Sunday, September 03, 2006

Agassi Takes Final Bow In Emotional Third Round Loss To Becker

It had to end some time. Andre Agassi's brilliant 20-year tennis career came to an end Sunday when a kid by the name of Becker from Germany did what Marcos Baghdatis couldn't four days earlier in a memorable second round match. He became the answer to a trivia question and beat the New York crowd favorite in front of over 20,000 screaming fans in four hard fought sets, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 in front of an emotional Ashe Stadium Sunday.

While it wasn't the same Becker who won several slams over a similar storied career, the 112th ranked qualifier Benjamin was good and tough enough to finish off the 36 year-old tennis legend who won two U.S. Opens five years apart ('94, 99) and took home eight slams including the 1999 French Open to become only the fifth man to ever complete the Career Grand Slam.

But all that didn't matter when a back which has given him way too much pain and discomfort the past year along with Becker were too much to overcome during what turned out to be his final tennis match.

Despite a noticeable limp after three anti-inflammatory injections, Agassi didn't go out with a wimper. Instead, even when he wasn't close to 100 percent, the former rebel made his 11-year younger opponent earn the win in four competitive sets. Though he fell short, he could take solace knowing that Becker needed every one of his 27 aces and 82 winners to pull it off and advance to a Round of 16 match-up against Andy Roddick Monday.

When Becker had completed the victory, that's when the real emotions came out for Agassi, his adoring legions of supporters and even his conqueror himself.

"The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I've found," a teary Agassi informed the ultrasupportive crowd during a moving postmatch interview with CBS' Mary Joe Fernandez. "Over the last 21 years, I've found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I have found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments."

"It was a tough moment, an emotional moment for me, too," Becker told the AP. "I was happy, obviously. At the same time, I was sad."

It concluded 21 consecutive years at The Open of what once was a teenager with long bleached blonde hair and denim shorts who was every bit the rebel he portrayed in those Minolta Image Is Everything promos. But something unique happened to that person. He grew up before our eyes and developed into a clean shaven baldheaded man who personified everything good about the sport- erasing his image of not being the hardest worker by morphing into the ultimate professional who never took a point off or ever gave up. Most importantly, he's donated tons to charity and opened up his own Academy for troubled kids back home. That kind of generosity along with being so media and fan friendly is what's made him mean so much to not just tennis but life.

After making a special run to the final here last year before falling to Roger Federer in four sets, Agassi had nothing more to prove. But despite a back which continued to get worse, forcing him to miss the Australian and French Open and only take part in seven tournaments including Wimbledon where he fell to Rafael Nadal the same round, the Las Vegas native wanted this to be his final tournament before calling it a career and finally settling down with Grand Slam women's champion and wife Steffi Graf along with their kids.

All for the four minute emotional standing tribute from everyone at Ashe in the biggest city. Worth its weight in gold.

"It felt amazing. Nothing I've ever experienced before. I was overwhelmed with how they embraced me at the end," Agassi later expressed of the "Thank You Andre" chants he received and thunderous cheers from so many when he walked off the court for the final time. "They saw me through my career. They've seen me through this, as well."

Does that sound like a man who was in so much pain that he could barely stand? Instead, he leaves the game with no regrets despite the extreme lengths he went just to be out there for three matches when most normal players would've just given up. But not Agassi.

"If I wanted to quit, I would have done that a long time ago," he explained. "I didn't come here to quit...I just credit the doctors that I was able to get out there today. It's been such a day-by-day battle. Sure enough, it was real early where I wasn't feeling so good. That all doesn't matter anymore."

Maybe not. But nobody will soon forget what he brought to tennis. The eight slams. The 60 career titles. 870 wins. The inside out textbook groundstrokes which changed the way the game was played. The best return of serve arguably ever. And of course, the showman-like traditional four bows which became Agassi's trademark. All that along with the unforgettable rivalry against Pete Sampras to the memorable epic quarterfinal against James Blake last year. To his final two wins just to reach the third round.

"I'm going to wake up tomorrow and start with not caring how I feel. That's going to feel great."

Perhaps Roddick put it best.

"Every person in the draw, with the exception of if you're 33 years old, probably idolized Andre at some point," he said. "It's got to be similar to what the NBA rookies were like playing (Michael) Jordan in his last year. I mean, he's just revolutionized the sport...He's irreplaceable."

Roddick Prevails In Five: While Sunday turned out to be his idol's final match, Roddick needed five sets to advance to a fourth round meeting against Becker on Labor Day. The ninth seeded 24 year-old American eliminated fiesty Spaniard Fernando Verdasco (22) 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-2.

Also easily moving into the Round of 16 was top seed and two-time defending champ Roger Federer, who posted a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory over American Vince Spadea at Louis Armstrong Stadium. He'll next face Frenchman Marc Gicquel after he knocked out 21st seed Argentine Gaston Gaudio 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (3).

Andy Murray and Nikolay Davydenko also setup a fourth round encounter. Murray (17) cameback to beat 10th seeded Chilean Fernando Gonzalez 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 while seventh seeded Davydenko handled Lukasz Kubot 6-4, 6-1, 6-1.

Former 2001 winner Lleyton Hewitt (15) moved into the Round of 16 with a 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 triumph over Novak Djokovic (20). He'll next face Frenchman Richard Gasquet. The 25th seed defeated Marco Chiudinelli 7-6 (2), 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (2).

Second seeded Spaniard Rafael Nadal cruised into the fourth round with a 6-4, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4) win over Wesley Moodie. He'll next face Czech Jiri Novak, who eliminated Xavier Malisse in four sets 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

Also into the Round of 16 were Tommy Robredo (6), Tomas Berdych (12) and Mikhail Youzhny, who upset David Ferrer (11) in four sets 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.

Meanwhile, fifth seeded American James Blake needed four sets to eliminate Spaniard Carlos Moya 6-4, 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3. He'll next face Berdych.

In men's second round action, former 2000 champ Marat Safin upset fourth seeded Argentine David Nalbandian 6-3, 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 7-6 (6). He'll next face Olivier Rochus after the 26th seeded Belgian went five before beating American Ryan Sweeting 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0.

Serena Sets Up Round of 16 Clash With Mauresmo: Highlighting the women's action was unseeded two-time champion Serena Williams ousting 16th seeded Serbian Ana Ivanovic 6-2, 6-4 to setup an intriguing Round of 16 match against top seed Amelie Mauresmo. Mauresmo also advanced but needed three sets to eliminate Italian Mara Santangelo 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.

Also into the fourth round was third seeded Russian Maria Sharapova after a routine 6-3, 6-2 victory over countrywoman Elena Likhovtseva (32). She'll next face China's Li Na after the 24th seed cameback to beat 2005 runner-up Mary Pierce (13) 4-6, 6-0, 6-0.

Former 1998 champ American Lindsay Davenport (10) advanced in three close sets over Katarina Srebotnik (22) 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5). She'll next meet seventh seeded Swiss Patty Schnyder, who eliminated Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli (26) 0-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Meanwhile, Frenchwoman Tatiana Golovin (27) knocked off fifth seeded Russian Nadia Petrova 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-3. She'll play Russian Anna Chakvetadze (23), who defeated Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 6-3.

Also reaching a fourth round meeting were Dinara Safina and Virginie Razzano. Safina (12) ousted Jarmila Gajdosova 6-3, 6-0 while Razzano, who upset Martina Hingis a round earlier continued her run by besting Kaja Kanepi 7-5, 6-2.

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