IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In twilight of career, Agassi seeks a spark

Tennis legend trying to stay composed, win matches before retiring

I sat at the keyboard to praise Andre Agassi to the heavens last night, and no first-round loss to an Italian qualifier who had zero tour victories before Sunday is going to change the mission. Yes, Agassi's loss to Andrea Stoppini more or less sucked the life out of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. Monday, Andy Roddick pulled out of the tournament with an injured something or other. And 24 hours later, Agassi was gone in straight sets, greatly disappointing a surprisingly large crowd of folks who sat like boiling eggs in 90-plus degrees with a breeze nowhere to be found.

Agassi looked like a 36-year-old trying to keep up, which, despite his years of greatness, is exactly what he is now.

Agassi has put himself in the toughest position imaginable for a champion. He's trying to summon his competitive best while hugging everybody goodbye. It's difficult. It's pretty near impossible. Agassi wanted to win more for the people who have come to see him play in D.C. all these years than he wanted to win for himself. His postmatch Q & A with reporters was a virtual apology for bidding adieu to the Nation's Capital in such a way, after 17 years and five championships on the courts at 16th and Kennedy, NW.

"It's all a bit surreal," Agassi said. "I'm out there trying to do a job, and I feel like I want to have dinner with everybody. It's an odd feeling."

This is what Brett Favre felt in Green Bay last season and may not be able to get under control this season. It's what John Elway felt toward the end in Denver, what Pete Sampras felt toward the end. Champs to the absolute end, they desperately want to put forth something vintage just before taking that last bow. But the body doesn't always do what the head tells it to at thirty-something, especially when the heat index is 99 degrees and the opponent, 10 years younger and playing without any pressure, is sensing the first big moment of his professional life. "You don't know what to expect from day to day sometimes," Agassi said. He acknowledged the struggle to focus at the level he did while winning eight Grand Slam tournaments. "It's a catch-22," Agassi said, describing wanting something so much that the desire can lead directly to a bad night. "I didn't know where it was going off my racket," he said of the ball. "And when I start second-guessing that, then the wheels are close to coming off."

I asked Agassi after his 6-4, 6-3 loss if there's anybody he talks to about dealing with this strangeness, perhaps even his wife, the great Steffi Graf, who took her final bows years ago. "I don't have much time now," Agassi said. "I'm putting my head down. I'm struggling with it more than I expected."

Not having much time refers to the U.S. Open in one month. That's Agassi's intended finale. "I'm hoping," he said, "the familiar sights and sounds of the Arthur Ashe Stadium" will awaken something in him that will allow him to play like, well, Andre Agassi. Because that's what we want to see from all champions about to hang 'em up: an encore. We want to see Agassi dig in and return serve like only he can. We want to see him scramble, come from behind against some big-hitting raw-boned youngster long on talent but short on guile. You go to see Agassi now hoping he can summon a memory, a bit of magic from the All England club or Flushing.

One lost match in steamy Washington doesn't mean anything when we're looking at the length and breadth of Andre Agassi's career. He will always be associated, here in the United States, with American peers Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. Sampras will go down as the greater player, but only Agassi won the career Grand Slam (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open). And the bet here is none of the others evolved as dramatically as Agassi has.

We couldn't have imagined he'd go from what he was to what he is. If you show a tennis-immersed teenager a snapshot of Andre Agassi 15-20 years ago, holding rackets that could glow in the dark, wearing those black shorts below the knees and zippered shirts with the stiff collar, they'd stare at it for a few minutes and ask with great confusion, "Who's that guy with the hair halfway down his back?" It wouldn't be much of a hint to somebody under 20 if in the photo Agassi was standing alongside, say, Barbra Streisand or Brooke Shields.

Some old head would try to explain Agassi's great evolution over the years, how it was generally thought he tanked matches when he was a young pup, that his commercial slogan "Image is everything" could have permanently backfired because he appeared early on to be all style and no substance.

There's nothing left of that Agassi now, and there hasn't been for years.

People following tennis for the last dozen years would know him only as a fighter, as a player who gave away nothing. Style gave way almost completely to substance. Why else would Stoppini say, "It was the most spectacular occasion of my life." At the end of the match, the Italian said he told Agassi: " 'Thank you.' It was an honor to play against him."

The evolution didn't take place only on the court. There's a college prep academy bearing his name and reflecting his effort in Las Vegas that speaks to Agassi's sincerity about education and charitable efforts that raise not just millions, but tens of millions. It would be difficult to come up with an athlete in any sport the last 10 years who has been more thoughtful on issues of significance, in and out of sports.

Andre Agassi is the proof beyond any reasonable doubt that it's stupid to decide we know how somebody is going to turn out because of the way they appear at 18 years old. No loss to some guy named Stoppini is going to change a lick of that. And even though Agassi disappointed himself -- "I didn't even get to the point tonight where I was dealing with his game," he said -- the defeat doesn't even rate a footnote in such a fabulous career.

What used to be "just a bad night" feels more serious when the end is in sight. Agassi left the grounds last night, heading for the airport. He's got a couple of weeks to find his game. Not knowing what to expect is "difficult to get my arms around," he said. "You want it to be special. I've got to get myself right for the Open. I've got to take one more, hard look at it and figure it out. I can do it. I did it last week [reaching the quarterfinals in Los Angeles]. I expect myself to do it."