Losing equals death. That's the subtext of playing the final tournament of your career. Even if you have a life outside of the sport--a good marriage, a family, other goals--when you have been a professional athlete for more than half of your existence, retirement is the death of the only life you've ever known as a man.
Twice this week, Andre Agassi stared down death. Faced with a punishing draw at the U.S. Open, Agassi saw Adrei Pavel in the first round. Agassi lost the first set and endured a set point in the second. Pavel is no joke. He's a journeyman, a quality player with a well-rounded game. There would have been no shame in losing a tightly-contested match to him. It would have been a good death. Agassi fought back, winning in four sets. It took over three hours.
Last night, Agassi faced Marcos Baghdatis, a 21-year-old tiger, seeded 8th, runner-up at this year's Australian Open and semi-finalist at Wimbledon. Much has been made about how cruel Agassi's draw is, and it's true--he has a rough road. But imagine how dispirited Baghdatis was about his draw? I'm in the #8 seed and in the in second round I get Andre freakin' Agassi?
Agassi won the first two sets in workman-like fashion. He had Baghdatis on the ropes in the third, but lost a critical break and dropped the set. Agassi began the fourth like a ripsaw, going up 4-0. Baghdatis was lost. But then, on two improbable points, where Baghdatis fought off overheads from 15 feet behind the baseline, he found himself. He evened the match at 7-5 and broke Agassi to start the fifth.
It would have been a good death. Baghdatis is a wonderful player. Agassi had given everything he had. They had gone the distance. But for Agassi, nothing is ever easy. Not winning; not losing. He broke back. They traded service games; Baghdatis holding easily, Agassi struggling for every point. And then, midway through the deciding set, Baghdatis's quadriceps cramped up.
I believe in divine intervention in sports. But not in the Michael Chang I-love-Jesus-so-God-let-me-beat-you way. After Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, Curt Schilling explained that he had prayed a great deal. He did not ask God to deliver him a victory--he simply asked that God help him do good. That's all any of us can ask. That we be given what we need; that we be helped to do our best; and let the chips fall where they may.
Agassi needed a lifeline. He got it. Nearly three hours in, the cramps slowed Baghdatis enough for Agassi to come back to life. And Baghdatis, to his eternal credit, found the strength to come back, to hold serve when he could barely stand. By the 12th game, both men were whole and able to give their best. And in the 188th minute, Agassi broke Baghdatis to win the match, to stave off retirement, to live for one more day. This was a match for the ages.
It's impossible to say how far this train goes. Certainly not to the end of the line, certainly not to Nadal or Federer. Agassi could barely walk to center court to take his bow last night. But however it ends, we have these two matches to remember him by. Even if he loses to young Benjamin Becker in straight sets, Agassi has now given himself a good--a very, very good--parting.
It's all any of us can ask for.
Note: If you're not in love with Marco Baghdatis after last night, there's something wrong with you. Here's hoping he wins five majors before he's done.
Update: James Blake, who was on the other side of the net in Agassi's quarterfinal masterpiece last year, showed up at Arthur Ashe today wearing Agassi's duds from 1991 (or'92)--the Nike polo top with the hot pink rectangles. This sort of respect and adulation is heartwarming. It reminds me of Gustavo Kuerten at the trophy ceremony after winning the 1997 French Open. When he saw that it was Bjorn Borg doing the presenting, Kuerten dropped to his knees and did the Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" bow.
It's great to see that sort of appreciation from the kids.
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