I’ve mentioned before that I was a big tennis fan growing up and for most of my adult life. Like so many other tennis fans, the game has lost my interest more and more in the last few years. I grew up watching first Borg and McEnroe, then Lendl, Becker and Edberg, and finally the greatest generation of American players in Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang. Agassi is the last to retire, at 36 years old, and I share the universal feeling that his retirement represents the end of an era. And frankly, I’m quite surprised that he’s the last one standing.
Early in his career, I didn’t care for Andre at all. There are few ideas I find more loathsome than “image is everything”, which was the theme of his commercials for years. And that marketing slogan was authentic for him when he began his career. With his long hair, his colorful clothes and his behavior, he seemed exceedingly shallow to me. I remember him refusing to play Wimbledon because they required that players wear predominately white clothing. Looking at him today, you would hardly recognize that brash young punk.
Somewhere along the line, Andre grew up. In 1997, when he got married and stopped taking tennis seriously, his world ranking fell into the mid-100s. He had fallen so far that he was reduced to playing Challenger tournaments, ones designed for lowly ranked players. But he rededicated himself to tennis and committed to a now-legendary workout regimen that made him the best conditioned player in the game. At an age when most players start to decline, his new commitment reignited his career. In one year, he went from #141 in the world to #6.
In 1999, he finished the career grand slam by winning the French open. Most importantly, he reignited the rivalry with Pete Sampras. Together, the two of them defined and dominated the game for nearly a decade and treated fans to one epic match after another. At the US Open in 2001, they met in the quarterfinals in one of the greatest matches ever played. Neither was able to break serve in the match and all 4 sets ended in tiebreakers. The next year they would meet in the finals, a match that Sampras would again win for his 14th grand slam title and the final match of his career. It was the only appropriate way for him to go out, by beating his great rival.
One can only wish that Agassi had gone out the same way, but all of his rivals are long retired. Instead, he made the US Open his last, finishing on his home turf in front of fans who adored him. The Flushing Meadows crowd lavished him with applause, energy and emotion all week and he gave them one more stunning match the other night against Baghdatis. It was an amazing 5 set match between two players showing tremendous heart and will. But today, he lost to Benjamin Becker in 4 sets. The crowd gave him a seemingly endless ovation, after which he choked back tears as he gave a heartfelt thank you to the fans for helping carry him for so long.
The Sports Guy wrote about this the other day and I agree with every word he said. He wrote:
I don’t care about tennis anymore. Haven’t in some time, actually. But few sports scenarios are more reliably electrifying then the whole “aging American star makes one last run at Flushing Meadows” thing, as they’re battling for their life against some no-name gunslinger — usually a seeded foreign player who looks like he spends afternoons belittling ballboys, hitting on other players’ wives and using the Miami Vice razor to shave his closely cropped stubble. The crowd galvanizes behind our hero from the first point, and the match almost always goes five sets, and the tennis is just breathtaking enough that it makes you wonder, “Hey, why don’t I watch tennis more often?” (until you realize that these scenarios only come along every five or six years). And there’s always a point when they show the clock and the announcer says, “Just past midnight here at Flushing Meadows,” and then it absolutely looks like our hero might lose, at least until the raucous crowd rallies one more time and carries the good guy to victory. And the whole thing is so freaking glorious, it makes you remember why you started following sports in the first place.
Well, I love this scenario. And it’s happened only four times in my lifetime: Connors, McEnroe, Sampras and, now, Agassi.
The thing is, I never really liked Agassi. Always thought he was a little contrived. Now I’m pulling for him like a family member. It’s the old Kareem Corollary — if they hang around long enough, no matter who they are, they’re eventually going to sucker you into rooting for them. In Agassi’s case, he kept a low profile over the past few years, said and did all the right things, even married the likable Steffi Graf, and I find myself feeling sad that he’s stepping away, more because this particular scenario probably won’t happen again for some time. Ten years from now, when Roger Federer is playing this role (even as a Swiss player), I’m not going to care. Same for Andy Roddick, the homeless man’s Agassi whose career peaked off the tennis court when he hosted “SNL” and dated Mandy Moore. So this is the end of an era in more ways than one — the last famous American tennis star, the last Connors-like scenario at Flushing Meadows, and in all probability, the last time I’ll probably care about a tennis match.
That’s exactly how I feel. But I started liking Agassi, after initially disliking him, not just because he stuck around long enough, but because he genuinely grew up and became a better, more substantive person. Every major athlete today has a foundation, typically set up by their agent and run by their management company, to do charity work. Few have ever been as deeply involved in helping his community than Agassi. He has gone far beyond the norm of just appearing at a few big fundraising dinners to raise money.
In his home town of Las Vegas, he has even opened his own charter school, right in the middle of one of the worst neighborhoods in town, to help kids who severely lack opportunities. Tuition is free. He funds shelters for abused and neglected children, Boys and Girls Clubs, clinics for handicapped children, and much more. And he doesn’t just sign a few rackets to auction off to fund these projects, he spends a great deal of time there himself. I know a couple of people who have been involved with his foundation and some of his projects in Las Vegas, and they tell me that he is very hands-on, attending to every detail of what goes on. Now he will have much more time to devote to that foundation and to his own family. We can only wish him the best and mourn the end of an era in tennis.