Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Saying Goodbye to Agassi

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.

Comments

  1. #1 tacitus
    September 3, 2006

    I don’t think Agassi really ever was a “brash young punk”. I distinctly remember commentators and reporters saying at the time that his brash image was just that, an image. Most likely all that happened was that he became more secure in who himself, and shed the marketing mythos that had be built up around him. He always was a nice guy.

    At least as an American you usually have a choice of countrymen/women to support. As a Brit, home-grown tennis stars are tough to come by. The gentleman’s gentleman, Tim Henman, is on the wane and that leaves Andrew Murray, most certainly a rising star on the circuit, but one who regularly out-brats the young McEnroe and has little of J.P.’s charm. He’s still a teenager, so hopefully he will mature into someone people will want to root for, but it doesn’t always happen.

  2. #2 Matthew
    September 3, 2006

    I am a lifelong tennis fan as well. I feel the same way about Agassi. While I never started to root for him, I did finally start to respect him.

    I don’t get why people say they don’t like tennis any more. Federer is the best player of all time. His ground strokes are a thing of genius (especially the forearm). Why people can’t get into him, just because he’s not American, is beyond me. Rafael Nadal is turning into quite a rival for this superstar and the Federer/Nadal rivalry already looks like it can stand up against the Agassi/Sampras rivalry (and before you say that Federer is too superior, so was Sampras).

    It’s just a shame that Agassi went out the way he did. His match vs. Federer was classic last year. I wish he could have fallen to Federer (or many even Roddick.. maybe it would have reignited his career).

  3. #3 dogscratcher
    September 3, 2006

    Agassi has had a great career, and while this may not be his ideal way of retiring, he has nothing about which to be ashamed: he didn’t hang on so long that he was a “joke,” his match with Baghdatis showed that at least when healthy (always problematic), he is still competitive at the upper end of the sport.

    I for one will keep watching and being interested in professional tennis: the skills needed to be competitive at the top of the game are more diverse and demanding than any other sport I know.

  4. #4 Karl
    September 3, 2006

    I am a long time tennis player, now 67 years old I play 4 or 5 times a week.
    You said:
    “Like so many other tennis fans, the game has lost my interest more and more in the last few years.”
    Would you explain why.
    Did you enjoy watching matches between, say, Eddie Dibbs and Harold Solomon with endless moonballs and neither player ever stepping inside the baseline?
    What is it that you don’t like about it – just that there are no charismatic Americans at the top? Isn’t the Federer-Nadal rivalry luring you back? Do you feel, as many complained about a few years ago, that all the points have become too short – serve, return, winner – which isn’t the case now. Since you watched Agassi-Bagdhatis, did you notice all those long baseline to baseline, corner to corner rallies? What don’t you like?

  5. #5 FishyFred
    September 3, 2006

    Isn’t the Federer-Nadal rivalry luring you back?

    No. First of all, it helps to have fellow countrymen (and women) to root for. Right now, that just isn’t happening.

    Fair or not to Roger Federer, I can’t root for him. He is simply too good. His rivalry with Nadal is not a rivalry. Federer will blow everyone away on the hard court Grand Slams and at Wimbledon. Nadal will blow everyone away at the French Open. It is impossible to be deeply invested in a sport with nobody to root for.

    James Blake isn’t good enough and Andy Roddick is too inconsistent. If even one of those two raises their game to Top 10 levels, the Grand Slam events will regain some of their luster.

  6. #6 tacitus
    September 3, 2006

    Perhaps if the ATP took heed of Martina’s words over limiting racquet technology it would level the playing field a little., and create more interesting tennis and encourage rivalries. Just staying on the baseline and whacking the ball as hard as you can is beginning to get old.

  7. #7 John Wilkins
    September 3, 2006

    I can’t stand professional tennis. But the only professional sportsman of any sport that I actually admire and respect is AndrĂ© Agassi. He behaves with grace, fairness, respect and dedication every time I see him. No matter what the man did or does, he is worth admiration.

  8. #8 FishyFred
    September 3, 2006

    Perhaps if the ATP took heed of Martina’s words over limiting racquet technology it would level the playing field a little.

    I forgot to mention that. I remember reading a column – I can’t remember the author – that suggested technology being a bad thing for tennis because some of the shots that these guys hit shouldn’t be physically possible. In my opinion, that’s not a big enough problem to kill a sport and can actually be turned to a positive, but only if there are enough talented players to take advantage of it. There aren’t.

  9. #9 Karl
    September 3, 2006

    I was hoping to get a reply from Ed, but absent that I’d like to discuss with John, Fishy and Tacitus their dislikes. Have you always disliked tennis, maybe thought that it was a sissy sport, or maybe a country club sport? Or was there a time period when you enjoyed watching it? When?
    Specifically:
    John: You say “I can’t stand professional tennis”. Why? Is it not athletic enough, too hard for you to play, too hard to follow on TV?
    Fishy: You say “it helps to have fellow countrymen”. That makes you a chauvinist not a tennis fan. You also say” “I can’t root for him (Federer). He is too good.”
    That is what I find so enjoyable about watching him. He doesn’t just bludgeon the ball, he controls it. he combines athletic ability and intelligence. He is beautiful to watch, he is literally balletic. Did you not enjoy watching Michael Jordan?
    And then you complain about the technology. Do you also not like watching baseball? Did you not like what Mark McGuire did, or Barry Bonds has done – both of whom used technology changes (aside from drugs) – souped up baseballs, shorter fences, improved training techniques.
    Tacitus: “staying on the baseline and whacking the ball” Did you enjoy it more when most points lasted only three strokes? Actually right now the tennis being played is probably the most diverse it has ever been. There are long baseline rallies, there is serve-and-volley (though not much), and there is a lot of hit deep to the corner and come to the net. There is also a lot more “touch” tennis – drop shots, short angles, topspin lobs, than there has been in years.
    So , what is the real reason you don’t like it?

  10. #10 FishyFred
    September 3, 2006

    Fishy: You say “it helps to have fellow countrymen”. That makes you a chauvinist not a tennis fan.

    Maybe it does. If having players from one’s own country to root on is a dealbreaker, then you will probably find that the number of true blue tennis fans in the United States is tiny. To get me to watch, tennis needs an abundance of evenly talented players. Nationalities are less important, but not entirely unimportant either.

    Right now, tennis does not have an abundance of evenly talented players, much less evenly talented Americans. It’s just Federer and Nadal. Nobody else is even close. Federer and Nadal could be the two best players ever, but without anyone to give them serious competition, the beauty of their play is wasted.

  11. #11 FishyFred
    September 3, 2006

    Now that I look back at my first post, I probably hadn’t thought it all through at that point. I stick by the point that having talented countrymen to root for makes a lot of other things easier to let go.

  12. #12 John Wilkins
    September 3, 2006

    Karl: John: You say “I can’t stand professional tennis”. Why? Is it not athletic enough, too hard for you to play, too hard to follow on TV?

    It’s sport. I like to play a bit, or I did when I was younger, but I really never got the point of watching it with 20,000 other people. I grew up in the home of Australian Rules Football, and I never went to a match. It simply doesn’t entertain me.

    And yes, it’s too hard for me to play, too, but of course that has no part in my attitude ;-)

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    September 3, 2006

    In answer to Karl’s question, I honestly don’t know why the sport has lost my interest so much. I really don’t think it’s because there aren’t any great American players right now, because I loved to watch Becker, Borg and Edberg play and they’re not countrymen. But that leaves me at a loss to explain it. I recognize the brilliance of Federer, but as someone pointed out above, he nearly always wins on grass or hard courts, while Nadal dominates on clay. Maybe that’s part of it. I still love to watch a really compelling match. The Agassi/Baghdatis match was great. Last year’s Agassi/Blake match was incredible. In fact, Blake is the one player out there right now I like and pay any attention to. I like his passion, and he’s a guy who has overcome a lot. With Connors now coaching Roddick, I can see him becoming a more passionate player and being more fun to watch. But for whatever reason, the game just doesn’t excite me like it used to. I used to really look forward to Wimbledon in particular. When the commercials started for it in May or June, I’d get excited about it and anticipate it. Now I just don’t. I really don’t know why.

  14. #14 Karl
    September 3, 2006

    That’s interesting Ed. Maybe it’s age. I grew up in Detroit. In the 50′s I could relate from memory all the players on the Tigers, Lions, Redwings – still can I think. But I now find baseball dull, football tiresome, overhyped, etc. I just got tired of them I guess. I guess I like to watch tennis because I play it a lot. Maybe I can appreciate better than you what the best pros can do.

  15. #15 Jim Anderson
    September 4, 2006

    I lost interest in tennis when I got whacked in the face by a serve from a 6’7″ behemoth at the start of the tournament that would determine 25% of my final grade. The B in that college class wrecked my 4.0, and I never looked back.

  16. #16 RickD
    September 4, 2006

    The Agassi story serves as strong evidence that choice of partner can make a world of difference in a person’s life. It’s no coincidence that Agassi’s career turned around directly at pretty much exactly the same time he became involved with Steffi Graf.

    I’ve lost a lot of interest in tennis because the technology has made the men’s game, in particular, completely uninteresting. If tennis wants to have a resurgence, they need to change the technology so the service game doesn’t have such an overwhelming advantage. Ace, service winner, ace, service winner…doesn’t make for an interesting game.

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