Break Point Agassi

September 8, 2006

by Amit Goyal  

The man who was the only player to be ranked amongst the top 10 players in three different decades. The man who ranked amongst the top 10 players for 16 years. The man who is the only one amongst peers to win a career Grand Slam. The only man to win a career Slam on four different surfaces. The man who lost focus midway through his career. The man who was determined to fight back. The man who refused to take wild cards. The man who resurrected what many thought was a truncated career of a bored genius. The man who won 5 of his 8 grand slams after the age of 30. The man who loved 5 setters. The man who did not learn to quit. That man played his last competitive match on Sunday.

Agassi began the tournament with a superb display against Pavel. The match left him with a back so sore that he required cortisone injection to carry on. The next against Baghdatis was even more demanding and Agassi collapsed on his way out of the stadium and had to be take another shot of anti inflammatory compounds. Against the advice of his father (“I did not come here to quit“, he said), Agassi walked on to the Arthur Ashe court on Sunday morning with pain writ large all over his face. His movement on the court was a far cry from his usual self. He was standing way behind the baseline to have more time to return serves without moving much. Every time he had to stretch himself he let out a cry of pain so sharp that Becker admitted to having goosebumps. But he did not quit, and proceeded to stretch the match as much as he could, eventually losing out 5-7, 7-6, 4-6, 5-7. The moment of truth had arrived. Agassi had played the final match of his illustrious career. The silence in the stadium after the final serve was just the calm before the storm of applause started. No, not for the victor Becker, but for the man the crowd so dearly loved.

From the rebel to the royal, the transformation of Agassi was so drastic that it seems like a fairy tale. The man who started his career with long hair, orange lycra shorts and weird denim pants ended it with a bald head, whites and elegance. The showman had become the ambassador. He was not the most talented to grace the sport, not the best of his generation either (that would be Sampras). But he was loved more than any of his peers.

His first title was the Wimbledon (which he did not play for 3 years) against Ivanisevic and the last one was the Australian Open, which he won 4 times (which he did not play the tournament for the first 8 years of his career). He won 8 Grand Slam singles, 1 Olympic gold, 60 ATP Tour titles and millions of hearts. He along with Sampras captured people’s imagination when Connors and Borg left the game.

His decline was remarkable and his marriage with Brooke Shields a disaster. But after reaching a career low of 141 in 1997 , and divorcing Shields he decided he had had enough. He started to rebuild his career. He refused to take wild cards and started playing more Challenger series tournaments. He jumped from 141 to 6 in the rankings and the star was reborn. In 1999 he won the French Open (in a five set match, after being down two sets), reached Wimbledon finals (to lose to the king of grass, Sampras) and won the US Open. He ended the year at the top of the ATP rankings. He also won the 2000 Australian Open to be the first male since Laver to reach four consecutive Grand Slam finals. It was then that he started dating Steffi Graf and married her in 2001.

One can always remember the US Open quarter finals against Sampras which still remains to me perhaps the best tennis match ever. Sampras won 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 with no breaks of serve during the entire match. Also comes to mind his semi final match against James Blake which he won 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6). After his  victory at 1:15 a.m. Agassi said: “For 20,000 people to still be here, I wasn’t the winner. Tennis was.” And how can I forget the emotional match against Baghdatis.

After losing to Benjamin Becker in the third round of the US Open this is what he said.

The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. And over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I’ve found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments.

And I’ve found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could never have reached without you. Over the last 21 years, I have found you and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life. Thank you.

Thanks to you Agassi for providing us with so many wonderful moments. You will be missed.

One For The Ages

September 4, 2006

by Amit Goyal  

Its not often that I get up early to watch tennis matches (or anything else for that matter). It has been different this US Open. It is Agassi’ last tournament and you never know which match maybe his last one, the last one against Pavel was pretty close to that. So when Agassi was pitted against Baghdatis in the second round, with Agassi being in the form he is (8/7 record this year before the tournament) and Marcus being in his (Australian Open finals and Wimbledon semis), I knew it might be his last and had to watch it.

So here I was awake at 7 in the morning, with one eye closed, trying to follow the match. Agassi had already won the first set 6-4 and was leading in the second. He then went on to win the second set pretty easily (6-4) with Baghdatis looking out of sorts and troubled by his racquet (which his coach did nothing to change) and his wrist (hurt in a fall during the match).

Then came the third set, Baghdatis found his rythm and the slice shot, and found nothing was wrong with his racquet or him and proceeded to win the set 6-3. I must say that the match was now interestingly poised.

Fourth set is when the drama began. Agassi began in awesome stlye to break Baghdatis twice and was very quickly up 4-0 in the set. Mind you Agassi has never lost a US Open match after being up 2 sets. The crowd started packing and thinking of the match between Agassi and B Becker (not Boris but Benjamin). But Baghdatis had given up, at least not yet. He went on to Break Agassi thrice and won 7 of the next 8 games and won the set 7-5. The 23 thousand strong boisterous crowd at the Arthur Ashe court was muted. The 3 round game which seemed so near, now seemed unsure. Meanwhile, Baghdatis was booed a couple of times by the crowd, all of whom (other than Bagdatis’ coach) were rooting for their favourite. Though not in good taste it is quite understandable. They do not want Agassi to lose (neither do I). Everyone was now watching the final set (oh, how they love a 5 setter). Every Agassi point was cheered and every Baghdatis point greeted with silence. Baghdatis broke Agassi in the very first game and Agassi returned the favour in the second. Then they won their respective games and the score was now tied at 4-4. In the 9th game Baghdatis cramped big time and fell down. According to the rules he could not recieve treatment during the game and had to wait for the end of the game. Baghdatis then got up and proceeded to play some great shots and tied the game 4 or 5 times before it became too much for him and Agassi won it.

Baghdatis must have nerves of steel to get up and play again. After every serve he tried to limp to the other half of the court. You could see his muscles flexing on the camera. Hats off to him. Meanwhile, we must reserve some thought for Agassi too. Seeing your opponent in pain is not something easy to handle and it fills your mind with a lot of doubt. Also when you know it is your last tournament and any match maybe your last, your entore career flashes in fron of your eyes when you are down. The way Agassi handled the situation was the hallmark of a true champion. Agassi then went on to win the set (7-5) and the match but not before he had survived some very anxious moments. The audience must have heaved a huge collective sigh of relief when Agassi broke Baghdatis on the 12th game.

One observation here. While Federer has taken over from Pete Sampras, I think Marcus Baghdatis is the heir apparent to the mantle of Agassi. The guy is a great fighter and a brilliant player. Coming back from 4-0 down against a champion player and 23000 people is not an easy job. Also the way he played his shots even with the cramps is not easy to put in words. Brilliant job man.

Meanwhile, Agassi is not done. At least not just yet.

PS: Ojas had also written a post for the match which can be read here. 

PS: The post was written before the exit of Agassi from the US Open on Sunday.