Turning the clock back

AP

Agassi's performance at the US Open speaks eloquently for his fitness, and even more his mental resilience. In a way it is also an indictment of the younger men who fell by the court-side, slugging it out against each other, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

PERHAPS nothing summarises better the state of men's tennis in America than the title of the old Paula Cole favourite, `Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?' Certainly, it is a truth that the stranglehold men from that country once had, in the 1980s and 90s, over the sport has all but eased. The era of McEnroe and Connors is but a distant memory; Sampras remains fresh in our minds possibly only because his great rival — and in a manner of speaking, conjoined twin — Andre Agassi is still around, hitting balls with the hunger of a man scrounging desperately for his next meal.

As Agassi, 35, sips from what simply has to be the dregs of his magic potion, he must look around and wonder how far back his younger comrades have fallen. Andy Roddick has, for ages, been the big American hope; but in the wash of the latest tsunami of teenage talent the world number four's hopes of another Slam are receding quickly.

There is the second rung comprising primarily of James Blake, Taylor Dent and Robby Ginepri. But these have more often than not fallen in the early stages of a tournament despite promising much, and maybe running their vanquisher close. You could guarantee a third round appearance for at least one of these three — the flashy Blake, serve and volleying Dent or hard-hitting Ginepri — in practically every major, but they were always bound to be picked off sooner or later. For the longest time they looked like they had temporarily lost their sense of direction in the maze of professional tennis, which is why at the US Open last month it was refreshing to see them push beyond, for once, with the insistent coherence of a laser beam.

The long-awaited American resurgence was looking to kick in — and that couldn't have happened soon enough. Ironically, it was Agassi, who would put an end to his countrymen's challenge. By reaching his sixth US Open final, the Las Vegan hustler — still the world number six, after putting in some consistent performances in Slams and Masters Series tournaments this season — would complete a remarkable resurgence of his own.

But then, we have grown to expect nothing less from Agassi. This is a man, who has fallen and picked himself up more often than a toddler; a player whose ranking has nose-dived then shot up, again and again, like a suicide pilot struck with a conscience. So it was just another chapter, another comeback — nothing unusual — in the life of Andre Agassi.

The champagne flow of American champions has dried up since Pete Sampras retired. There were temporary fillers, sure. Much was expected, for instance, from the likes of Justin Gimelstob and Jan Michael Gambill; but talented as they were, somehow they couldn't progress beyond a point. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong in their cases — there are simply too many variables involved. Meanwhile, Agassi had begun to stick out like a scoutmaster among his boys — his first big one was earned at Wimbledon in 1992 — yet his presence, at least as far as men's tennis in the United States is concerned, was never required more.

Since Pistol Pete withdrew from tournament play after winning the 2002 US Open, only two Americans have won majors: Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open, and Roddick in New York the same year. In merely three years Roger Federer has won six Slams, including three consecutive Wimbledons. Interestingly, Agassi is next in line after the Swiss for most number of majors since 2000, with three. And, if you count the French and US Open titles he won in 1999, more than half of his career's greatest achievements have been pulled off after he turned 29, a remarkable feat in itself.

At the turn of the millennium, tennis turned towards other continents in its quest for new markets, new legends. The stocky but well-built Agassi was always a great draw, particularly in the US, where he remains tremendously popular. But it was time to move on; Europe, which had not produced a genuine superstar since the time of Boris Becker, now beckoned. Somewhere out on a Swiss farm in the mellow sun a new champion was cobbled together as the sum total of an incredible variety of strokes, each twice as effective as the ones employed by the preceding generation. But over the past couple of seasons, while Roger Federer has obsessively worked on every aspect of his game, others seemed to play an entirely different game of Catch-up. (And, it ought to be added, they mostly sucked at it.) Precisely due to the absence of a serious threat to Federer, it has got dangerously easy to lapse into sentimentality and recall with disproportionate fondness the rivalry that drove Sampras and Agassi in the 90s — between them they own 22 Slams — despite some of the hype being manufactured for brand advertising purposes.

Then, when a challenger did show up during the 2005 clay season, it wasn't an American — it certainly wasn't Andy Roddick, sensitive as he is even to the mention of mud, although for a second year in a row he would make the Wimbledon final. Instead, it was the Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, who ended up closely pursuing the world No. 1. Roddick hasn't beaten Federer in two years; Nadal has beaten him twice in that span, including this time at Roland Garros. (In fact, Federer has only beaten Nadal once, making Nadal among the few to still hold a winning advantage over the Swiss.)

At this late stage in his career, not even Agassi, the eternal comeback kid, can realistically expect to climb to world number one again; but his performance at the US Open speaks eloquently for his fitness, and even more his mental resilience. In a way it is also an indictment of 126 others, mostly younger men, who fell by the court-side, slugging it out against each other. More specifically, it underlines the fact that a fully fit Agassi is capable of matching, if not overpowering his significantly younger countrymen, as he showed first against James Blake in that thrilling cliffhanger of a quarterfinal — where it all came down to winning two points in a row — and then against Robby Ginepri in the semis, which again went the distance. He showed he could still cover the court as effectively as ever; and even if he was puffing a little, he hung on gamely. His returns at any rate haven't lost their sting.

He lost to Federer after a high quality four setter, but he was even classier at the post-match conference, gracious in defeat as always. "He's the best I've ever played against," Agassi said. "I've played a lot of them over the years, but there's a safety zone, there's a place to get to, there's something to focus on, there's a way. But with Roger, anything you try to do, he potentially has an answer for, and it's just a function of when he starts pulling the triggers necessary to get you to change to that decision. He plays the game in a very special way. I haven't seen it before."

Agassi's reflexes are fading ever so slowly, his pace has dropped over the past couple of years and he must plan his season more carefully to prolong his career. But any talk of a resurgence in American fortunes must be reserved for tennis in the post-Agassi era, for until then, the United States is adequately and proudly represented through eight Slams and a bald eagle.

Agassi dossier Career review Singles record: 860-265. Singles titles: 60. Doubles titles: 1. Prize money: $30,951,275. Year-to-date-review Singles record: 38-11. Singles titles: 1. Doubles record: 0-1. Doubles titles: 0. Prize money: $1,584,596. 2005 Highlights Singles: Winner: Los Angeles. Finalist: US Open, ATP Masters Series Canada.

Semifinalist: ATP Masters Series Rome, ATP Masters Series Miami, Dubai.

Quarterfinalist: Houston, Australian Open, ATP Masters Series Indian Wells, San Jose.

Factfile SINGLES TITLES (60): 1987: Itaparica.

1988: Charleston, Forest Hills, Livingston, Memphis, Stratton Mountain, Stuttgart Outdoor.

1989: Orlando.

1990: Key Biscayne, San Francisco, Singles Championship, Washington.

1991: Orlando, Washington. 1992: Atlanta, Montreal/Toronto, Wimbledon. 1993: San Francisco, Scottsdale.

1994: Montreal/Toronto, Paris Indoor, Scottsdale, US Open, Vienna.

1995: Australian Open, Cincinnati, Key Biscayne, Montreal/Toronto, New Haven, San Jose, Washington.

1996: Atlanta Olympics, Cincinnati, Key Biscayne.

1998: Los Angeles, Ostrava, San Jose, Scottsdale, Washington.

1999: Hong Kong, Paris Indoor, Roland Garros, US Open, Washington.

2000: Australian Open.

2001: Australian Open, Indian Wells TMS, Los Angeles, Miami Ericsson Open.

2002: Los Angeles, Madrid TMS, Miami TMS, Rome TMS, Scottsdale.

2003: Australian Open, Houston, Miami TMS, San Jose.

2004: Cincinnati AMS. 2005: Los Angeles. FINALIST (30): 1987: Seoul. 1988: Los Angeles. 1989: Rome. 1990: Indian Wells, Roland Garros, US Open. 1991: Roland Garros. 1994: Key Biscayne.

1995: Atlanta, Indian Wells, Tokyo Outdoor, US Open.

1996: San Jose.

1998: Basel, Grand Slam Cup, Indianapolis, Key Biscayne, Munich.

1999: Los Angeles, Singles Championship, Wimbledon.

2000: Tennis Masters Cup, Washington. 2001: San Jose. 2002: San Jose, US Open. 2003: Tennis Masters Cup. 2004: Stockholm. 2005: ATP Masters Series Canada, US Open. DOUBLES TITLES (1) 1993: Cincinnati. FINALIST (3) 2000: Washington. 1999: Hong Kong. 1992: Montreal/Toronto. (Compiled by V.V. Rajasekhara Rao)