The curtain has begun its slow fall

Published : Jun 12, 2004 00:00 IST



Andre Agassi has a powerful excuse to hang up his racket at year's end, for he has nothing left to accomplish as a player. He has done it all and has no reason to continue but for the sheer joy of it, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

IN the libraries of many newspaper's offices are to be found the obituaries of great men and women, achievers in a variety of fields. Some are not even dead. Perhaps they are old, or unwell, and newspapers, constantly fighting deadlines, keep a sketch of their lives handy. It is not rude but practical.

Perhaps in one of these libraries a young assistant has found a new subject. Has started to draw a map of a 34-year-old's life. Has scribbled down where he was born. Noted that at two years old his father taped a racket to his hand. Discovered that among other things he has been called rock star and sage, maverick and humanitarian.

Perhaps already the first few lines have been punched out on a computer on Andre Kirk Agassi. You know, just in case.

Of course, Agassi is alive and well and has we hope a good many decades of health and happiness left. It's just that some people might think his career as a tennis player is very gradually beginning to die.

Writing obituaries on athletes' careers is fraught with danger. For two years Pete Sampras' demise was heralded across the globe whereupon he figuratively rose from the dead, won the 2002 U.S. Open, and embarrassed a host of pundits.

It was a powerful reminder that while we bear witness to sporting greatness, we have no true understanding of what comprises a champion, we cannot fathom the depth of their desire, the muscularity of their resolve. The extraordinary athlete is beyond ordinary analysis.

It is why we must approach Agassi with care. There have been signs of athletic mortality but how much should we read into them? Already he has had a second coming, the long-haired punk replaced by the tonsured monk, so could there be a third? It seems unlikely.

Last year Agassi won four tournaments including the Australian Open, reached three further semis, and rampaged his way through to the final of the season-ending Masters Cup. But as summer shines it has been a year since he won a tournament. This year, he has not been to a final in six outings. And now he has been bundled out of the first round of the French Open by a player barely known in his own home-town.

Agassi remains a powerful fellow, his musculature still in evidence, but perhaps his feet are heavier, his semi-psychic ability to read a serve's direction diminishing, his reflexes that millisecond too slow to hold off a battalion of young players who do not confuse respect with mercy.

His defeat at Roland Garros to French qualifier Jerome Haehnel was not as baffling as it might appear. Agassi won the French in 1999, but it is a surface on which he now feels his age. The loose, gritty clay steals valuable pace from his gunslinger strokes, it asks more running from his legs than he would like, it refuses to allow him the short, quick points he needs.

All athletes must listen carefully to their bodies, keep an ear cocked to a possible rebellion by a creaking knee or complaining hamstring, but Agassi more so than others. He cannot play a full schedule, he must pick and choose, according to time and surface, and allow his muscles to recuperate.

To play a full clay court season would be too demanding; to not play enough tournaments would mean inadequate preparation. His triumphs in Australia, at the very start of the season, suggest Agassi is quicker in finding rhythm than most. But merely one warm-up event on clay, and a first round loss there too, was insufficient for even his genius to ignite. It is a dilemma that age has brought and he cannot escape.

As he said post-defeat in Paris: "I probably got what I deserved. You always want enough matches. But I'm not at that stage in my career where I have a lot of options. I have to choose carefully and hope a few things fall my way to find everything I need to have a chance of winning. It was certainly not to be with this preparation. That's probably the most obvious thing when you don't like the way that you are feeling out there."

Although he has not won a Slam outside the Australian Open since 1999, he is a contender everywhere except on clay. With his ability to abbreviate his backswing and his penchant for quick rallies, Wimbledon offers him more opportunity. So does the U.S. Open, where he enjoys dictating on an accelerated surface. It is here we shall get the real measure of his decline.

If he is defeated early there, people might say, as they did of Sampras, that he should go. Not lose to players who once he might have dismissed with ease, not leave us with a final image of a stumbling bald man. But Agassi has earned the right to go at his pleasure. He is still a threat, a contender, and only he knows at what pace his greatness is eroding.

But Agassi has a powerful excuse to hang up his racket at year's end. It is not merely his happy marriage to Steffi or his reluctance to watch his young children grow up long distance. It is that he has nothing left to accomplish as a player. He has done it all. He has no reason to continue but for the sheer joy of it.

Andre Agassi's life was in a way one initially without choice. When he was a baby in Las Vegas his father Mike dangled a tennis ball from his crib. Born to the city of chance, his father would take none with him. He was born with superb eye-hand coordination, his hands quicker than a card-sharp, and he would hit balls, by the hundreds, and the thousands, day after day. Eventually he would become a moving encyclopaedia on shot-making.

Later in life Agassi would have choices and he would make some disastrous ones. With his multi-coloured hair, and denim shorts, and rock star manner, he became a mutineer against tradition. He ate junk food, supposedly tanked sets, blew kisses to actresses in his box. He was talent oblivious of discipline, brilliance unharnessed.

But perhaps his legacy will be that there is a way back. That a man can remake himself, a player can refind greatness, that will is the most compelling of sporting virtues. Agassi shed his hair but grew a new resolve. Between 1990 (his first Grand Slam final) and 1998, he won three Slams out of 26 contested; in his second coming between 1999 and 2003, he won 5 of 15. In 1997, he was ranked as low as No. 141, by the end of 1999 he was No. 1.

It is safe for Agassi to retire because redemption has come, his reinvention is complete. He is no longer famous for being famous. He has become tennis' sage, its never-bending gladiator, its charming face as he bows and blows kisses to embracing crowds. Even now, possibly more than any other player, he sells tickets.

Agassi can decide it's time to take his pension because there is nothing left for him to do, no one to beat. As a player he is an era in himself, history in motion, a fellow who has played Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Becker, Edberg, Wilander, Sampras, Courier, Chang, Rafter, Stich, Mecir, Federer, Roddick and chastised most of them.

He can mothball his rackets with satisfaction for there is no continent left to conquer. He has won everything and that cannot even be said of Sampras. He has mastered every surface, and every Slam (he has won eight in total), and is only one of five men to win all four majors and the only one in the last 35 years.

Perhaps only ego drives Agassi now, pride fuelling his failing engine, a gently fading champion's need to rebuke one last generation with his gilt-edged strokes. As the curtain begins its slow motion fall perhaps he has left in him a final encore. The showman in him might demand it.

On his day he is still peerless, but to win a Slam (and why else do men like him play?) means seven days of summoning up greatness. Seven days of sublime strokes, of errors absent, of fresh legs. It is unlikely but only that, for his spirit is not easily subdued.

But he knows his primary foe is not Federer or Roddick or Hewitt but time, and that is eventually beyond conquering. We cannot see the grey on his head but it is there.

For a man who sometimes suggests he is playing chess on court, each stroke part of some larger plot, wisdom attached to every shot, perhaps this is the end game for him. The final flourish. The last moves of an entertaining warrior.

Every tournament has more meaning for him, for when he leaves we are unsure and so is he if it is a final farewell. It is especially true of the French. He may play some tournaments next year, but he may be done forever at Roland Garros.

It is why in Paris he was asked a question not asked of any other player. Would he be back? "It's hard to say," he said. "You want to come back, but you just don't know. It's a year away and that's a long time for me now. The chances get less every year, that's for sure."

Perhaps that assistant in that anonymous library can continue sketching an obituary on Agassi's tennis career. But he should leave some space in the end. Maybe a few paragraphs, possibly even a page. This marvellous tennis player of tuneful strokes is not done fully yet. The music perhaps hasn't quite died.

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