Calm, reflective Agassi to welcome retirement

Tennis star grateful for "opportunity and privilege" of playing

August 01, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Andre Agassi sat in a comfortable chair inside a white tent at the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center yesterday afternoon with sweat sliding down the side of his face.

The white-hot sun combined with the bright lights of a dozen television cameras made the setting less than comfortable for the sport's veteran star, who is retiring after the coming U.S. Open.

But Agassi, his clean-shaven head glistening, showed no sign that he even noticed, as he patiently answered questions about his career and his last appearance at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, a tournament he has won five times in 16 previous appearances.

Agassi, ranked No. 22 in the ATP rankings, begins play tonight in a tournament that includes No. 5 James Blake, defending champion and 10th-ranked Andy Roddick and 12th-ranked Lleyton Hewitt.

"I don't know if this is a fond memory." Agassi said, when asked for his favorite Washington tournament moment, "but I remember playing Stefan Edberg in the 1995 finals and being up two breaks, 5-2 in the third set and I started getting really sick.

"It was so hot neither of us could move, and I hit a ball way up in the air down the line and then drifted back to the base line, puked in the flower pots at the back of the court and then re-en tered the point. As I say, it's not the fondest memory, but it really stands out."

From a 20-year career during which he has won 60 titles, including all four Grand Slam events, while playing more than 1,000 matches, there must be a million moments that can flicker through Agassi's mind.

As a young player, he sported long golden curls, advertised that image was everything and captivated Barbra Streisand, who once called him her "Zen master."

Then his career stalled, and in 1991, after five previous years with little to show, Agassi began to grow up. He emerged on the hard-training path that would help make him one of just five men to win the four majors, becoming the kind of player who never gives up and earns the respect of everyone in the sport.

"Growing up in the public eye fueled me to take a closer look at myself earlier than I would have normally." he said. "Sooner or later, you have to accept accountability for your actions and your words, and the sooner you do that, the better off you are. I not only survived it, I thrived on it."

Last month at Wimbledon, Agassi said it was that tournament that first taught him to respect the game.

"It taught me to really appreciate the opportunity and privilege it is to play a game for a living, to play tennis." he said. "People work five days a week to play on the weekend. We get to call it a job, you know. [To] see all those people queuing up on the outside or sitting with their umbrellas in Centre Court, they'd come rain or shine, hoping to see just a few minutes of a match. It's quite a love for the sport."

And yesterday he said it was his 1999 French Open victory that finally brought him tranquillity.

"When I won the French Open, I knew there were no more regrets inside the lines." he said. "Whatever decisions I made had led me to a place where I had won all the great tournaments of the world.

"Achieving what I have has been very surreal and leaves you with a feeling of being at peace."

Now, having forced his body through all it can stand, his deci sion is clear.

"I pushed myself until I realistically felt like I couldn't do this on the highest level any more." said Agassi, 36, who has chronic back problems.

Every day for 20 years, he has gotten up in the morning to prepare for the next match. That preparation, he said, has put him in good position to prepare for life outside the tennis tour - attending to his charitable foundation in Las Vegas and his family, wife Steffi Graf, son Jaden Gil, 5, and daughter Jaz Elle, 3.

"I'm looking forward to spending more time with them and to not having to rest at specific times." he said. "Three- and 5-year-olds don't buy that you have to rest, and I'm looking for ward to not having to."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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