The clock wasedging toward 1:20 a.m. last Friday, and the old man was flat on his back. Onthe TV hanging high above him, his younger, stronger opponent, MarcosBaghdatis, 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 theground again, this time in the locker room at the U.S. Open, and he'd won, andhis eyes were wet again. But there was no joy in the air. Agassi lay still. Theroom was dead quiet, and he stared at the ceiling; the pain from the bulgingdisk in his spine eases when he lies down. The door opened, and Agassi twistedto look, his face as you've never seen it: cheeks sagging, age lines carveddeep. His famously large eyes locked on nothing. He looked as if he weredrowning.
"O.K.,Andre," a USTA staffer said. Baghdatis was done speaking to the press; nowit was Agassi's turn. He slowly rolled over and pushed himself up and onto hisfeet. He staggered out the door, his pigeon-toed steps reduced to shuffles. Acameraman shined a light in his face, recording his 155 paces down the hallway,each one excruciating.
No one in sportshas 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 threeinjections and constant hurt for an event he had no chance of winning. Agassiwillingly paid the athlete's ultimate price. "I don't need sympathy,"he said.
What he needed, itturned out, was one last taste of the fight. While fans and media descended onFlushing Meadow focusing on how to bid him farewell, he had other ideas. InJuly he rejected the USTA's proposal for a distracting retirement ceremony.After his first-round win over Andrei Pavel, Agassi endured a 20-minutecortisone injection. "If this wasn't his last tournament?" saidlongtime ATP trainer Doug Spreen. "He wouldn't ever be doing this. Hewouldn't even be playing here."
Agassi's managerand childhood friend, Perry Rogers, admitted as much the day after Agassi'sepic 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 dramafinally 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--apersona seemingly raw and knowable yet utterly guarded--and despite his effortsin recent years to strip his game of any hint of flash, his ability to inspiregush never abated. Who else could reduce John McEnroe to sounding like aschoolgirl with a crush? "Thank you for being my friend," McEnroe beganan interview last Friday. "I hope I can call you my friend?"
Agassi was hardlyfazed; he long ago stopped trying to understand the overkill that has markedhis life. No phenom was ever more hyped, no underachiever more overrated, andwhen Agassi grew into a serious player and man, no maturation was moreoverstated. So why should talk about his impact be less than overheated?Commentators have spent the last few weeks calling Agassi the mostpopular/important American player of the last 20 years--never mind JimmyConnors and Sampras--and pumping his alltime greatness.
Agassi shies fromsuch talk. He won eight majors but chooses to measure his impact on the sportas much by the three-minute standing ovation that washed over him Sunday, inthe sight of Martina Navratilova watching his speech in tears, in the stunningapplause from his fellow pros when he walked into the locker room. His point iswell taken: To say that Agassi has had the Open era's most remarkable careerseems about right.
Yet for all theschmaltz, Agassi knows that his character was built--and his legacy will beshaped--most by what happened when the balls began to fly. His come-from-behindwin at the 1999 French Open, which instantly transformed his reputation frompunk to champion, showed how only his game could redeem the nonsense thatalways threatened to overwhelm it. So he came to New York, determined to domore than just show up. The world would've been happy with just a sappygoodbye, but Agassi took the needles. He endured the pain. And then he upendedall expectation against Baghdatis, his final classic, a match full of surrealtwists and stunning shotmaking and moments when Agassi did what he once didbetter than anyone: take the ball early, hit with unparalleled cleanness, sethis prey up for the kill. "I didn't want it to be tainted," Agassi saidof his last Open. "I'd rather just be inside the lines."
On Sunday he bithis lip and tried once more. He grabbed his back and groaned, and ran and ranand ran around Arthur Ashe Stadium as if each point were his last. Finally, at2:29 p.m., the younger, fitter Becker fired a 133-mph ace, and Agassi watchedthe ball sail by. The place went silent, and then he and everyone elseunderstood. It was over.
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''He's a dream competitor--the one in 10,000 who hasthe temperament to match the talent.'' --BOB MATHIAS OBITUARY, PAGE 22
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO