Robert Caplin for The New York Times
He started out as a brash and bratty kid, known more for his long hair, flashy clothes and his mega-endorsement contracts than for winning championships. Canon launched an entire camera line by leveraging his rebellious image. He grew up as part of a generation playing a whole new game made possible by large, high-tech rackets -- power baseline tennis. But even when skeptics said he was all flash and no substance, tennis aficionados saw the potential, and the heart.
He grew into his game, both as a player and as a man. The victories followed in time, and Andre Agassi became only the fifth man to win a career grand slam in tennis, the only one in modern times, and the only one ever to win on all three surfaces (the other grand slam winners played in the pre-hardcourt era when grass and clay were the only two surfaces.)
He ended his career today in the same tournament where he first came to national attention 20 years ago as a 16-year-old kid -- the U.S. Open. He left as a 36-year-old who walked off the court like a septuagenarian, not due to age, but to a painful back injury -- which he played through in his courageous final appearance, first in two thrilling 5-set late night matches, defeating, first, Andrei Pavel and, Thursday night, eighth-seeded Marcos Baghdatis. His improbable final run ended today against another Becker (unrelated) from Germany, Benjamin Becker, a 25-year-old 112th-ranked qualifier who turned pro after playing four years for Baylor University. Agassi could hardly move and probably should not even have been playing, but playing on sheer heart with nothing left in the tank, he still managed to extend the match to four sets and came within a whisper of stretching it out to five sets.
Then it was over. The teenager was just a memory when Agassi took the microphone after a long, sustained and emotional standing ovation, and addressed the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium for the last time. His voice breaking and wiping away tears, he spoke from the heart to the adoring crowd.
“The scoreboard said I lost today,” Agassi told the crowd. “But what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I’ve found generosity.It was a touching, memorable exit for the bratty kid who grew up to be one of the best-loved athletes of his time. Agassi walked out of the stadium and into the rest of his life. It will take the rest of us some time to make the adjustment to a world in which he is not on the court.
“You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could never have reached without you. Over the last 21 years, I have found you, and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.”