Long live The King

Before 1997, Andre Agassi was a brash youngster. But post-1997, he was the epitome of professionalism. Discipline, good technique and defence, and right attitude are what made him a great player, writes RAMESH KRISHNAN.

This US Open brought an end to the career of one of the most charismatic players of all time. On a Sunday afternoon, in front of 23000 fans, many of them in tears, Andre Agassi bid adieu to competitive tennis in a farewell befitting a player of his stature.

At 36, it is not that players older than him have not performed well. Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall and Jimmy Connors are three names that come to mind — players in the Open era who excelled in their late 30s and right into their 40s. But Agassi's achievement, playing in his 21st consecutive US Open, is every bit remarkable, for he is someone who started off at a very young age and played almost all his tennis on the modern day hard surfaces.

Personally, I felt for him, as he was the last player remaining against whom I had played. Part of an illustrious quartet that included Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, I doubt if we will ever see an accomplished foursome as this. Three of them were ranked world No. 1 and the fourth, Michael Chang, is to date the youngest winner of a Grand Slam title.

Among this group, Agassi was by far the first to arrive. He started making headlines in 1986, a couple of years before the other three, and continued to do so till 2006, a good four years after Pete Sampras had retired. And in some ways, he distinguished himself even within this distinguished group.

Agassi's long career can be divided into pre-1997 and post-1997. That was the year when his ranking dipped to 141 in the world and he dropped down to playing the `minor league' tournaments in order to come back. And he came back stronger than before, for his second half record is more impressive with five of his eight Grand Slam titles and a longer stint as the No. 1 player in the world.

There are several lessons to be learnt from Agassi.

1. Discipline: Not a word that you would associate with Andre during the early part of his career. Of course, he had that wonderful talent and as long as he was young, things were fine. But he was simply not able to win the big matches. There were too many defeats in Grand Slam finals against lesser opponents and questions were being asked. He was not known for preparing himself well — both physically and mentally. In fact, in one of the US Opens, he showed up on the eve of his first match and was promptly shown the door.

With this kind of a background, it is remarkable that he made the change post-1997. After that, he was always the epitome of professionalism, always well prepared to compete.

2. Good technique: Andre Agassi played tennis out of a coaching manual. His strokes were very efficient and took very little out of him. That is why, even at the ripe age of 36, he was able to run Marcos Baghdatis, aged 21, into the ground.

3. Defence: To perform well in the long haul, a player needs good defensive skills. As you age, both your speed and power diminish. And one needs to rely more on guile and experience. It is important to be able to control the game from the baseline and that is something Agassi shares with the other 30 plus performers — Gonzales, Rosewall and Connors.

4. Attitude: Again a sea change between the pre-1997 and post-1997 Agassis.

Before 1997, Agassi was a brash youngster, not necessarily respectful of the traditions of the game, staying away from Wimbledon because of the all-white dress code. Post-1997, he was exactly the opposite. Very humble about his achievements and respectful of his rivals, he became a perfect role model for youngsters. Interestingly enough, in his last US Open, a tournament that encourages `colourful' outfits, he chose to play in the most conservative white clothes.

Andre Agassi is one of those rare tennis players who enriched the game with his presence. The King has now retired. Long live The King!