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By Quazi Zulquarnain Islam

Closure is definitely the theme of this week. For it is one in which two of the greatest champions of modern times finally decided it was time to call time on their distinguished careers. So before the tribute truly begins let us spend but a minute in silence to toast the careers of Andre Agassi and Michael Schumacher. And now before you figure out the inevitable let me tell you.

This opening paragraph was inserted belatedly because the deadline left yours truly with little time to fully appreciate and research the career of Michael Schumacher. I had wanted to make this a tribute solely to the most colourful of characters ever seen in a tennis court and one who has charmed me to no ends through the course of his career. That man is Andre Agassi and it his to whom this weeks SportsWatch is dedicated. (he should be proud no?). Schumacher as great as he is, will be saved for another day.

So, to Andre Agassi it is.
Twenty years ago a Las Vegan showman played his first professional tennis match in a nondescript February day in California. The only memory worth keeping from that day's play was the outlandish outfit and unkempt hair that signalled the young boy out from his peers.

Not even the most optimistic of soothsayers would on that day have predicted that twenty years on the same boy, who had by then grown into a man, (slightly more sedate it should be said) would take his bow in Flushing Meadows amidst a sea of tears. That boy was ofcourse, Andre Agassi.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest ever players to have walked the courts, Agassi's tennis existence was snuffed out by a qualifier ranked 112 in the world. However, that ceases to matter. What matters is what happened before.

So before the cortisone and anti-inflammatory needles, before his body finally refused to run through that brick wall of pain another day, before the flame was blown out by a qualifier, before the tears began flowing, before the standing ovation that lasted long enough to blister the hands and feet of thousands, what we need to know is that Andre Agassi spoke about survival.

"The great part about tennis," heonce said, "is that you can't run out the clock. As long as we're still playing, I had a chance."

Agassi's clock has finally run out.
The debate will begin in earnest now, the discussion of where to place Agassi within the game's history. That's what people do when someone of such immense talent retires from the sporting world, a decision made official last Sunday when a weary, wincing and wounded Agassi lost his third-round match of the U.S. Open in four sets to Benjamin Becker.

But for me, Andre has always been beyond trivial matters such as that.

In a career spanning two decades rarely has any player managed to chalk up more column inches than the American. And few can ever emulate the man, be it in showbiz lifestyle, fashion stakes or the roller-coaster rife of a career.

Touted from greatness from a tender age, Agassi the son of an Armenian father attended the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy where his talent was spotted from a very early age. He made his debut in early 1986 and quickly established himself to the rest of the world be it with his exploits on or off the court.

During those early days his mane flowed long and free, his game was fast and furious, and it was anyone's bet as to the latest lucky lady by his side. He skipped Wimbledon for three years because of the dress code and created a stir with his “Lycra, hot lava look" in Roland Garros in 1990. And when the President of the ITF threatened a ban Agassi was right back at him calling him of all things “a bozo.” He preached the importance of image then, and damn could you tell he meant it. He was a tennis player with the looks and lifestyle of a rock star and for a part of society lacking in such characters, Agassi was a heaven-sent.

So even when Agassi did finally turn up at the All England Club in 1991, the unveiling of his staid, all-white garb was once again headline news.

But while Agassi was happily playing to the crowds, his younger American rivals Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang started walking away with the honours.

Realising he was being left behind, the 22-year-old Agassi showed that he had enough presence of mind and humility as he embraced all things traditional and made his breakthrough at Wimbledon in 1992.

But discovering the winning formula -- Agassi also captured the U.S. Open in 1994, the Australian Open in 1995 and Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996 -- did not stop his off-court enthusiasms.

After a much publicized friendship with Barbara Streisand, Agassi tied the knot with actress Brooke Shields in 1997.

That proved his tennis undoing and within a year he had become an almost forgotten figure. His ranking dropped to below 150 and for all concerned the enigma that was Agassi had drawn to a swift close.

No such luck.
With his spot in tennis obituary already booked Agassi started out restitching his career. And when his marriage fell apart after two topsy-turvy years Agassi was determined to return to his glory days. Gone was the on-court clowning. Instead Agassi adopted a steely mindset every time he faced an opponent.

A mature and more philosophical Agassi finally completed his Grand Slam journey in 1999 by winning the French Open, becoming only the fifth man to have taken all four grand slam titles. That also perpetuated in a romance with legendary women's player Steffi Graf.

Australian Open titles in 2000 and 2001 followed. Then his 2003 win in Melbourne over Rainer Schuettler took his tally to eight, overtaking the likes of John McEnroe and Mats Wilander in the process.

His subsequent marriage to the German meant that he retained his focus as he outlasted almost all his contemporaries.

In May 2003, at 33 he became the oldest man to hold the top ranking.

He reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open in 2004 and then won the Masters Series title in Cincinnati in August.

His 60th singles title came in Los Angeles in 2005, prompting an amazing run at the U.S. Open, where he survived back-to-back five-set matches to reach the final, succumbing to world number one Roger Federer in four sets. A chronic back injury dogged him latterly but with the help of several cortisone injections, he got himself fit to have one more crack at Wimbledon, where he bowed out to Rafael Nadal in the third round.

At Wimbledon, he announced that the U.S. Open would be his last tournament and he put everything into another run at the title beating Andrei Pavel and, in a five-set thriller, eighth seed Marcos Baghdatis. But his run was bought to a halt by ironically a German named B Becker, only Benjamin instead of long time rival Boris.

Different eras are incredibly difficult to compare given the strength of today's athlete and the technical improvements of equipment. Rod Laver swung a chunk of wood in a time when skill was still the most valuable advantage. Roger Federer swings a graphite/ aluminum missile in a time when power has allowed little room for a variety of styles. That's another reason Agassi's star will always shine brightly upon the sport. He wasn't like everyone else. Like anyone, for that matter.

In the end, what matters is not Agassi's exact placement among peers but rather how he achieved such a supreme position. His was a fascinating journey that rivalled Columbus for discovery, one of such extraordinary highs and lows that no specific ranking could do justice.

And when the clock stopped ticking Sunday thousands rose to their feet and began applauding for more than eight minutes. Shortly after, Agassi hobbled into a locker room, where fellow players also stood and cheered. Shortly after, he rose to depart a news conference and gathered media took to their feet and began clapping. If that doesn't tell you where Andre Agassi fits among the greats, nothing will.

He may not be the most accomplished tennis player in the world and neither is he the most decorated but it matters not where you reach at the end of the day but how you reached it. And Andre Agassi's journey is easily the most unique of them all.

As usual I can be reached at zulquarnain.islam@gmail.com


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