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Ailing Agassi bows out tearfully



Published: Mon, September 4, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Even in losing he was cheered by fans and players who watched.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Crouched alone in the silence of the locker room, a pro tennis player no more, a red-eyed Andre Agassi twisted his torso in an attempt to conquer the seemingly mundane task of pulling a white shirt over his head.

Never more than at that moment did Agassi seem so vulnerable, looking far older than his 36 years, wrestling not simply with his bad back but also with two overwhelming and conflicting emotions.

There was the concrete sense of departure, of knowing his career came to an end Sunday with a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 loss to 112th-ranked Benjamin Becker in the third round at the U.S. Open. And there was the freeing sense of excitement, of knowing he has more time to devote to his wife, Steffi Graf, and their two children; of knowing there are no more flights to catch, no more practice sessions, no more injections to dull the searing pain of an irritated sciatic nerve.

Standing ovation

That's why, for Agassi himself and the 20,000 or so fans who honored him with a raucous, four-minute standing ovation in Arthur Ashe Stadium after the match, it truly did not matter all that much what Sunday's outcome was. This day and this tournament were all about saying goodbye to an eight-time Grand Slam champion who grew up in front of the world, from cocky kid with the shoulder-length hair and denim shorts to the thoughtful guy with the shaved pate and proper tennis whites.

"The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I've found," Agassi told the crowd, tears streaming down his cheeks, his voice cracking with emotion. "Over the last 21 years, I've found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I have found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments."

He could have been referring to his losses in his first three major finals, two at the French Open and one at the U.S. Open, setbacks that made him wonder if he'd ever reach the very top. Or, more likely, when, having won Wimbledon and reached No. 1, he sank to 141st in the rankings and resorted to playing in tennis' minor leagues in 1997. Or, most recently, when his back hurt so badly after the first two rounds of this U.S. Open, the tournament he announced this summer would be his last.

Pain-killing injections

Agassi got a cortisone injection after beating Andre Pavel in 31/2 hours, then received three anti-inflammatory shots in the days after beating eighth-seeded Marcos Baghdatis in an even longer encounter. The last injection came Sunday, before facing Becker, a German who won the 2004 NCAA singles title for Baylor University but is so unaccomplished he needed to go through qualifying just to make it into the Open.

Talk about matching bookends: Agassi played the very first of his record 61 Grand Slam tournaments at the U.S. Open in 1986, losing to Jeremy Bates, who was ranked outside the top 100 at the time. Since then, Agassi was 24-0 at the Open against men rated that low -- until Sunday.

But Agassi couldn't conjure up any more magic in his 21st consecutive Open, an event he won in 1994 and 1999. His back -- and Becker -- wouldn't let him. Over and over, Agassi would pull up short, watching a ball fly by instead of chasing it. He winced after serves, clutched his lower back after stretching to reach for shots.

There were times, as his limp grew more pronounced, when it seemed quite likely that Agassi wouldn't be able to complete the match; his father, who turned him into a tennis player as a tot, had said he hoped Agassi wouldn't try to play Sunday and wasn't in attendance.

"If I wanted to quit," Agassi said, "I would have done that a long time ago. I didn't come here to quit. ..."

In other action Sunday, Serena Williams won her second consecutive match against a seeded player, beating No. 16 Ana Ivanovic 6-2, 6-4, to set up a showdown Monday night against No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo; Marat Safin, the 2000 Open winner but unseeded this year after a series of injuries, eliminated No. 4 David Nalbandian in a fifth-set tiebreaker; 1998 Open champion Lindsay Davenport saved two match points before getting past No. 22 Katarina Srebotnik; and Li Na of China upset 2005 runner-up Mary Pierce, advancing to a fourth-round match against Maria Sharapova, who won at night. Other winners included 2001 U.S. Open champion Lleyton Hewitt, No. 17 Andy Murray and No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who reached the Open's fourth round for the first time.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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