One Last Kiss From Agassi, and It’s Over

One Last Kiss From Agassi, and It’s Over


Published: September 4, 2006_The New York Times

Robert Caplin for The New York Times / 圖片轉載自The New York Times官方網站

It hardly ended with a whimper, yet it ended just the same for Andre Agassi.

In a 21-year tennis career that came to a close at the United States Open yesterday, Agassi produced many a memorable plot twist; he reshaped his image, physique, priorities and place in the game by force of personality and an often underrated will.

But in his hobbled state, slowed by back pain, he could not reshape the course of a third-round match against the qualifier Benjamin Becker of Germany, losing by 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5.

When the match finished — with Becker holding serve at love with his 27th ace — Agassi and his last opponent met at the net, then Agassi sat courtside and put a towel to his face.

He was already starting to cry, and there would be more tears as he eventually rose, walked back onto the court and stuck to tradition by blowing kisses to all four ends of the stadium. .

Agassi returned to his chair, overcome by the moment. The sellout crowd of more than 23,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, which had not always had reason to cheer during the match, stayed on its feet for several minutes applauding.

His wife, Steffi Graf, one of the sport’s greatest women’s champions, and their children, Jaden, 4, and Jaz, 2, were also standing and applauding.

So was Becker. Agassi eventually rose again, blew four more kisses, then asked for the microphone from the CBS commentator Mary Joe Fernandez. He chose to give a speech instead of an interview, and his voice was breaking.

“The scoreboard said I lost today,” Agassi told the crowd. “But what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life.

“I found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I’ve found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could never have reached without you. Over the last 21 years, I have found you, and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.”

With that, Agassi handed back the microphone, grabbed his equipment and walked, pigeon-toed of course, off the court. He walked away from the game that was imposed on him by his father, Mike, when he was a child prodigy in Las Vegas. But the game eventually became something he lived for quite willingly.

“I am thankful for my father giving me this game,” Agassi said later.

He was not the best American player of his remarkable generation. Pete Sampras, who won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, was. Agassi won eight major titles, and lost to Sampras in four of their five meetings in major finals. But Agassi was unquestionably the biggest tennis star of his generation.

“I think in the last 20 years, he’s been the most important person we’ve had in our sport,” said Lindsay Davenport, seeded 10th in this tournament. “I think Billie Jean King made huge inroads for obviously women, but Andre made our sport cool, popular with the younger crowd, exciting. He’s beloved.”

In his final seasons, he was also in frequent pain because of sciatica, which was caused by a degenerative back condition. Gil Reyes, Agassi’s trainer, said the injury was linked to slippage in a vertebra.

The condition curtailed Agassi’s play this season and led to his announcement that he would retire after this tournament. He considered not playing after some disappointing results in hardcourt tournaments earlier this summer, but he ultimately stuck to his plan. And with the help of a cortisone injection in July and another one Tuesday, he played unexpectedly well.

Still, after defeating Marcos Baghdatis in a thrilling second-round match that ended early Friday morning, Agassi collapsed in pain on his way out of the stadium. He lay on the sidewalk, putting a case containing a freshly minted DVD of the match under his head for a pillow.

“That was the worst I’ve ever been; I just credit the doctors that I was able to get out there today,” said Agassi, who was administered anti-inflammatory injections on Friday, Saturday and again yesterday morning.

Nonetheless, he was far from his best, and his movement, particularly his lateral movement, bore little resemblance to his crank-back-the-clock footwork against Baghdatis.

“My heart was telling me to go get him out there,” Reyes said. “He’s hurting bad, and it hurts so bad to see him do it. But his heart was telling him: No. Finish. Finish it out. Leave it all, and when you leave, open up your arms and heart and take something with you that you will never forget.”

Although Agassi was nearly always interesting during his two decades at the top, he was not always worthy of admiration. He once spat at a chair umpire at the United States Open. Over the years, he has made offensive jokes during news conferences and the occasional uncharitable comment about a lineswoman or an opponent, including Sampras.

But he has been that rare athlete who has made a huge impact on and off the court. On the court, he was ranked No. 1 for 101 weeks and won 60 ATP Tour singles titles.

In perhaps his most impressive achievement, he was the only man in the last 37 years to win all four Grand Slam singles titles: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open.

He is the only man to have won them on three different surfaces. When Don Budge, Fred Perry, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson managed it, three of the four Grand Slam events were on grass. Now, only Wimbledon is played on the game’s original surface.

Off the court, he has leveraged his celebrity for worthy causes, creating one of the most successful charitable foundations in sports and starting a charter school for underprivileged youth in Las Vegas, his home city.

Above all, he has grown up in the public eye, which helps explain why there were also so many tears in the eyes of fans yesterday. A lot of those watching might once have had long hair and questionably colorful taste in clothes, too. A lot of those watching might have said things in their youth that they would not mind retracting.

Asked what he would say to his 17-year-old self, Agassi answered without hesitating, “I would say, I understand you a heck of a lot more than I want to be you.”

Tennis players are on display, perhaps more than any other athletes. There are no teammates to blend in with, no helmets or masks to hide their emotions. And Agassi has shown his more than most; the highs included his 1992 Wimbledon title and his 1999 French Open title, and the lows included a drop to No. 141 in the rankings in 1997.

The defeat to Becker, ranked 112th in the world, came after Agassi managed to add to his list of career highlights with his emotional victories over Andrei Pavel and Baghdatis. “Those two matches were worth a difficult year,” he said. “I’m glad I did it.”

Yesterday’s match, which started shortly before noon, had a different vibe from the start. Postponed because of rain, as all of Saturday’s matches had been, it was played in brilliant sunlight, and when it began, the cavernous stadium was only about half full.

Becker’s coach, Tarik Benhabiles, said of Agassi: “It looked to me like he was about 40 percent of normal. But I admire him for going out there and trying.”

Although Becker has a potent serve, he is not related in any other way to a fellow German, Boris Becker, a tennis star from the mid-1980’s to mid-90’s. Boris Becker won Wimbledon at 17; Benjamin Becker is playing in his first Open at age 25 after spending four years playing at Baylor University.

But this Becker, who faces Andy Roddick next, will always have a place in the game, too, as the last man to play Agassi. “It all seemed like a movie for me today,” Becker told the crowd. “Playing Andre, he was my idol growing up. I followed his whole career.”

Now, he has ended that career, despite having to deal with cheers for his missed second serves and boos for some of his fine drop shots, and despite looking strangely sluggish for much of the fourth set. “He was tightening up emotionally,” Benhabiles said.

Becker shook free of the moment to break Agassi’s serve with three consecutive winners at 5-5 in the final set, then held his serve with ease.

“I’ve lost to B. Becker before,” Agassi said much later, when his tears had dried and good humor ruled. “I was proud to shake anybody’s hand today.”

Liz Robbins contributed reporting for this article.