ONE LAST LOOK BEFORE AGASSI'S GONE

AP

Andre Agassi journeyed with us, he and his tennis, we and our jobs,side by side, through the years, and eventually we learnt to APPRECIATE him, for we saw him change, turn not just into a better player but a better man, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Now, finally, when fashioning his tennis obituary is legitimate, the fingers abruptly turn reluctant, a melancholy of sorts seizes the mind. It's not the first obituary we've started about Andre Kirk Agassi, in 20 years we've killed him off half-a-dozen times, because he was too silly, too wasteful, too unathletic, too disrespectful, too short to be a champion. Then he made us tear them up.

And this melancholy, where did that arrive from? He annoyed, exasperated, irritated, you'd shake your head at his buffoonery (he once gave an opponent, 0-5 down, a game by catching the ball), wince at his behaviour (he reportedly once asked Nike engineers to find a way to keep Sampras' tongue in his mouth), and yet, now, we're gloomy because he's said he's going.

It's strange, athletes they come and go, we admire and then forget, for they are too many and the heart cannot hold them all. But him, he's different, always has been, from the time he first played on tour in 1986, the year a kid was born in a corner of Spain called Rafael.

He journeyed with us, he and his tennis, we and our jobs, side by side, through the years, and eventually we learnt to appreciate him, for we saw him change, turn not just into a better player but a better man. We'd heard rumours about life and its second chances, but he, this sneerer at Samson who shaved his head and grew stronger, was proof of it. Of all the redemption songs in sport, his is the sweetest.

I'll miss him? You bet. For a while at least, when Grand Slams open, we'll be craning our necks and searching for old baldy, waiting for him to show us what is athletically possible even when grey invades the hair.

Still, we've got him till the US Open, a few final matches before he's reduced to a statistic, and maybe just enough time for...

... ONE last look at his hasty pigeon-toed shuffle between points, walking from ad court to deuce with only time for a quick head polish with the towel, the last shot forgotten, his body language an echo of his wife's, saying that he was all business. Maybe those old lungs demand he waits an extra second these days, but as the sluggish Nadal ponders the works of Dostoevsky between points, you wish he'd learn from Agassi that sport is about continuity.

... ONE last taste of the instinctive theatricality that defined him (which is why Nike paid him more than even Pete, for he was a filler of stadiums). You didn't have to admire Agassi in his youth, but he was always fascinating, tennis' self-appointed denim-shorted salesman to a new, hipper audience, seeing himself not just as player but as entertainer (and he was prescient in this regard). Who else could get Barbra Streisand to sit in their Wimbledon box in a sailor's suit?

But it was more that, he was interesting because he confounded us, he was a baseline player whose first Grand Slam title came at Wimbledon after beating McEnroe, Becker, Ivanisevic? We'd say Pete owned him and he'd go and spank him, beating Pete 14 times, more than any man, so what if he lost 20 times as well; we'd say he was too short (he didn't make six feet which was a disadvantage in a time when all great players were) and he'd respond by becoming only the fifth man ever to win all four slams. Even Pete never got there, nor so far has Roger.

... ONE last listen to him on court, because you could close your eyes and hear him play and it was like being in the audience when Horowitz went to work on the piano, for he'd produce these clean powerful notes, each one emerging like it had been polished for hours, shots that were not contaminated by anything, they were the pure, crisp offspring of faultless timing and immaculate technique. For a rebellious soul, his art was classical.

... ONE last reminder of how he altered his game, because no one really does that (even Federer in the short-term sense, whose refusal to alter tactics in Paris was staggering) but Agassi, perhaps because he could not add inches vertically, he grew muscles, staying with, and sometimes ahead of, a changing game.

The result, he explained, was: "I served bigger than I ever used to. I'm able to handle pace better so as the game got faster, I could just shorten my swing a touch. I got smarter with my shots. I've had to get more aggressive. It used to be where I could just sort of run people around until they fell into the ground, until guys are just too strong now. They can keep you from doing that because they're gonna take their chance."

... ONE last interesting press conference, really, for the interview room buzzes with monosyllables, and cliches ricochet off the walls, and players don't even care to hide their disinterest, but the articulate Agassi became tennis' best explainer, able to peel back the game and reveal something we did not know. In a way, like with the kisses to the crowd, his decision to answer thoughtfully, was part of his giving back.

Much of this, and his generosity, is evident in an answer he gave to a query about why, unasked, he goes out of his way to help young players like Roddick and Blake. Explained Agassi: "Actually, Andy asked me that one time when we were travelling together, playing some charity events. I was talking to him about his game. He says, `Why are you telling me those things?' I said, `Because I want to beat your best. Your best is what challenges me, it's what pushes me, it's what adds to me.' To get over a line because somebody loses doesn't feel as good as getting over the line because you step up and win. If somebody can be better, I want to see it. I think the game deserves it."

... ONE last sign of an unusual sporting courage, a strength of character we saw so clearly. After he'd won three slams between 1992-95, he collapsed, he won nothing important in 1996, 1997, 1998, and he was vilified for his manner and his habits, and he sank to No. 141. He was rich, famous, he could have coasted, three slams was pretty good, Courier won only four. But he went to the Challengers, he remade himself, he made the biggest single year's jump ever from No. 122 to No. 6, and he'd gather five more slams in the next five years.

Agassi seemed the anti-Connors for long, none of that snarling, desperate drive, yet at career's end who would believe they'd share one staggering statistic: both made the Top 10 for 16 years.

One last look only? Yes, it'll have to do.