Friday, September 9, 2005

NEW YORK [-] Too busy using his racket like a magic wand and creating memories for a new generation, Andre Agassi doesn’t have the time or interest to think about retirement.

He left the U.S. Open in the wee hours yesterday morning after one more stirring match in a 20-year career filled with them.

This time, spry as ever at 35, he absorbed a beating from speedy James Blake for two sets late Wednesday night, spun the match around in the next two, then came up with scintillating shots in a fifth-set tiebreaker to win 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6).

The victory made Agassi the oldest semifinalist since Jimmy Connors performed his own magic in similarly thrilling matches on the way to the semis in 1991. Tomorrow Agassi faces another young American trying to make his mark, unseeded 22-year-old Robby Ginepri.

For the moment, any talk of Agassi retiring or playing his last match in the U.S. Open this weekend, win or lose, is premature.

“I’ll gladly take somebody along the ride with me,” Agassi said. “I don’t know for a long time how my career is going to end. I don’t know what I’m going to do, how I’m going to do it, when I’m going to do it. When I get that question, I’m just a bit numb to it really. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Agassi owns eight Grand Slam titles, two at the U.S. Open in 1994 and ‘99, and is one of five men to have won each Grand Slam event at least once. He’s threatened here in recent years, reaching the final three years ago, the semis two years ago and the quarters last year. Now he may be ready to reverse that slight spiral.

“Everyone keeps asking when he’s going to retire,” Blake said. “He has no reason to retire. He’s one of the best in the world, still chasing Grand Slams. If he’s still enjoying it and still finding ways to motivate himself, I say let him play forever.”

Agassi said before the tournament that he would wait until the end of the year to decide whether to play on or quit. He will weigh his desire to keep challenging himself and giving back to the game against his desire to spend more time with his wife, Steffi Graf, and their two young children. Of concern, too, are questions about his fragile back, which required two cortisone injections in the spine this year to calm down sciatic nerve pain from a herniated disc. That injury led to his first-round loss in the French Open and his absence from Wimbledon.

There is no doubt, though, that Agassi can keep playing at a high level when he’s healthy.

“I question myself every day,” Agassi said after beating Blake. “That’s what I still find motivating about this. I don’t have the answers, I don’t pretend that I do just because I won the match. Just keep fighting and maybe something good happens.”

Agassi, playing in his 20th straight U.S. Open, said a match like this one against Blake “means as much to me as doing it in the finals.

“It’s about authentic competition, getting out there and having respect for each other’s game, respect for each other’s person, letting it fly and letting it just be about tennis,” he said. “It’s all a bit surreal. I get out there and I try to work and I come off the court and many times in my career I feel like it’s been a dream. That’s how it is here. It’s a dream to be doing this. I feel the same way with the my children, feel same way off the court. It’s all surprising to me.”

Agassi said he was still buzzing with energy a couple hours after the match and finally fell asleep about 4:15 a.m. He awoke a few hours later feeling “a little sleepy” and had a typical morning with his family.

“In this particular case, I told Stef I wanted the kids jumping on me as soon as they can,” Agassi said. “She fought them off until about 8:15. Jaden comes in and wants to get under the blankets and make a house out of it, and my little daughter asks me if I want coffee, because she’s big on helping me make my coffee.”

By 4 p.m., Agassi was out at the National Tennis Center having a casual 30-minute practice session with coach Darren Cahill. The two were on P-1, the farthest practice court from fans, but that didn’t stop a group of spectators from gathering to squint at Agassi in the distance.

When he left the court he rewarded the loyal fans by heading over to sign autographs and say a few words.

“It was some of the best energy I ever felt - I never heard a crowd that loud,” Agassi said of the fans at the Blake match. “I thought it was just perfect, actually.”

Before the tournament, when asked what the Open meant to him, Agassi described a scene, two sets to love down, some people going home, others staying because they have hope. And hours later, thousands of people pulling him through.

“It’s quite ironic that it turned out that way,” Agassi said. “Last night I can honestly say, after having a good think about it all night and morning, that was the most passionate I ever heard a crowd in a tennis court. I certainly have never been a part of one louder. I stopped counting the standing ovations after three.

“You feel inspired by it - the hair on the back of your body is standing on end, and occasionally it leads to some magic.”

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