Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Agassi, Blake, Tonight at 7:00 p.m.

If sports mean anything to you, be sure to watch the Agassi/Blake match tonight at the U.S. Open. Blake is playing the best tennis of his life after facing down a career-ending injury and Agassi is racing against the sunset--this is his last best chance to win a major.

A brief word about Agassi: There may not be a more compelling figure in modern sports. He's a fundamentally tragic figure who has found his way to a happy ending. Agassi emerged on the tour as a bright light, someone who was expected to win many majors. He got the big endorsement deals with Nike and Prince, seemed on the brink of success, and then suffered a series of devastating losses in Grand Slam tournaments. He then became something of a nut. He shaved his body hair, dated Barbra Streisand, worked out with shady "strength" coaches, and became a parody of the goofy, spoiled, underachieving professional athlete. He watched from the sidelines as a host of lesser Americans (Jim Courier, Michael Chang) won majors. And then there was Pete Sampras.

Sampras was an unheralded teenager when he blew the heavily-favored Agassi off the court in the 1990 U.S. Open final. (The score was 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, but it wasn't that close.) Shaken by the loss, Agassi then watched as Sampras became the most dominant player of his generation and headed off on a chase of Rod Laver legend. Agassi dropped out of the top 10, into the 100s, and looked washed up.

Two years later, something amazing happened. On the grass at Wimbledon, the surface least friendly to his game, Agassi found himself in the finals against a young, hard-serving Goran Ivanisevic. He dropped the first set in a tied break, but came back to win in five sets. He was reborn.

Since then, Agassi has gone on to win 7 more majors and is one of only a handful of men (I believe four or five) to have won all four of the Grand Slam tournaments--something even Sampras failed to do. Along the way he dropped the dangling earrings and the denim shorts, became a born-again Christian, got married, had children, and now, at 35, is still contending for titles after Chang, Courier, and Sampras are long since retired.

When the final reckoning on his career takes place, I'd argue that you could put Agassi in among the five best to ever play the game (Laver, Sampras, Borg, McEnroe). But taken as a tale of promise, failure, perseverance, and grace, you'll find no better story in all of sports.

Update, 11:56 p.m.: At 5-3 in the third set, up two sets and a break, James Blake suddenly took on the pallor of Jana Novatna. If Blake loses, let's hope he gets beat and doesn't collapse.

Update, 1:15 a.m.: If you missed this classic you only have yourself to blame. Simply unbelievable. More thoughts on the greatness of Andre Agassi tomorrow.

7 comments:

Aaron said...

In April 1999 I saw Agassi having a drink at the Whiskey Bar in the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood. I walked up to him and encouraged him to get to England early so he had plenty of time logged on grass before Wimbledon. He stood up, gave me a hug, and bought my friends and me a round of drinks. As I walked away from his table, I said "kick Sampras's ass." He replied , "You got it." I have been an Agassi man ever since.

My secret word is: dsuhii

Anonymous said...

JVL:
There is more to the Agassi story than you mentioned. He had not 1 fall from grace but 2. The first happened early, but the second happened when he married Brook Shields and seemed content with life and not as driven as a tennis player. He left Shields, then shacked up with the greatest female tennis player of the generation, Steffi Graf, and once again started winning grand slams. Is there any question that their kids will be amazing tennis players? Have two such amazing athletes ever coupled and produced kids? I suspect the lessons learned from the harsh treatment by his father will make Agassi avoid pressuring his kids to succeed at tennis.

miklos rosza said...

Well, first impressions are hard to overcome; I disliked the early incarnation of Andre Agassi and rooted against him for many years.

However, I have a vague impression that he's a nicer guy now.

Anonymous said...

Great brief bio of Agassi's tennis career! I would simply add that while he began as a somewhat unattractively "spoiled" athlete, every time he opens his mouth now(at least in public), he exhales grace, charm, and humility. He has so much class that I can only and earnestly wish him the best, no matter what happens on court.

craig mclaughlin said...

How fitting that Agassi won match point on return of serve. I just hope he has something left for the semi's.

Aaron said...

DUDE! I told you Agassi was the man!!!!

Chris Byrne said...

That was an amazing example of control, poise, and experience beating basic power and athleticism.