Bracing up for the final bow

Andre Kirk Agassi is all set to make his final appearance on the tennis court. The great man is unlikely to cheat father time for the second time, writes NANDITA SRIDHAR.

Something about him made us believe he would never leave. Perhaps it was his penchant for making comebacks; or his restless, penguin-like strides, and his characteristic traits that have become so much a part of our lives that banishing them from our minds was never really easy. Maybe we simply did not want it to happen, and dismissed it as an event in the far too distant future.

Whatever be our reasons, the truth is that Andre Kirk Agassi will soon make his final appearance on the tennis court, and top-level competitive tennis. For all his past feats, the great man is unlikely to cheat father time for the second time.

And soon the tennis world, made poorer by his retirement, will be on the hunt for another Agassi. A hunt that probably might not court success. A miracle like `Mad' Marat turning `Saint' Safin might raise a false hope or two, but the chances of finding another Agassi are as remote as the player himself signing off in style, as Pete Sampras did.

Chronic back problems forced Agassi to pull out of the Toronto and Cincinnati Masters, and he might just be one loss (provided he is fit enough for the US Open) away from saying goodbye. (How this writer would love to be proved wrong.)

What sometimes gets lost in Agassi tributes is his sheer genius in returning the deadliest of serves.

The precise backswing, and the ability to judge and take a serve much earlier than most others have made his return of serves one of the greatest in the game. Added to that was his quick footwork and sharp angles that kept his opponents running during his glory days.

The Agassi legacy, despite his eight Grand Slams including the amazing feat of winning all four, will never entirely feature his tennis.

However, people can't be blamed for remembering less of Agassi, the player, and more of Agassi, the person, and Agassi, the character. Watching him transform from a denim shorts clad brat with barely tempered tresses, cheese burger diet and a Hollywood wife, to a man in the wilderness, groping for his old genius in challenger tournaments, and finally, to the now famous bald, sober (relatively speaking, though his press conferences are anything but that) champion and family man with a famous tennis star wife, reliving his Grand Slam winning days and involving himself in numerous charities, push tennis technicalities a little behind.

Agassi the person, the character and his remarkable transformation will always be remembered more than anything else.

No doubt the exit of Agassi will mark the end of an era in American tennis. For years, the tennis world had witnessed and loved some of the most explosive and interesting personalities from the United States. Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi in his early days were part of the brash, but brilliant band of American players, a brand that is clearly on the decline.

While the Las Vegan looks to prepare for his farewell, the task is anything but easy. "It's tough, because the mental side adds to it," Agassi said. "The difficulty is in concentrating, taking stuff in while at the same time needing to be in the moment and concentrating at the task at hand.

"There's a lot of great feelings associated with what I'm going through. There's sadness in knowing that a big chapter in your life that you've poured yourself into is coming to a close. And then there's excitement for the future, for the next stage, for the next adventure," he said. But Agassi's chances are nowhere near bright. While he will occupy the centre stage at Flushing Meadows even before the start of the US Open, there is still a tournament to play, and a Grand Slam to win, and it looks unlikely that he will feature in a summit clash with Federer, like he did last year.

Men's Grand Slam events have drastically reduced to two names, and it doesn't look like being any different this time. Despite Andy Murray spoiling Federer's chances of adding another title to his already long list, the Swiss has too much experience of winning in big tournaments to worry about this defeat.

Though not anywhere near his best after his Wimbledon win, a loss doesn't necessarily indicate a decline, but simply a fact that others are working harder and understanding his game a little better than before.

If things go the way they usually do in most Slams, Federer should pocket his Grand Slam number nine, unless the repeated occurrence of Rafael Nadal's loopy top-spinning shot to Federer's backhand, near shoulder height, destroys his chances, like it did in Paris.

Both are nowhere near their best, which is understandable. Playing in final after final in the clay season and Wimbledon, with Federer playing more matches than anyone else, will take its toll. But neither Nadal nor Federer would like to miss an opportunity to add to their Slam tally.

The likes of Murray, Ivan Ljubicic, David Nalbandian, Richard Gasquet, Tommy Robredo, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Mario Ancic can bury a higher seed or two, but it looks like the realistic battle for the silverware will be between the top seed and the second seed.

The women's draw, as always, is an interesting mix. Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova are in good form, with the former yet to taste success in a Grand Slam. Yet again, injuries will prevent full-strength participation, which is turning the women's draw into a list with regular absentees.

Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne, will top the favourites' list, provided Henin's suspect knee, that has troubled her again, heals well enough. Mauresmo, enjoying the peak of her career, should be fresh after a well-deserved break.

A shock upset or two can always happen courtesy the Williams, Nadia Petrova, Martina Hingis and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Sania Mirza, having an extremely inconsistent year, should do better than give up a substantial lead like she did against Elena Dementieva at Wimbledon. Though it looks unlikely that she will make it to the fourth round like she did last year, the nation will continue to hope for the best from their only hope in the women's draw.

Kim Clijsters will not defend her title at the US Open owing to a left wrist injury. An MRI scan and X-ray showed the problem to be worse than originally believed, it is reported. Consequently, the Belgian will be sidelined for probably two months. This means she will also not be available for the Fed Cup final against Italy in September.

Clijsters, ranked No. 2, withdrew in the second set of her match at the Montreal hard-court tournament recently after she aggravated her wrist injury. She played the match with her wrist taped, but fell on the wrist while going for a shot.

Clijsters hurt her left wrist in 2004 and underwent a surgery, which saw the Belgian stay on the sidelines for the best part of the season.

Clijsters is 36-9 this season with two titles, plus semi-final appearances at the French Open and Wimbledon.