- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Nineteen years separates them. There is the old Andre Agassi, the precocious teen with the heavy-metal mane who blasted the defending Wimbledon champion off the Stratton Mountain (Vt.) center court in a July 1987 tournament. And there is the new Andre, sleek and efficient, winning points with drop shots, watching the clock finally run down.

The new Andre, aged 36, with stubbled head and shaved legs, was asked what advice he would give to his younger self. “First,” he replied, “tell him to cut his hair. Then, laugh at him because he would have a long road ahead, but I would wish him well.”

Agassi is near the end of his tennis journey. He announced earlier this month he was retiring from competitive tennis. This week marks his 17th and last appearance at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. The U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 28, will be his final event.

Regardless of whether he can match last year’s performance at the Open, where he reached the final before falling to Roger Federer, it will be an emotional departure. While he is a son of Las Vegas, Agassi credits New York with making a man out of him.

“I grew up in front of New Yorkers,” he said at last week’s Countrywide Classic, where he was eliminated in the quarterfinals. “They taught me a lot about myself. They helped me grow personally and professionally.”

His memories of the District are less complicated.

“My best friend went to school there,” he said of agent Perry Rogers, who studied law at Georgetown. “I’ve had a good record playing there, as well.”

In fact, Agassi has won the Legg Mason five times (1990-91, 1995 and 1998-99).

“I look forward to all of those muggy, humid nights,” he added.

The weather in Los Angeles last week was not exactly ideal for tennis, with a record-breaking heat wave gripping the city. The air over Center Court at the UCLA tennis complex was still and searing. Within 15 minutes of a mid-afternoon start, the shirts of Agassi and his first-round opponent, Xavier Malisse of Belgium, were saturated.

Their match was best of three sets, but in essence, it was decided by a 56-minute first set, which Agassi won in a tiebreak 12-10 after saving three set points. The 6-0 second set was over in 24 minutes.

Like the man himself, Agassi’s game has changed.

The once dauntless teenager who made it a point of honor to play every point at or inside the baseline retreated one and two yards behind it to better manage Malisse’s kick serves. Most of last Monday’s points seemed to be played at just behind the midpoint of the baseline or a few quick steps to either side.

The hot and dry air made ball control more difficult. Malisse’s attempts to overpower Agassi saw him repeatedly miss the baseline on both sides. Agassi played inside the lines and within himself. It was a case study in energy conservation, a burning topic here with power failures rolling through the city. Four times he successfully ended a point with a drop shot, an otherwise low-percentage play on a medium-fast, high-bouncing court.

With a farewell tour that has — at best — a four-to-six week run remaining, there is more a sense of celebration than sadness in Agassi’s goodbyes.

Part of it is the thirty-something professional athlete’s joy at simply being in competitive shape. Agassi said his decision to retire was, if not hastened, at least validated by what his body was telling him during the first half of the year. He had a three-month break from play because of a back injury, then first and third-round defeats on his return at Queens and Wimbledon.

“The decision to retire wasn’t as difficult or as emotional as I anticipated, but the process was emotional and frustrating,” he said. “You don’t want to get out there and feel ordinary.”

The main problem was his lower back, for which he has received cortisone shots.

After 75 minutes in a match, he said, “I couldn’t stand on one leg anymore.” The affliction developed its own rhythm, two good days, then two bad days.

But if a professional athlete’s life is measured in dog years, then Agassi was able to extend his by decades.

He said he could feel his body — mainly his ankle and back — starting to give way four years ago. He tried to ignore those complaints for as long as he could.

At least for that first-round match in Los Angeles, those messages were muted.

“There was plenty of tennis left at this end of the court,” Agassi said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide