Sunday, August 27, 2006

NYC Loves Agassi

Last year, I paid tribute to Agassi at the start of what was his 20th straight US Open showing. This year will be his 21st and final appearance. (He had a spectacular run last year, beating James Blake in a fantastic five-set match -- a la Jimmy Connors -- to make it all the way to the final, wherein Roger Federer sliced and diced him with the precision of a zen master.) Agassi will play opening night (Monday). Here's what I said last year, which is even truer this year:

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Agassi, U Da Man

It’s easy to love Andre Agassi these days, this being his 20th straight appearance at New York’s Flushing Meadows (he won the US Open men’s singles title in 1994 and 1999). This wasn’t always so. He was often dismissed as all sizzle, no steak. People took his long-running advertising campaign for the Canon Rebel camera with its tagline “image is everything” a little too seriously. But as a full-fledged member of Generation X, Agassi has a well-developed sense of irony. (Of course, he’s very much an Xer in this sense as well: expressing apolitical rebelliousness with misguided fashion statements.) The ultimate irony is that he skipped Wimbledon from 1989-1991 because he refused to wear the required all-white uniform, but then made his grand slam breakthrough by winning the grass court title in 1992. That’ll shut up a few critics, no? But then he handed them a gift by getting fat on sprinkled donuts and losing his way with Brooke Shields in the mid-1990s. Schedenfreudians said his career was over. In one of the most humbling and determined comebacks in sports, Agassi hit the small and medium-sized tournaments and built his game back up from the bottom, becoming one of only five men to win all four grand slam titles (Wimbledon, French Open, US Open, Australian Open). Of course, everyone loves a comeback, especially one fueled by so much integrity. But with Agassi, it’s more than that. He is a truly charming and substantive person with a vast love of the sport that has treated him so well. Pete Sampras, his long-time rival who was always considered a substantive if not charming tennis player, might have won more grand slam titles and dominated the sport in a way that Agassi never did. But when Sampras rode off into the sunset with his model/actress wife never to be seen again except wearing a Movado watch, there was Agassi, still hitting the tennis courts because he loves the game, not just winning. And here’s the kicker: Mr. Image ended up married not to a waifish model, but to the least image conscious, most serious tennis player of all: Steffi Graf.

In retirement, Agassi will probably take a little time off to figure out how to reinsert himself in the game that he loves. But don't be surprised if, in the not too distant future, he's coaching the Davis Cup team, playing Team Tennis, coaching individual players (a la Brad Gilbert, who was instramental in Agassi's comeback), and/or supporting any number of other tennis related causes. In the meantime, it'll be a joy to watch him play his last US Open. Wish I had tix.