I was sitting in an incredibly comfortable recliner this past Labor Day weekend and flipped the channel to CBS, after witnessing an upset of monumental proportions in college football (I’m talking about TCU over Oklahoma). The U.S. Open was on, and it piqued my interest. I always enjoyed watching the pros; it is like a tennis lesson from the comfort of your own home. Luckily, my favorite teacher was playing. I didn’t watch it because I still avidly follow pro tennis (I played the sport for almost 11 years), but because a living legend was still schooling kids almost half his age.
I remember growing up and sitting on mother and father’s sofa watching this man crush his backhands and return the ball just as hard as it was served. I remember how my eyes used to widen with his whenever the ball came his way. I remember when the shaved head and the whites had been long hair and denim with a neon yellow shirt.
This weekend’s victim was 19-year-old Thomas Berdych, who was like any other opponent, with a big serve and a lot of fire in his belly. He was an overzealous youth who was no match for the cool-tempered, calm-nerved legend who seemed to outsmart him on the other side of the court. Serve for serve, point for point, the 35-year-old champion didn’t flinch, just made it look like a process, like a system to which he had habituated himself. Little by little, he picked Berdych apart, and the legend prevailed once again in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Andre Agassi, my friends, can still make these kids look absolutely silly.
I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Agassi’s decision not to retire just yet. I’ve heard people say that he just doesn’t matter anymore, he hasn’t won a title in nearly two years (it feels like 10 to me), and his back can’t cut it anymore. I’ve heard people say that he’s a family man now, a guy who needs to concentrate on his kids and wife who are back at home waiting for him. “He’s just not the Andre I grew up watching,” they say. “I remember the ‘bad boy’ Agassi, with the denim shorts and the long hair.” Oh, puh-lease.
No, he’s not the “bad boy” anymore. I can’t blame him for leaving that behind. Did you see what he was wearing? Did you see how hard he was partying? Agassi’s conversion to straight-edge tennis (I attribute that to his relationship with Steffi Graf) was the best thing ever to happen to him, and possibly the best thing ever to happen to tennis. He re-committed. He started wearing all-white to Wimbledon. He was finally what he needed to be. Come on, all of us need to do some soul-searching every now and then. Agassi just had to grow up.
He still overpowers you with his backhand. He’s still got the best return game in tennis. He’s still the smartest player on tour, I don’t care how many titles Roger Federer has won. He’s still the best baseliner in the world. Oh – and the 35-year-old is still in the top 10 in the world. To me, that’s pretty impressive.
He just switched over to Adidas for his clothing deal. He doesn’t want or need Nike anymore. How many athletes have the guts to do that, and still be as influential as Agassi? He’s just landed his own slot machines in Vegas. He still has his own signature racquet by Head. Not to mention the most important point: he’s still the most popular guy out there among the fans.
Agassi’s influence goes far beyond that of a mere mortal. We may never again see the likes of an Andre Agassi-type athlete, one who perseveres in a world that seemingly caters to the youth of the sport. While there are tennis players retiring at 29 or 30, Agassi continues to work, continues to stay fit, and continues to win. Bottom line: he’s a competitor, and always will be. Some call it stubborn, I call it admirable. Some call it crazy, I call it inspiring. Either way you look at it, we all want a little bit of Andre inside of us.
The senior class at Villanova University were only about 2 years old when Andre Agassi took the court at the U.S. Open for the first time. And from the first time to the last, no matter how many years it may encompass, I’ll still be there. I’ll still watch. I’ll still praise. The legend lives on, and I look forward to my next lesson while I’m sitting on my recliner.