Adios Andre

ANDRE AGASSI ... setting an example for the current and future generations of youngsters.-AP

Sports fans are unlikely to get to see anyone quite like Andre Agassi anytime soon. Perhaps they never will, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

The show is over. And for many tennis fans, so, alas, is showtime — gone forever, never to return. No re-runs, no-remakes, no sequels, nothing. For, Andre Agassi is a tough act to follow.

Even Sean Penn would think twice before auditioning for the part of the multi-faceted protagonist if someone were to shoot a movie on the life and times of Agassi. Eminem to Zubin Mehta is a long way, a tortuous route with many evolutionary intermediates along the way — and that's exactly the terrain the Agassi show has traversed in a remarkable career that's had more slumps than there are craters on the face of the moon.

As an emotional Agassi, wiping tears from his eyes, blew kisses to his adoring fans at the National Tennis Center in New York on the first Sunday of the US Open for the last time in his storied career, in millions of drawing rooms in every corner of the globe it was time to say goodbye to one of the most startling tennis talents and, arguably, the greatest entertainer of our times.

Few men have lived life, learnt from it, remade life, and lived it again on redefined terms in a breathless sequence of makeovers as has Agassi. If life would be a poorer place if we cannot learn from our experience of it, then few modern sportspersons may have distilled as much wisdom out of life's ever-flowing juices as did Agassi.

Most sporting legends mutate through generations, historians often reinventing the heroes to suit their own tastes. But few sportsmen might have undergone as much reshaping in less than half a lifetime as did Agassi.

"Perfection of life or work?'' asked William Butler Yeats rhetorically. For Agassi, there was no conflict there. He wanted the best of both worlds. And he got it — a long, rewarding career that fetched him eight Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold, as well as a loving wife (Steffi Graf) and a happy family.

But, then, nothing came easy. For all the early attention, for all his gifts, the hard knocks came early in life for Agassi. Anointed by critics as a charismatic and worthy successor to the legacies of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in American tennis, it was not long before the Agassi stock plummeted in the volatile market-place of professional tennis.

After losing to Andres Gomez of Ecuador in his first Grand Slam final in Paris, in 1990, Agassi twice came up short in title matches at the Slams over the next 12 months. He was outplayed by Pete Sampras in the 1990 U.S.Open final and in June 1991, lost to Jim Courier in his second successive French final.

When redemption came, it was in the most unlikely of places — on the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon. In his early years, Agassi seemed to believe that the best two weeks to go on a vacation were when the eyes of the entire tennis fraternity were on a verdant piece of undulating landscape in South West London in late June and early July.

But, as it turned out, in 1992, in only his second appearance at Wimbledon, the man from Las Vegas surprised everyone — not the least himself — by getting past three supremely gifted grass court players (Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Goran Ivanisevic) in back-back matches to win the title.

By the time Agassi plotted his way to his second Wimbledon final, he had already joined some of the game's immortals — on winning the 1999 French Open, an all-new balding Agassi became only the fifth player in the history of men's tennis to win all the four Grand Slams. The four others to achieve this rare feat before Agassi were Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver.

What is more, Agassi did this after coming out of the worst slump of his career.

Sport is a strange business. It is as much a vehicle of dreams as it is a purveyor of nightmares.

Injuries and problems in his private life saw Agassi drop to No. 141 in the rankings before he staged one of the greatest comebacks in the game's history, a gutsy uphill climb.

In the event, when he played his way to the championship match at Wimbledon in 1999, many believed he could end Pete Sampras' run of five victories in six years. There was just a suggestion that he might, early in the first set, as Agassi produced outrageously brilliant returns to push the champion to 0-40 on serve in the eighth game.

From there, Sampras "walked on water." And those are Agassi's words, words that showed his honesty and grace in defeat, a defeat that was so humiliating that another man might have attempted to hide behind cliches like "You know, it wasn't my day,'' or "nothing worked for me.''

Instead, Agassi gave the genius his due after Sampras had played the finest hour of grass court tennis any man might have ever played anywhere. It was a measure of the man's character as a champion, as a human being.

As much as his searing honesty and admirable courage, what distinguished the Agassi persona was the man's loyalty to those who stood by him through rain and shine.

One of Agassi's closest friends is his fitness trainer Gil Reyes, a big-hearted man built like a wrestler. It was Reyes who was responsible for turning a fast food-loving Agassi who hated physical training into one of the fittest sportsmen on the planet.

"He is simply amazing. I cannot even begin to measure his contribution to my fitness,'' Agassi said after winning his first Australian Open in 1995, the only time he managed to beat Sampras in a Grand Slam final.

Reyes responded to that compliment with these words: "Andre deserves it. I have seen him train every day till he almost throws up, gets sick to the stomach from running. I get to see that. Many people don't get to see that because they see only the fame and the bright lights.''

That is a little peek into how the boy from the neon-lit Casino town in the Nevada desert, one with a chronic addiction to frivolity, reshaped his life and career. It was as fascinating a voyage of discovery leading to individual self-realisation as you might find in the entire history of sport.

And it is a self-mastery that saw the man, whose sparkling eyes radiated intelligence and bespoke a rare brand of courageous honesty, overcome a series of events that might have aborted his career.

What Agassi learnt from life and from a sport to which he was an adornment helped turn him into a revered senior statesman of the pro tour in the last six or seven years of his career.

Even for the hardened ones of our tribe, Agassi's post-match press conferences were always something to look forward to. Probing questions were met with thoughtful, intelligent answers and the banality that quite often turns most post-match player speak into pedestrian psycho-babble was largely absent.

Time and time again Agassi made astute observations about the problems and promises of his sport and quite a number of his press conferences were nothing less than a state-of-tennis address.

I have travelled the distance with Agassi. The first time I heard anyone speak enthusiastically about Agassi's future was as early as in 1984. At the U.S. Open in New York, one of the finest analysts of the game, the late Arthur Ashe, brought up Agassi's name while discussing the future of American tennis — then relatively safe in the creatively promiscuous hands of one John McEnroe.

Since then, I've seen the best of Agassi and the worst of Agassi. I sat through two French Open finals (1990 and 1991) wondering how someone quite as gifted could manage to look so shockingly clueless in Grand Slam finals. But the moment he booked his passage to the Wimbledon final in 1992, beating an ageing McEnroe in the semifinals playing stunningly aggressive tennis from the back of the court, I suspected that Agassi might have turned a corner.

And he proved he had, two days later, sinking to his knees awash in euphoria after beating Ivanisevic in five thrilling sets

That was one of the finest matches Agassi has played in a Grand Slam event, although I personally believe that his best came in a losing cause — a four-set loss to (who else?) Sampras in the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2001. It was a match of gladiatorial severity and it produced a brand of tennis that might have rarely — if ever — been matched. Neither player lost serve; and no spectator who knew the timeless from the mundane might have left his seat during the contest.

In London last June, when told that Agassi was meeting the press on the eve of the 120th championships, I instantly knew what was coming. He had spent a long time making up his mind, discussing his future with his wife Steffi Graf and others close to him. But on that day, Agassi, predictably, steered well clear of histrionics and simply made it clear to everyone that he felt his time was up and that he would retire after playing the U.S. Open.

The cocky teenaged prima donna, who was a warning for boys his age, has retired as a senior statesman whose life and career are examples to emulate for this and future generations of youngsters.

You won't see anyone quite like Andre anytime soon. Perhaps never.

* * *

1974: Plays with Jimmy Connors at the Alan King-Caesar's Palace Tennis Classic as a four-year-old.

1980: Agassi, 10, takes on Pete Sampras, 9, for the first time at a junior tennis tournament in Los Angeles. Agassi emerges victor.

1986: On May 1, two days after his 16th birthday, he turns professional.

1986: Announces his arrival on the tennis scene after overwhelming 12th-ranked Tim Mayotte in the second round of the Volvo International.

1987: In July, loses to 106thranked Patrick Kuhnen in the fourth round of a tournament. His ranking falls to No. 90 and he contemplates giving up tennis before coach Nick Bollettieri persuades him to change his mind.

1987: Wins his first GP Tour title at Itaparica, Brazil, in November.

1988: Climbs to No. 3 in world rankings, enters semi-finals of the French Open and U.S. Open.

1989: Falls to No. 7 in world rankings, but becomes the quickest to surpass $1 million in career prize money.

1990: Enters the French Open final _ his first Grand Slam final _ where he loses to Andres Gomez. Also enters the U.S. Open final where he loses to Sampras.

1991: Loses the French Open final again, this time to Jim Courier. Falls to No. 10 in world rankings after picking up just two titles in the season.

1992: Wears down Goran Ivanisevic in five sets to win Wimbledon.

1993: Plagued by injuries, he drops to No. 24 in world rankings.

1994: Appoints Brad Gilbert as his coach. Wins the US Open as an unseeded player. Climbs to No. 2 in world rankings.

1995: Wins the Australian Open. And by April becomes World No. 1. Wins a career-high seven titles from 11 finals.

1996: Defeats Sergi Bruguera in August for the Olympic Gold medal.

1997: Plummets to No. 141 in world rankings, as he fails to win a title or appear in a Tour final for the first time since turning pro.

1998: Wins successive hard court titles at Legg Mason and Mercedes Benz Cup in July. Jumps to No. 8 by August.

1999: Wins five titles, including the U.S. and French Opens, and reaches the Wimbledon final. Regains the No. 1 spot in July.

2005: Finishes in the Top 10 for the 16th time in his 20-year career and becomes the oldest player in year-end Top 10 since Jimmy Connors (36) was No. 7 in 1988.