- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006

WIMBLEDON, England — Andre Agassi’s voice wavered and his eyes welled up. After years of dealing with injuries, after months of contemplation, he finally spoke the words he knew he had to, at the place he knew he had to.

Turning what was expected to be a routine pre-Wimbledon press conference into something significant, Agassi announced yesterday he will retire after this year’s U.S. Open, leaving tennis after two decades during which he collected a career Grand Slam and morphed from an “Image Is Everything” youngster to elder statesman.

“It’s been a lot of sacrifices the last few months, trying to get myself right to come back here and enjoy this tournament for the last time,” said Agassi, who has played only one match the past three months because of back trouble.

“It’s been a long road this year for me, and for a lot of reasons. It’s great to be here. This Wimbledon will be my last, and the U.S. Open will be my last tournament.”

The 36-year-old American is seeded 25th at the All England Club, where play begins tomorrow. He intends to enter as many as four hard-court events between Wimbledon and the Open, in what will amount to a farewell tour for one of the most popular and successful tennis players in history.

“He’ll go down as one of the guys who changed our sport in a lot of ways, not only the way he played the game, but also the way that he conducted himself on and off the court,” 2002 Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt said. “There’s not too many more recognizable people in tennis. The sport probably owes a lot to him.”

Agassi said he made up his mind a few months ago to leave at the end of 2006, but he wanted to make it public at the All England Club, where he won his first Grand Slam title. So there he sat yesterday, choking up, discussing his decision.

The kid with the denim shorts, Day-Glo shirts and flowing hair is now a father of two with a shaved head who wore an all-white track suit yesterday.

“I grew up in the public eye,” said Agassi, who married 22-time major champion Steffi Graf in 2001. “I sort of had to learn some tough lessons in front of a lot of people, one of which was to respect the greatest tournament in our sport.”

He didn’t always feel that way.

After a 1987 first-round loss, he didn’t return to Wimbledon until 1991. At the time, one of his justifications was that his outlandish persona and bright outfits were a poor fit for this most traditional of tournaments. His baseline game wasn’t the prototypical path to success on grass, either.

But he changed his mind, beat Goran Ivanisevic in the 1992 Wimbledon final, and credits that victory with changing the course of his career.

“It’s like it was yesterday, 14 years ago,” he said. “I imagine it’s that way when your child goes off to college. You say, ‘What the heck happened in all these years?’ It feels like yesterday for me, as vivid, as alive as ever.”

A magician at the baseline and one of the game’s greatest returners, Agassi has won 60 singles titles. That includes eight at Grand Slam tournaments; he’s one of only five men with at least one championship at each. His rivalry with Pete Sampras helped boost tennis’ popularity in the 1990s; Agassi is the last active player from their tremendous generation of American men, a group that also included major champions Jim Courier and Michael Chang.

“Andre announcing his retirement is truly the end of an era. He was one of the best players I competed against and, in turn, made me a better player,” said Sampras, who went 20-14 against Agassi, including a win in the 2002 U.S. Open final, Sampras’ final match. “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.”

Ranked No.1 as recently as May 2003, at 33 the oldest man to hold the top spot, he made a stirring run to the U.S. Open final last year, the seventh time he was the runner-up at a major.

“I had a lot of reasons to be motivated to shoot for another successful year, but for many reasons that hasn’t been the case, and I wanted to do everything I could just to get back here,” said Agassi, who missed Wimbledon the past two years because of injuries.

He’s scheduled to play 69th-ranked Boris Pashanski of Serbia-Montenegro in the first round and could face French Open champion Rafael Nadal in the third. Said Nadal: “He’s a legend.”

Agassi turned pro in 1986, reached his first major final at the French Open in 1990, and quickly drew attention for his tennis, togs and ‘tude; his celebrity was such that his two-year marriage to Brooke Shields and friendship with Barbra Streisand were fodder for the tabloids. Along the way, his “Image Is Everything” ad campaign for a camera company fostered a sense he was more about style than substance; years later, he distanced himself from the slogan.

He rose to the sport’s apex, reaching No.1 in 1995. Shortly thereafter, he went through a dry spell so dismal that he dropped out of the top 100 and resorted to playing in tennis’ minor leagues. Then came his remarkable renaissance, thanks in part to a rigorous training regimen. In 1998, Agassi made the biggest one-year jump into the top 10 by moving up 122 spots to No. 6. The next year, he won the French Open to complete his career Slam.

“Ten years into a very successful career, he was willing to go through a process to get the outcome he was interested in. It’s a great lesson,” said Todd Martin, who lost to Agassi in the 1999 U.S. Open final. “And for the last eight years, he was rewarded for that process, and I love that. To me that’s a great story.”

Agassi has won more than $30 million in prize money and collected millions more in endorsement deals; his charitable foundation has raised more than $50 million. The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy is a charter school for at-risk youth in his hometown of Las Vegas.

“He’s probably the biggest crossover star sports has had, with the effect he has had on the game, and off the court, with kids who really don’t even know he played tennis,” said Andy Roddick, who grew up watching Agassi’s matches on TV and then looked to him for advice on tour.

“When I was first coming up, the way he was a mentor, he really helped me,” Roddick said.

From rebel to sage, huh?

“I don’t think there’s one bad thing you can say about the guy,” said 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova. “I mean, that guy is just a champion. It’s amazing to still have someone around that’s achieved so much and that’s done so much for the sport.”

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