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Agassi launches farewell US Open campaign

The opening night of the championship featured Agassi launching the final Grand Slam campaign of his career.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2006 11:31 IST
Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse

Andre Agassi refused to go gently into the night in his final tournament by coming back to beat Andrei Pavel of Romania 6-7 (4), 7-6 (8), 7-6 (6), 6-2 at the US Open on Monday.

Knowing each time he steps on the court could be his last match as a pro, Agassi kept overcoming deficits in his opening match and pushing his 36-year-old body around Arthur Ashe Stadium for 3 1/2 hours.

Most of the Open-record night session crowd of 23,736 were on their feet when Agassi's eyes welled up with tears as he served out the final point after midnight.

"You want it to be everything you hope it is," Agassi said. "It was perfect."

There were moments, though, when it looked as if Agassi would be bidding adieu for good. After he lost the first set, for example. And especially when he fell behind 4-0 in the third set, causing his wife, former star Steffi Graf, to pace a bit.

"I thought," Pavel said, "'I have him."' Yet that's when Agassi found the energy and shots to reverse things.

Coincidence or not, Agassi went on a five-game run shortly after motioning to his coach, Darren Cahill, to bring him some freshly strung rackets. It also was around that time that Pavel, a 32-year-old ranked 77th who hadn't played a hard-court match since Marchwas visited by a trainer.

Agassi got to a third tiebreaker, then dominated the final set. It was a fitting way to cap a day that celebrated three of the sport's most significant figures. Before Agassi's match, the US Tennis Association rededicated its facility, naming it the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

And Jimmy Connors was on the scene, too, coaching Andy Roddick and soaking in the adoration. Roddick began this year's last major by beating Florent Serra of France 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, and joined four other past Open champions in the second round: Justine Henin-Hardenne, Lindsay Davenport, Svetlana Kuznetsova and, of course, Agassi - bad back, 9-7 record this year, and all.

Second-seeded Henin-Hardenne breezed past Maria Elena Camerin of Italy 6-2, 6-1, No. 10-seeded Davenport defeated Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic 6-1, 6-4, and No. 6 Kuznetsova beat Sandra Kloesel of Germany 6-2, 2-6, 6-3.

Meanwhile, Feliciano Lopez of Spain ousted third-seeded Ivan Ljubicic 6-3, 6-3 6-3 in the first big upset, a fate barely avoided by Agassi.

"I want to be here real bad, for the whole two weeks," Agassi said. "I really want to leave my best stuff on the court. I'm very proud of this day, and I'm glad it gets to happen again." Next for Agassi is a match against eighth-seeded Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, a 21-year-old player who reached the Australian Open final and Wimbledon semifinals this year.

"Such a talent," Agassi said. "One of those guys you'd pay to go watch."

Agassi won the Open in 1994 and 1999, part of his collection of eight Grand Slam titles, and was the runner-up four times, including last year. When Agassi won that first US Open championship, his blond hair was long and tucked under a cap, his shirt was a loud purple, and he wore a pinkie ring and dangling earring.

Hard to believe that same person was under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday.

Look at Agassi now: Shaved head, country-club-ready white outfit, and the beaded necklace that reads, "Daddy Rocks," made by his son.

Both of Agassi's children were in the stands; in the fourth set, Graf was using a video camera, just like any parent on an outing with the kids. Agassi's father was there, too, as was his brother Phil.

Once play began, the beseeching cries of "Let's go, Ahhn-dray!" could, in theory, have been for either competitor. Just to make it absolutely clear how the crowd felt, one man yelled out in the second tiebreaker: "There's only one Andre!"

Agassi provided glimpses of his glorious past, of the player who's won 60 singles titles. He smacked 17 aces at up to 125 mph (201 kph). He took as big a cut as you'll ever see on some groundstrokes, as though putting whatever energy he might have left into each swing.

He used what was often considered his trademark, the hard-hit return, to gain the advantage at times. One example: He turned around a 123-mph (198-kph) serve with a backhand return right at the baseline that Pavel couldn't handle, giving Agassi a 9-8 edge in the second tiebreaker.

"He's still one of the fittest guys on tour," Pavel said. "He's amazing."

Yet it was also clear why he decided to announce two days before the start of Wimbledon, in late June, that this would be his farewell event. Over and over, Pavel would end points with short drop shots that Agassi wouldn't even chase.

Agassi double-faulted eight times. And as much of a baseline tactician as Agassi always has been, it was Pavel who had the better of many of their lengthy groundstroke exchanges, winning 14 of 21 points that lasted 10 strokes or longer.

Still, on one of those points, Agassi's defense was enough that Pavel sailed a backhand long to end the second set. Agassi pumped his fist toward Cahill and others in the players' box, then shook his racket in Graf's direction.

The spectators rose in unison, staying on their feet and applauding throughout the changeover. When it was time to start the third set, Agassi skipped out to the baseline, looking downright childlike.

"He's the man right now," Pavel said. "I wish him well. I hope he can go all the way. He deserves it."

First Published: Aug 27, 2006 12:38 IST