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Retiring Agassi Impacts Game of Tennis

September 1, 2006 at 6:40 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: At 36, his body in pain, and the end of a glorious career coming at any moment, it was perhaps too much to expect from Andre Agassi. But last night in the second round of the U.S. Open, he did it again, with spectacular shots and plenty of grit, in a grueling five-set match that lasted almost four hours and took an obvious physical toll on both players.

In the end, more than 23,000 fans rose to their feet to cheer Agassi as he upset his 21-year-old opponent, eighth-seeded Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus.

Agassi has announced he’ll retire after the Open, ending a 20-year career that’s taken him from rebellious and flamboyant young talent — famous for wild hair and bad boy behavior — to a place as one of tennis’s great champions and gentlemen. He’s won eight grand slam singles titles and is one of five players ever to win all four grand slam events on the tennis circuit.

ANDRE AGASSI, Professional Tennis Player: If you’re not there to win, you’re a tourist.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s been a celebrity off the court, as well, a leading ad and ladies man. He’s now married to Steffi Graf, another tennis great, and the father of two children. After last night’s match, Agassi reflected on what the win meant at this stage in his career.

ANDRE AGASSI: It’s never been easy, you know? It’s difficult now for so many reasons. But it’s also more inspiring now for many reasons. I mean, I don’t get to feel this — you know, I haven’t felt this. My whole career, I’ve been striving to achieve things I never believed I could do, you know? And I’m here now just taking it all in, and that feels real special to me and really worth it.

Competitiveness

JEFFREY BROWN: With at least one match and -- who knows? -- maybe more to play, Agassi's journey continues this weekend.

And joining us from the players' lounge at Arthur Ashe Stadium, site of the U.S. Open, is Patrick McEnroe, who's known Andre Agassi as his opponent, coach, and friend. He's currently the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team and a commentator for CBS and ESPN.

Well, Patrick McEnroe, one of the commentators last night -- who happens to be your brother, John -- called it "one of the greatest matches I've ever seen." What do you call it?

PATRICK MCENROE, Tennis Commentator: Well, it certainly was. I mean, to me, it's an incredible story. As we saw in your report, you know, when Andre Agassi started out, he was sort of this kid that didn't really have an understanding of the tradition of the game and how important someone like he could be to the game.

And I really think, about 10 years ago, when he dropped down to 141 in the world, Jim, he looked in the mirror and he realized he had all this talent, he has all this ability. Yes, he was making a lot of money. Yes, he was having success, but he wasn't living up to the talent that he had.

And I think he made a decision then that he would never not do everything he could possibly do to be the best he can. And I think that's why we embrace him so much. That's why 23,000 people stayed until well after midnight to see the conclusion of that match, one of the greatest matches I've ever seen. Certainly, the emotion was as high as I've ever seen here at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I was one of those who stayed up, at least watching on television. It was close to 1 o'clock. And I was reminded again about tennis that, at that high a level, of course they need the skills, but how much of it is about the mental side, the psychology? Because there were times when I was sure one of them had it, and then the other one would get some kind of new edge. How do you describe what Agassi and other champions bring, even beyond the physical skills?

PATRICK MCENROE: Well, I think you're exactly right, and I think, you know, especially in an one-on-one competition where you're there, out there for everybody to see just on your own. And, you know, Andre Agassi has gone through so much in his life. And I think he realizes now that he's going to put it all out there on the line and not be afraid to fail.

You know, a lot of athletes, a lot of tennis players, you know, they look for sort of built-in excuses, whether, you know, my string isn't right on the tension, or my wrist hurts, or I ate something wrong, I didn't get enough sleep, I had a fight with my wife or my girlfriend. And you sort of look for those excuses.

And I think what's so amazing about Andre is that he now doesn't allow any excuses to come into the equation. He's willing to say, "I'm going to do everything I can possibly do to try to figure out a way to win this match and to keep going."

And that's why we all feel for him so much, because we've seen him have a lot of tough losses. He's lost some really tough matches right here to Pete Sampras over the years, where he was the favorite going in. And he expressed that disappointment to you.

So we've seen him fail; we've seen him succeed. But I think the champions have the ability to face that fear directly, straight on, and deal with it, without knowing what the end result is going to be.

Evolution

JEFFREY BROWN: We were talking -- you were talking about his evolution. What's he like as a person? Has he changed, or is it the way we project our image of him from that youthful, brash, young man to a kind of bald Zen master of tennis nowadays?

PATRICK MCENROE: No, he definitely has changed, and all for the better. I mean, he was a kid, as I said. I played against him and got beaten pretty soundly numerous times by Andre. But I remember one time I was playing with him, and he was sort of toying with me. He was winning so easily, and I didn't respect that. I didn't like that, and I said something to Andre. And he apologized after the match.

And I think, you know, in the last eight, nine years, he's now become this guy that we all listen to. You want to hear what he has to say. He's so admired in the locker room. He's so looked up to, because, you know, he doesn't B.S. with the other players. He doesn't B.S. with the press. He tells you what's going through his mind.

You know, last night on the court, when my brother interviewed him, he said, "Yes, I was nervous in the fourth set when I could have won it. I was really feeling tight. I was thinking about trying to finish the match off." Here is the guy knowing he's playing his last tournament, dealing with all the emotion.

But, you know, what he's done for his charity back in Las Vegas, raising huge amounts of money, being so involved in the day-to-day process -- he has his own preparatory school now in the inner city in Las Vegas that is named after him, to help disadvantaged youth in that part of the country, in that city. And he really is a guy that gets it.

And, you know, there's two people in tennis, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King, -- of course, Billie Jean, the tennis center named for her now just this past week -- I think Andre Agassi you can put in that group as someone that will do as much, if not more, off the court when they're done playing tennis than what they did on the court.

Legacy

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you know, we always ask the legacy question: What will his legacy be? But put it in terms of American -- the future of American tennis. Because you know it's been widely noted in recent years that the young stars of today are mostly non-Americans.

PATRICK MCENROE: Well, you know, tennis is an international sport and has been that way for a long time, and that's one of the positives about the tennis game, being so popular around the world.

Now, we're coming to the end of an era, clearly, in the men's game. Sampras retiring, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, and now the man himself, Andre Agassi, with eight grand slam titles, having won every grand slam there is to win, yes, of course, there's going to be a void.

You cannot replace Andre Agassi, but there are some very good young players out there. James Blake just won his match a little bit earlier today. The number-five seed, Andy Roddick, is having a resurgence now with Jimmy Conners in his corner. He won the U.S. Open a couple of years ago.

Are we going to dominate like we did, maybe, in the '70s, '80s? Probably not, but that's really the evolution of the game and the changing dynamics of the sport around the world.

But as far as Andre Agassi goes, he is going to be missed far beyond these shores. He's going to be missed all over the world. He's meant that much to the game of tennis, not just in this country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in the meantime, as we said, there is one more match at least. What do you think? How long can this go on? Is there any way that he could actually win this thing?

PATRICK MCENROE: You know, I will never say never. I certainly didn't think so at the beginning of the tournament. But with each match that he's able to survive -- and I mean survive. He was limping out of here. I left at 2:00 a.m. this morning after finishing up my work, and Andre was limping to his car in obvious pain.

So for him to be able to come back -- he's already had one cortisone shot this week -- to go back out there, he's got to play a qualifier from Germany. On paper, Andre is a huge favorite, but a lot of it is how -- will his body hold up? If he wins one more match, and Andy Roddick wins one more match, they would play in the fourth round, so that would be certainly a match that all of us would love to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Patrick McEnroe, thanks very much.

PATRICK MCENROE: Thanks for having me.