He played to win
the Open but settled
for fans’ hearts

Sep 5, 2006 5:25 AM

It is disconcerting to see grown men cry, an uncomfortable feeling that you are seeing something intensely private, a sight that can make one ill at ease.

Watching Andre Agassi cry as he ended his brilliant career in the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Forest Hills, NY, Sunday, was a different experience altogether.

This was the end of greatness for a great athlete, and in his moment of sadness the inevitable eyes of television bore in tighter and tighter, exposing his emotions to the world. Those emotions already were obvious to the 24,000 or so in Arthur Ashe stadium, who stood and applauded for a full five minutes in tribute to one of their favorites. Many in the crowd had grown up with Agassi’s career; many others had admired the man from the first of his 21 appearances there and two Open Championships, and they knew this was not how he hoped it would end.

As the cameras persisted and Agassi tried to bring his emotions under control to speak, one almost wanted to yell to the director, "Cut it out”¦.let him alone!" But they persisted and bore in, and Agassi finally struggled to express his thanks to the thousands still cheering, saying that they had been there for him all during his highly publicized tennis career.

It is 20 years since Agassi turned professional at 16, and at 18 he won six titles in seven finals. Four years later he won Wimbledon, and three years after that, in 1995, he was the world’s top ranked tennis player. He won seven titles that year, and during his career all four grand slam events: the French and U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

So Sunday, as promised earlier this year, he closed the book. He had hoped to do it facing the very best — Roger Federer or Raphel Nadal — but his brutal back problems were closing in, and after his grueling five-set victory over Marcos Baghdatis, a match that lasted until 1 a.m. Thursday night, he could not walk. His doctors took over, and with his quota of cortisone used up they turned to a second medication to ease the pain.

His father hoped Andre would retire after the Thursday match, but Agassi never considered that. "If I wanted to quit I would have done it a long time ago," he said. "I didn’t come here to quit."

He came to win, as improbable as that hope was for a 36-year-old with a bad back. Agassi wanted to bow out in the big league, on the main stage of America’s greatest tennis event, and he did.

For a brief while on Sunday it appeared he might pull it off. He showed amazing agility for a man with back spasms so bad he had to lie prone all Friday. He had hoped he could play Saturday and get another day of rest for the finals, if he made them, but rain ended that hope and he faced a Sunday-Monday schedule.

There were almost 24,000 at the Open Sunday, a packed crowd, and many if not most of them came to see and cheer their bald hero.

They cheered every Agassi point, and held up inspirational signs. His wife, the former champion Steffi Graf, sat grim-faced, knowing what her husband had gone through, seemingly certain of the outcome Sunday. He was playing Benjamin Becker of Germany not the great Boris — and sound and healthy he would have taken him with ease.

He publicly credited his doctors for making the Sunday match possible, and then, when it ended, he suddenly realized the huge crowd had come to say goodbye.

"I was sitting there realizing that I was saying goodbye to everybody out there," he said after it was all over, "and they were saying goodbye to me."

"It was the greatest moment I’ve ever had, memories I’ll keep with me forever," Agassi said.

He may not know it, but so will all those privileged to see him end his era in the sport, a warrior bowing gracefully from the arena that he illuminated for so long. The tears, and not just Agassi’s, were easy to explain. This was the end of a long love affair.