Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Agassi Is Big Winner at Day 1 of U.S. Open

Andre Agassi returns to Arthur Ashe Stadium to be rewarded for his good deeds. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

IT'S been a good first day at the U.S. Open: Serena won. Check. Roger won. Check. Roddick won. Check. Venus won ugly. Whew! There were other winners, of course (Blake, Clijsters, Mauresmo; Nadal plays Wednesday), but do you really care that much ...

The highlight of the day, however, or evening, was Andre Agassi (my favorite tennis player of all time) in the commentator booth with John and Patrick McEnroe during the Roddick/Bjorn Phau match.

A few hours earlier during the opening ceremony in the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center, Andre was honored – alongside David Robinson, Mia Hamm and Doug Flutie – as an athlete who has been doing something to make the world a better place after leaving the sport. AA was cited for his efforts through the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.

Distressed or need talking down, then you want to hear a voice like AA's. It is soft, soothing and well-modulated. Just above a whisper. I was so taken by how velvety he sounded that I missed most of the glowing remarks he made about Roddick. And the man himself was glowing, too. He had the look about him of one at peace with himself, his maker, his world and his woman (heard of Steffi Graf?), whom he described as a “rock.”

He was impressed by how Roddick comported himself during the Wimbledon final against Federer. Roddick should have "won every set" and should "hold his head up high" because he played the match of his life, AA declared. I concur. I was rooting for Federer, but I wished – as so many did – that there could have been two victors that day.

And speaking of Federer, AA gives my favorite active tennis player in the world all due props, stressing that he was extremely happy that Federer finally won a French Open, but he believes it is premature to call him the greatest tennis player ever, despite JM's pressing. Nadal has to be part of the conversation, AA contends. By the way, Federer never makes such a claim and does not demure when others do.

Said AA: "If I am Nadal and I am out to dinner with Federer and he says 'I'm the greatest tennis player of all time,' I'm gonna say 'excuse me. EXCUSE ME.' " I concur.

I was a fan from the beginning of AA's rise. I knew him when ... He was a brash/rash teen with dash and panache; he was flowing dirty-blond locks and rock ‘n’ roll tennis. And he would tank a match, if it suited him. But boyfriend pulled himself together. Threw in with Gil Reyes and Brad Gilbert and consistently began to win important tournaments, including grand slams (8). He made the graceful transition to a consummate professional with a mad work ethic and a bald head in his prime and then to an elder statesman and diplomat for the sport.

I was there at the end three years ago when AA lost a thrilling five-set, third-round U.S. Open match to the German qualifier Benjamin Becker, (no relation to Boris), this after a thrilling five-set, second-round victory over Cypriot, Marcos Baghdatis. AA was flat on his back, but when he saw Bagdadis "walking around on his tennis racket like it was a cane," he told the McEnroes, that resuscitated him. After that loss to Becker, I cried as hard as AA did, even more so when he spoke haltingly, so overcome with emotion as he was, after the match. It was a sad day at Flushing Meadows.

The saddest day for AA, however, was the loss to Pete Sampras in the 1995 U.S. Open. "The winner was going to be No. 1," recalled AA, who at the time was fresh off of four tournament wins. He was healthy and feeling confident, he said. After that crushing loss, his ranking would eventually plummet to the 140s. Of course, he rose out of the ashes and satellite tournaments to take more important tournaments, including grand slams. I was there for that, too.

Today was AA's first time back at the U.S.Open since that loss to Becker three years ago. Welcome back, Andre. Don't be a stranger.

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