upcoming tournament."
I was not as much shocked as mesmerized. All I could think of was how much goodwill he was sending my way. Then my second thought was how much I was going to need it -- the only luck he needed was to not get hurt! Sometimes it's nice to see the good guys succeed, and that's how I feel about Federer.
Hanging with Connors and exchanging pleasantries with Federer are awesome, but nothing compares with sitting front and center to watch Agassi fight through his final professional matches. I sat in the front-row box reserved for the U.S. Open referee and tournament director and had the best seat in the house when Marcos Baghdatis collapsed with cramps -- almost literally in my lap -- late in their second-round match.
Unfortunately, I also had the same seats to one of the most painful sights I have seen on a tennis court: that of an obviously injured and hampered Agassi laboring through his third-round loss to Benjamin Becker. What followed was a memory that made me proud to be a professional tennis player.
The farewell speech and eight-minute standing ovation were incredible, but what most people weren't privileged enough to see was the thunderous applause Andre received when he walked into the locker room from all of his fellow players, and the subsequent standing ovation Andre was given by the international media during his postmatch news conference.
These are the experiences that make me feel lucky to be a professional tennis player, regardless of whether I ever get to stand in the glorious spotlight on Center Court again. Just being a part of it is an honor and a privilege.
Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He's competing in his 12th U.S. Open.