Agassi, Rice made sports nice

Sep 13, 2005 2:48 AM

Speaking for the old, there was a fleeting moment in last Sunday’s dramatic U.S. Open tennis championship that resonated through the TV and struck a nostalgic chord of memory.

For anyone on the downhill side of life who ever competed in sport, regardless of the level of competition, it might have sent familiar vibes. For the unfortunate others, it would have passed without notice.

The moment came in the third set when Andre Agassi moved ahead, 5-4. As he walked off the court for the change in serves, he took two or three skipping steps of childish delight. No one who ever played a game could have missed the meaning if they caught the skip.

It was that uplifting moment of exultation — for a perfect serve, for a stealaway basket, for a completed pass, for a stiff right cross, for a crushing block or tackle, for a 30-foot putt that drops — when one knows, however briefly, that he or she has triumphed, if not over an opponent, over the game you are playing.

I suspect Agassi realized, as he skipped off court at 5-4 with sets all even, that the dream was still possible, that he was up to the challenge, that he might just pull off what would certainly have been one of the greatest upsets in tennis. (Agassi was more than a 3-1 underdog).

The moment passed, of course, and Roger Federer came storming back, master of the game he has dominated for two years, king of the courts. But Agassi had the moment, the skip of delight, tucked away, a remembrance of what might have been.

Agassi is, by the way, exactly what you see. There is no pretense, no show, no act, just honest emotion. This is not something an athlete or an actor or a politician can fake. The 23,000 at Forest Hills knew that, as did hundreds of thousands of others who swing racquets for recreation, and it was that quality of sincerity, and effort, and of fierce competitive fire, that has made him the beloved figure he is to the world of tennis.

Las Vegas should be proud he is one of its own.

The four sets of Agassi-Federer were not the only drama of recent days.

There was a memorable photo, played large in many papers, of one of the greatest football players of all time waving goodbye, with genuine tears in his eyes, as he bade farewell to a sport to which he has brought skill and huge accomplishment and gracious charm.

Unlike some athletes who grind it out until they are ground under, Jerry Rice exited with dignity and class, hallmarks of his entire brilliant career. He is 42 now, seven years older than Andre Agassi, and he has been playing of the toughest, most punishing of all professional sports. Not only playing the game, but standing above it, setting amazing records and winning the respect of all who played with him or against him.

He was a perfectionist — "a slave to details" Eddie Pells of Associated Press wrote — "a master of precision route running, a good guy off the field and a workout junkie both in season and out."

The man who got to coach him last — Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos — verified that.

"Not many people that own all the records." Shanahan said, spend that type of commitment and give that type of commitment in the off-season. That’s why, in my opinion, he’s the greatest player to ever play the game."

Another of his coaches, Dick Vermeil, for whom he played in Kansas City, said, "To me, he’s a tremendous example of what you can do if you’re totally committed to doing something."

And Steve Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback who did the throwing to Rice during both of their glory days with the 49’ers, said, "As a quarterback, when you drop back with the best athletes in the world basically paid to beat you up, you’ve got to know what it feels like to have a guy like that on your side. Unless you played, you can’t appreciate what that means to you."

It did an old guy good to see kids like Agassi and Rice showing their class last week.