09/03/2006: I empathize with Andre Agassi. I was hoping he would make a serious run at the U.S. Open title, but–as a realist–I know what herniated disks are. I broke with tradition and turned on my television to watch that match. As he struggled, I felt his pain. As one who suffers from the same ailment, seeing that pain alone–the reality that his tennis days are over before his 40th birthday–was enough to choke me up.
For the rest of us mortals, cortisone injections are a last-ditch effort to avoid major back surgery. (I haven’t reached that point yet, but then again I’ve given up high-impact sports that I once enjoyed–tennis, basketball, volleyball, snow skiing, football, racquetball, and distance running. Even golf is a physical challenge.) For Agassi, those injections were a last-ditch effort to eke out one last match. Trouble is–as Agassi found out today–those injections have limits.
I remember when Agassi played his first U.S. Open in 1986. Putting his longevity in perspective: in 1986, Jimmy Connors was still a threat in the major tournaments; Boris Becker had just taken home his second Wimbledon; Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova still had a long-running rivalry; John McEnroe was fading; Ivan Lendl was still the top-ranked men’s player; Steffi Graf was an emerging star; Reagan was President.
Agassi had the skills, but I had seen other such players–touted highly by the pundits–who didn’t quite reach their potential: Vitas Gerulaitis, Kevin Curren, Jimmy Arias, Vince Van Patten, Elliot Teltcher, Michael Pernfors, Tim Mayotte, Johan Kriek, Mel Purcell. Each had lots of hype; among them, only one major championship.
Agassi began his career as if he would be just like them. A telegenic player, he won lots of endorsement contracts, making far more money off the court than on it. After losing successive finals in the French Open and U.S. Open, many people questioned whether Agassi really had what it took to win big matches. He appeared to be a predecessor of Anna Kournikova.
Then, in 1992, Andre won an epic five-set final to take home the Wimbledon championship. In that tournament, he destroyed John McEnroe in the semifinals (effectively sending him into retirement) and–in the final–survived a 37-ace barrage from Goran Ivanisevic to win. No player before Agassi had taken so many aces in a major final and emerged victorious.
In winning the 1992 Wimbledon, Andre showed that he had what it took. The only question was how far he would go from there.
In the years that followed, he would win a U.S. Open in 1994 and the Australian Open in 1995, then–after wrist surgery, a marriage to Brooke Shields that fizzled quickly, and a loss of motivation–see his ranking slip to 141 in the world. Many pundits figured he would go the way of Bjorn Borg.
Then, Agassi made the mother of all comebacks.
From 1999 to 2005, he would take a French Open, three Australian Opens, and a U.S. Open. This during the era in which Pete Sampras dominated the men’s field. He became one of five men to win all four major championships. (A feat that Connors, Sampras, McEnroe, Lendl, Becker, Rosewall, and Borg never accomplished.)
As a player, he had a legendary service return, a stunning two-handed backhand, the agility of a panther, and the physical conditioning of a Recon Marine. His work ethic was on the same par as Ivan Lendl, and the results were phenomenal.
Off the court, Agassi was (and is) known for his generosity, as he dedicates significant time to charitable enterprises. In baseball terms, he is the opposite of Barry Bonds: kind to fans and reporters, respectful of the game that provided him the opportunities.
Like any adult, he made his share of blunders in life, but handled them all with maturity. That is why he would be the only player in his era who would overcome the pressures and live up to–even exceeding–the hype bestowed on him.
Andre Agassi was a class act, and the sports world is better for it.