Sunday, August 27, 2006

Forever A Rebel, Agassi To Finish Storybook Career At Ashe

It's been much anticipated. Since he announced prior to Wimbledon that the U.S. Open would be his final Grand Slam tournament, Andre Agassi has hardly been able to stay on the court in what amounts to his final summer on the ATP Tour before finally calling it a career here in New York.

It's why despite the aching back which has made the last year of the 36 year-old American's brilliant career tough, the two-time Open champion will get overwhelming support from an emotional crowd when the two week tournament of this year's final slam gets underway Monday.

Always a fan favorite, the charasmatic Agassi has never missed an Open in the 21 years he's entered- making it the only slam he's never pulled out of. From the American Rebel Image is Everything days with the long blonde hair, beard and baggy pants to the clean cut and shaven player who has tranformed over the years into a workman-like player who never gives away a point, New Yorkers have been blessed to watch this tennis great reinvent himself and capture two titles and finish runner-up four times including last year to repeat champion Roger Federer.

In 1994, he became the first unseeded player in 28 years to win the championship over Michael Stich- marking an incredible comeback from wrist surgery and a run which eventually got him to No. 1 in the world and took his rivalry with Pete Sampras to new heights.

"Andre announcing his retirement is truly the end of an era," Sampras said recently. "He was one of the best players I competed against and in turn made me a better player. His longevity and desire to compete at the highest level have been remarkable. He has brought a huge amount to our sport and will be missed."

Five years later, he would capture his second Open when he bested American Todd Martin in five sets. It also was the year he went on to win the French and became only the fifth man to ever win a career Grand Slam. That same year, he also reached the Wimbledon final but fell to archrival Sampras. He would finish the season ranked Number 1.

While he's been a great player on the court who could produce go for broke winners and thrill capacity crowds with his hustle, part of what's made him special is how he's been able to connect with those who come out to see him. Who could forget at the beginning of his special run to last year's final when he admitted to the audience afterwards he was nervous because they took time out of their busy schedules to see him? That kind of understanding has made the Las Vegas native showman very popular. That's why this final tour of duty is going to be something to behold no matter how long it lasts.

"I don't think there's anyone that's meant more in the last 20 years from how [Agassi] grew up as sort of a kid that didn't really- you know, obviously had the great talent in the game, but didn't really have an understanding of the history of the sport and the traditions and what it means," CBS tennis studio analyst Patrick McEnroe said during last week's conference call.

"To then basically be, you know, every time he says something, we all hang on the edge of our seats to hear what he has to say. He's really become the ultimate spokesperson for the game. The players respect him like nobody else. I think everyone in the game does."

That kind of recognition is what's personified Agassi's career. It's why analysts who cover the sport as well as his opponents have the ultimate respect for what he's accomplished.

"We're losing a legend," James Blake admitted of the player who's won 60 career titles and delivered over 800 wins including a memorable quarterfinal comeback last year from two sets down against the current fifth seed.

"Andre transcended tennis. We all owe him a great debt of gratitude for what he's done for the sport. He's left his mark on tennis, but he's also done so much through his foundation and starting a school in Las Vegas that's very inspirational."

For Agassi, it will be tough to duplicate last year's success. If he gets through first round opponent Andrei Pavel, the husband of Steffi Graf will have to deal with fiery Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis. The eighth seeded Baghdatis was a surprise Australian Open runner-up and also made the Wimbledon semifinals. With powerful groundstrokes similar to Agassi and plenty of speed, he could prove to be a difficult foe for the American legend if it comes to fruition.

"Baghdatis plays a very similar style to Andre, and that's why I think it's a difficult matchup," McEnroe concluded. "He's very good off both sides. He can take the ball early and go up the line pretty easily. I think Andre likes to play someone at this stage that can't make him move that quickly, and Baghdatis has the ability to take the ball early and make Andre change direction quickly. So I think if Baghdatis is on and healthy and fit, I think that's a very tough match for Andre to win right now."

No matter what, he's impacted so many.

"[Agassi] revolutionized the game," CBS analyst Mary Joe Fernandez noted. "He has brought so much exposure. I just think he's a great person...He's given so much to the sport. For someone that good to be away from the sport, to have the injuries, to start from the bottom, I mean, he started the challenger level to work his way back and really dedicate himself all over again, is so impressive. He's a great role model for everyone of every age."

"You know, watching the video, you get the goosebumps. I can't imagine anyone who's not going to watch every single point of his matches at the US Open. I cannot wait to watch him."

Neither can anyone else.

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