- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

NEW YORK — Crouched alone in the silence of the locker room, a pro tennis player no more, a red-eyed Andre Agassi twisted his torso in an attempt to conquer the seemingly mundane task of pulling a white shirt over his head.

Never more than at that moment did Agassi seem so vulnerable, looking far older than his 36 years, wrestling not simply with his bad back but also with two overwhelming and conflicting emotions.

There was the concrete sense of departure, of knowing his career came to an end yesterday with a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 loss to 112th-ranked Benjamin Becker in the third round at the U.S. Open. And there was the freeing sense of excitement, of knowing he has more time to devote to his wife, Steffi Graf, and their two children; of knowing there are no more flights to catch, no more practice sessions, no more injections to dull the searing pain of an irritated sciatic nerve.

That’s why, for Agassi himself and the 20,000 or so fans who honored him with a raucous, four-minute standing ovation in Arthur Ashe Stadium after the match, it truly did not matter all that much what yesterday’s outcome was. This day and this tournament were all about saying goodbye to an eight-time Grand Slam champion who grew up in front of the world, from cocky kid with the shoulder-length hair and denim shorts to the thoughtful guy with the shaved pate and proper tennis whites.

“The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I’ve found,” Agassi told the crowd, tears streaming down his cheeks, his voice cracking with emotion. “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.”

He could have been referring to his losses in his first three major finals, two at the French Open and one at the U.S. Open, setbacks that made him wonder if he would ever reach the very top. Or, more likely, when, having won Wimbledon and reached No. 1, he sank to 141st in the rankings and resorted to playing in tennis’ minor leagues in 1997. Or, most recently, when his back hurt so badly after the first two rounds of this U.S. Open, the tournament he announced this summer would be his last.

Agassi received a cortisone injection after beating Andre Pavel in 3 hours, then received three anti-inflammatory shots in the days after beating eighth-seeded Marcos Baghdatis in an even longer encounter. The last injection came yesterday, before facing Becker, a German who won the 2004 NCAA singles title for Baylor but is so unaccomplished he needed to go through qualifying just to make it into the Open.

Talk about matching bookends: Agassi played the very first of his record 61 Grand Slam tournaments at the U.S. Open in 1986, losing to Jeremy Bates, who was ranked outside the top 100 at the time. Since then, Agassi was 24-0 at the Open against men rated that low — until yesterday.

But Agassi couldn’t conjure up any more magic in his 21st consecutive Open, an event he won in 1994 and 1999. His back — and Becker — wouldn’t let him. Over and over, Agassi would pull up short, watching a ball fly by instead of chasing it. He winced after serves, clutched his lower back after stretching to reach for shots.

“I wanted to run on the court and pull him off,” said Agassi’s trainer, Gil Reyes, “because it shouldn’t hurt — it shouldn’t hurt that bad.”

There were times, as his limp grew more pronounced, when it seemed quite likely that Agassi wouldn’t be able to complete the match; his father, who turned him into a tennis player as a tot, had said he hoped Agassi wouldn’t try to play yesterday and wasn’t in attendance.

“If I wanted to quit,” Agassi said, “I would have done that a long time ago. 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,” he said, then smiled and added: “That all doesn’t matter anymore.”

Not only is Benjamin Becker not related to Boris Becker, they’ve never even met. Yet the B. Becker that Agassi faced yesterday sure did serve like “Boom Boom,” pounding 27 aces at up to 143 mph, the last on match point. He won 13 consecutive points on his serve during one stretch. There were times it was tough to tell that Agassi’s final two majors — he lost to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon — were the first two of Becker’s career. He never had even won a tour-level match anywhere until the first round at the All England Club.

He was steady when he had to be, including saving four break points in the match’s third game. When the biggest match of his career finished, Becker joined the crowd in standing and applauding for Agassi.

“It was a tough moment, an emotional moment for me, too,” Becker said. “I was happy, obviously. At the same time, I was sad.”

His white ballcap turned backward, Becker swung away, aiming for the lines and finding them. He compiled 82 winners, 45 more than Agassi, and played craftily, winning at least a half-dozen points with drop shots that forced the ol’ man to run in vain — and drew boos and whistles from the crowd.

The fans did all they could to will Agassi to one more win, rising with arms aloft to celebrate when he would break serve or fight off a break point. They applauded after Becker’s faults, a tennis faux pas. They broke into clap-clap-clap choruses of “Let’s go, Andre!” at changeovers.

“You can’t be that loud,” said Becker, who’s more accustomed to facing hostile crowds of about 200 during college matches.

Now he’ll get another taste of partisan support: Becker’s fourth-round opponent is 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick, who edged No. 22 Fernando Verdasco 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-2.

Tough to tell, perhaps, but there were other matches yesterday. Marat Safin, the 2000 Open winner but unseeded this year after a series of injuries, eliminated No. 4 David Nalbandian in a fifth-set tiebreaker; 1998 Open champion Lindsay Davenport saved two match points before getting past No. 22 Katarina Srebotnik; and No. 27 Tatiana Golovin upset No. 5 Nadia Petrova. Other winners included 2001 U.S. Open champion Lleyton Hewitt and No. 2 Rafael Nadal.

All eyes were on Agassi, though, including at other courts. When the scoreboard at Louis Armstrong Stadium posted the result, there was a collective moan.

The reaction in Ashe was more of a celebration.

“It felt amazing. Nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I was overwhelmed with how they embraced me at the end,” Agassi said. “They saw me through my career. They’ve seen me through this, as well.”

He leaves the game as an elder statesman, not merely because he was the oldest man in the field, and not merely because of his wins on the court, but also because of his demeanor and extensive charity work off it. Through all the in-the-public-eye parts of his personal life (Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields, Graf) and ups and downs of his professional life, he has been one of tennis’ most dynamic and popular players.

He leaves with 60 singles titles, including a career Grand Slam, one of only five men to have won each of the sport’s premier events — something his great rival, Pete Sampras, never did, Roger Federer hasn’t managed, and players such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors didn’t accomplish, either.

Agassi’s been given credit for changing the way players return serve, and for showing how to dominate from the baseline by using quicker-than-a-blink reflexes to take the ball early. He gets praise, too, from his peers as an off-the-court role model. Federer, for one, talks about hurrying to start his own charitable foundation after learning about Agassi’s efforts to raise tens of millions of dollars for at-risk youths in his hometown of Las Vegas.

In return, tennis has given Agassi much, too: money, fame, influence, and, of course, Graf, herself a 22-time Grand Slam singles champion.

After Agassi shared a private moment with Graf and their children, he entered the locker room to another standing ovation, this one from his fellow players. He chatted briefly with his coach, Darren Cahill, sitting side-by-side on a bench. When Cahill left, Agassi changed out of his on-court attire, dressed gingerly, then took a moment to stretch his back on a locker room bench.

“I’m going to wake up tomorrow and start with not caring how I feel. That’s going to feel great,” Agassi said. “And then I’m imagining for a long time, anytime somebody asks me to do something, I’m going to go, ‘Sure. Why not?’”

After his news conference, Agassi headed for the parking lot, stopping occasionally for hugs, including with “Saturday Night Live” alum Jon Lovitz, of all people.

With fans surrounding his car — several yelling, “Thank you, Andre!” — he climbed into the back, joining his brother, trainer and coach. As the car pulled away, Agassi turned to wave goodbye, to his tournament, to his fans, to his career.

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