The clock was
edging toward 1:20 a.m. last Friday, and the old man was flat on his back. On
the TV hanging high above him, his younger, stronger opponent, Marcos
Baghdatis, was talking about how he first saw Andre Agassi 14 years ago,
winning Wimbledon and then falling to the grass in tears. Now Agassi was on the
ground again, this time in the locker room at the U.S. Open, and he'd won, and
his eyes were wet again. But there was no joy in the air. Agassi lay still. The
room was dead quiet, and he stared at the ceiling; the pain from the bulging
disk in his spine eases when he lies down. The door opened, and Agassi twisted
to look, his face as you've never seen it: cheeks sagging, age lines carved
deep. His famously large eyes locked on nothing. He looked as if he were
Andre," a USTA staffer said. Baghdatis was done speaking to the press; now
it was Agassi's turn. He slowly rolled over and pushed himself up and onto his
feet. He staggered out the door, his pigeon-toed steps reduced to shuffles. A
cameraman shined a light in his face, recording his 155 paces down the hallway,
each one excruciating.
No one in sports
has reinvented himself more, yet at this, the final tournament of his career,
Agassi, 36, managed one last incarnation: warrior. For most of his 21-year run,
he had happily ceded that role to rivals like Pete Sampras and Michael Chang.
But at the Open, the man once derided for tanking matches endured three
injections and constant hurt for an event he had no chance of winning. Agassi
willingly paid the athlete's ultimate price. "I don't need sympathy,"
What he needed, it
turned out, was one last taste of the fight. While fans and media descended on
Flushing Meadow focusing on how to bid him farewell, he had other ideas. In
July he rejected the USTA's proposal for a distracting retirement ceremony.
After his first-round win over Andrei Pavel, Agassi endured a 20-minute
cortisone injection. "If this wasn't his last tournament?" said
longtime ATP trainer Doug Spreen. "He wouldn't ever be doing this. He
wouldn't even be playing here."
and childhood friend, Perry Rogers, admitted as much the day after Agassi's
epic five-set, three-hour-and-48-minute win over Baghdatis in the second round.
"I've never seen the pain this bad," Rogers said. But after the drama
finally ended on Sunday with a 7--5, 6--7, 6--4, 7--5 loss to Benjamin Becker,
Agassi stopped just before walking off the Open grounds for the last time.
"It was worth it," he said. "It was."
That this U.S.
Open would be all about Agassi was no shock. His is a unique charisma--a
persona seemingly raw and knowable yet utterly guarded--and despite his efforts
in recent years to strip his game of any hint of flash, his ability to inspire
gush never abated. Who else could reduce John McEnroe to sounding like a
schoolgirl with a crush? "Thank you for being my friend," McEnroe began
an interview last Friday. "I hope I can call you my friend?"
Agassi was hardly
fazed; he long ago stopped trying to understand the overkill that has marked
his life. No phenom was ever more hyped, no underachiever more overrated, and
when Agassi grew into a serious player and man, no maturation was more
overstated. So why should talk about his impact be less than overheated?
Commentators have spent the last few weeks calling Agassi the most
popular/important American player of the last 20 years--never mind Jimmy
Connors and Sampras--and pumping his alltime greatness.
Agassi shies from
such talk. He won eight majors but chooses to measure his impact on the sport
as much by the three-minute standing ovation that washed over him Sunday, in
the sight of Martina Navratilova watching his speech in tears, in the stunning
applause from his fellow pros when he walked into the locker room. His point is
well taken: To say that Agassi has had the Open era's most remarkable career
seems about right.
Yet for all the
schmaltz, Agassi knows that his character was built--and his legacy will be
shaped--most by what happened when the balls began to fly. His come-from-behind
win at the 1999 French Open, which instantly transformed his reputation from
punk to champion, showed how only his game could redeem the nonsense that
always threatened to overwhelm it. So he came to New York, determined to do
more than just show up. The world would've been happy with just a sappy
goodbye, but Agassi took the needles. He endured the pain. And then he upended
all expectation against Baghdatis, his final classic, a match full of surreal
twists and stunning shotmaking and moments when Agassi did what he once did
better than anyone: take the ball early, hit with unparalleled cleanness, set
his prey up for the kill. "I didn't want it to be tainted," Agassi said
of his last Open. "I'd rather just be inside the lines."
On Sunday he bit
his lip and tried once more. He grabbed his back and groaned, and ran and ran
and ran around Arthur Ashe Stadium as if each point were his last. Finally, at
2:29 p.m., the younger, fitter Becker fired a 133-mph ace, and Agassi watched
the ball sail by. The place went silent, and then he and everyone else
understood. It was over.