Agassi's final bow

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- For 21 years at the U.S. Open, he had left them cheering. Yesterday, Andre Agassi left them crying. Standing and crying, no less.

The inevitable had happened.

At age 36, he was playing in his last pro tennis tournament. He had won here twice during a career that made him rich, famous and, in the latter years, a sort of legendary ambassador of good sport and good will. He came here with a disc injury in his back that would have most grown men crying for their mommies. Despite that, he had won first- and second-round thrillers, both long and physically taxing matches.

When he walked onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was fitting that the singing of the national anthem had just ended with " ... and the home of the brave." Agassi wasn't a soldier, fighting a war, or a policeman or firefighter, saving a life. But in the world of sports, he will now go down as part Willis Reed and part Kerri Strug.

In the end, his bravery was painful to watch. He lost in four sets to a 25-year-old German qualifier named Benjamin Becker, no relation to a German star named Boris, nor to his tennis ability. That Agassi even extended it to four sets, losing, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5, was remarkable, seeing that it was evident early on that hitting serves with almost no leg bend and walking between points hunched over like somebody in his 90s would not get it done, even against the 112th-ranked player in the world.

The Andre Agassi who won eight major titles, a total of 60 on the ATP Tour, an Olympic gold medal and more than $31 million in prize money since he began in 1986, never won a match playing defense, hitting from 20 feet behind the baseline. Nor did he win when statistics after three sets showed that he trailed his opponent in winners 62-24.

Even with all that, Agassi had one look at getting it into a fifth set, and with the usual estimated 24,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium - on a record attendance day here of 36,830 - set to verbally pull him through one more set, the "what if?" was intriguing. But when he hit a makeable forehand wide with Becker serving at 4-5 and 30-40, the chance was gone and, just minutes later, Becker was serving with three match points in his pocket.

On the first one, the 2004 NCAA singles champion from Baylor cracked in a 133-mph ace.

It was over.

Agassi's journey had taken him through 21 years in the spotlight; millions of miles traveled and millions of fans entertained; from Barbra Streisand to Brooke Shields to Steffi Graf and two children; from long hair, pirates' bandannas and a snippy attitude, to baldness, tennis whites and a heart that embraces all and raises money for many.

At 2:28 p.m. Eastern time, in a huge stadium of people who loved him so much that they had dared to hope he could keep going, Andre Agassi's tennis career ended. He walked to the net, shook hands with Becker, went to his chair on the sideline, sat down and dissolved into a puddle of emotion. Quickly, all 24,000 on hand were there with him.

They stood for a full seven minutes, many of them alternately applauding and sobbing. He sat at first, his head in a towel, crying and with nowhere to hide. The camera was in his face, his emotions piped to the huge screens above priming the pump for emotions in the stands. Twice, he went out for final four-side goodbye kisses, both times returning to his chair and towel.

Eventually, former-tennis-player-turned-broadcaster Mary Jo Fernandez conducted the smartest interview of her life. She called Agassi out, handed him the microphone, said nothing and stepped away.

His speech, reprinted on this page, clearly touched the crowd.

Agassi left the court nine minutes after losing, and then faced two more incredible gestures.

First, he walked into the players' locker room to a standing ovation.

"The greatest applause any person will ever receive in their life," he said, "is that which comes from your peers. It's not like we are a company who's working together to accomplish something. We are people who succeed, in some cases, at the demise of the other. To have them applaud you is the ultimate."

Then, he limped down the hall to his news conference, a final meeting with many who had written about him from long hair to legend. He entered the room, wide-eyed, almost as if the one thing he didn't expect was a room designed to hold 145 packed with more than 200.

For nearly half an hour he answered questions, welcoming them, embracing them, waving off the USTA guy who wanted to cut it short. He was, as he has been for several years, the Socrates of the tennis tour.

Among the offerings, according to Andre, were:

On retirement: "I look forward to being wherever I am."

On tennis: "You are playing a sport that requires you to problem-solve. It requires you to do it in a somewhat emotional state. It's a bit of life out there."

On the crowd afterward: "I was sitting there, realizing that I was saying goodbye to everybody and they were saying goodbye to me. ... We were getting through it together."

On why he tried so hard here, despite the injury: "This is sort of the last window to a whole series of windows throughout my career. The color on the last one can affect how you see the rest of them. I didn't want it to be tainted with a lack of desire or preparation."

Is he happy it is over? "The pain of the goodbye really lifts the joy of the experience."

Bill Dwyre writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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