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20 years! Agassi still holds head high

"Andre, 20 more years!" the man called, drawing laughter and approving applause from the crowd.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2005 19:40 IST
Nancy Armour (AP)
Nancy Armour (AP)

ANDRE AGASSI was poised on the baseline waiting for Razvan Sabau's serve when the voice rang out from high above Centre Court, cutting through the heavy, humid night. "Andre, 20 more years!" the man called, drawing laughter and approving applause from the crowd.

At 35, Agassi has no idea how much longer his creaky back will allow him to play, if even another year. On nights like Monday, though, he can still find that combination of artistry, finesse and power that made him one of the game's greatest players.

Showing no signs of the back pain that's troubled him most of the season, he cruised through the first round, needing a mere 69 minutes to beat the Romanian Sabau in his Open debut, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. That was only three minutes longer than top-seeded Maria Sharapova's 6-1, 6-1 victory over Eleni Daniilidou.

"Everybody here is taking the day out of their lives to come watch me, and I thank you for that," Agassi told the crowd after taking his traditional bows and blowing kisses to all directions. "I've been through a lot of things in my life. A lot of things have taken me away from the lines of a tennis court.

"But it's never taken me away from here. Twenty years here feels better than 19, so thank you."

Agassi has won two of his eight Grand Slam titles here (1994 and 1999) and been runner-up three times. He has a bond with the Open crowd like few others. When he walked onto the court Monday night, the standing ovation was so loud it drowned out his introduction. His every winner was cheered, and fans shouted encouragement after a loss of only a point or two.

And unlike other matches, fans don't jump to the underdog's side when Agassi is playing. "It took me a while to enjoy playing here," Agassi admitted.

"If you don't understand the mentality of the people, you don't appreciate the city, you don't appreciate playing here. It took me a while to understand the mentality of a New Yorker. They don't have a lot of time to waste. If they're going to do something, they're going to bring it and they expect the same from you. That's something I've grown to appreciate. And embrace."

And he gives as good as he gets. Agassi lost in the first round of the French Open when sciatic pain shot down his right leg from a herniated disk in his lower back. The same injury kept him out of Wimbledon, and he's only played twice since - winning one tournament and reaching the final of another in Montreal.

Though he's had a cortisone shot and is diligent about strengthening his core, he knows the injury could reappear at any time.

"It's not like you're nurturing a muscle or a tendon where you sort of understand the state of it along the way," he said of his vulnerable sciatic nerve. "It can literally be potentially any thing that sets it off."

But it didn't stop him from playing with Sabau like a cat with a mouse. He raced through the first set, winning four straight games and not dropping a point in two of them. He had eight aces in the second set, including three straight to win the first game. Agassi had 11 aces total, hitting as high as 127 mph on the radar.

He ran Sabau from one end of the baseline to another all night before finally putting him out of his misery with a variety of crosscourt winners, drop shots and lobs. And what Agassi didn't do to Sabau, the Ro manian did to himself, double-faulting eight times.

"I feel great," Agassi said when asked how his back held up. "But I also haven't played five sets. Haven't been out there for four hours. That's potentially a different battle altogether. I'm only going to know that when I cross that bridge.

"As of right now, I have every reason to be hopeful that health is not going to be an issue," said Agassi.

First Published: Sep 01, 2005 19:39 IST