- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Roger Federer and Guillermo Coria, irrepressible 22-year-old tennis players that they are, prepared for the French Open by meeting in a titanic final in the German Open. Coria had won all 16 of his matches on clay this year, but Federer prevailed in four sets.
Andre Agassi, a dozen years older (and wiser), chose a different route. He passed on the traditional Roland Garros warm-up venues in Rome and Hamburg, electing instead to play last week in postcard-perfect St. Poelten, Austria. The country's richest per-capita income town and a military outpost of Vienna in the days of the Roman Empire, St. Poelten boasts several baroque masterpieces, the cathedral and the town hall. Last Monday Agassi was added, very briefly, to the list of sites to see.
Unfortunately for Agassi, he looked all of his 34 years. A Serbian qualifier named Nenad Zimonjic knocked the No. 1 seed, 6-2, 7-6 (6), right out of the first round. Zimonjic, 28, is ranked No. 339 in the world and was playing in his first ATP tournament of the season.
"Zimonjic played great tennis," Agassi allowed afterward. "It was very hard for me to guess what he was going to do next."
What Agassi did next was head for Paris, where he spent the rest of the week practicing. St. Poelten was the first and only pre-Paris match on clay for Agassi, who seems to be enjoying his life as much as his tennis -- if the two can be separated at all.
In recent years, Agassi has focused on quality over quantity. In 1999, when he finished the season No. 1 for the first and only time in his career, Agassi played 77 matches. Last year it was 57 matches; at 47-10 he had the best winning percentage (.825) of all players on the men's tour. Based on his activity so far, this season could yield an even lower match total. Agassi, who is 14-5, managed to finish last season ranked No. 4 in the world, despite playing in only 13 tournaments. No. 1 Andy Roddick played in 23, plus a Davis Cup tie. No. 2 Federer played a combined 26 events, while No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero played 24.
Agassi remains very much a threat to win a Grand Slam, but in truth the odds are diminishing. After winning the U.S. Open in 1999, Agassi won three more Slams -- the Australian Opens of 2000, 2001 and 2003. Agassi's work ethic and superior conditioning, especially coming off the break between seasons, seemed to give him an early advantage over his peers. And while he has reached four quarterfinals, four semifinals and a final in the 13 other Grand Slams contested in that time -- a remarkable record for anyone, regardless of age -- Agassi couldn't quite close the deal. He fell to Coria, the Argentine who once idolized him, in last year's French Open quarterfinals. Australian Mark Philippoussis dispatched Agassi in the fourth round at Wimbledon and Juan Carlos Ferrero prevailed in the U.S. Open semifinals.
So why was Agassi in St. Poelten? There were whispers about a hefty appearance fee, but it wasn't the 51,400-Euro first prize. Agassi has officially won more than $28 million and made many times that sum in endorsements and fees. It's not about the money; it's that Agassi believes he can still win. His next Grand Slam singles title would be his ninth, pushing him past the mark of eight he shares with Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl.
"I keep looking for reasons to quit, but I'm just not finding them," Agassi told reporters gathered at Indian Wells in March. "I think I'm stronger than I've ever been. Physically, I feel great. I don't think very much about age when I'm out there.
"I hope no one has to tell me when I should get out. I just don't want to be the last one to know. When the time comes, I feel there are a lot of things I can feel good about."
Even before that time, Agassi has a pretty good list going. He is pulling off a rare double life as a successful tennis player and father. The two are almost necessarily mutually exclusive, but Agassi relishes the role. He married 22-Grand Slam singles champion Steffi Graf in 2001. Four days later, son Jaden Gil was born. Two years later, last October, daughter Jaz Elle appeared.
As a player, Graf had a reputation for her focus and unsmiling drive. Late last month, in a conference call with reporters to announce her selection to the International Tennis Hall of Fame later this summer, she was gracious and self-deprecating. She discussed her career with candor, saying she wished she had found more time to get away from the game.
"Other than that, I have to say, what kind of regrets can I have?" Graf said. "I was very fortunate with my career, so I wouldn't change a thing. Look where I am right now. You know, through my career I got to meet my husband. So I don't want to change one thing."
Is it harder to play Grand Slam matches or watch them?
"Oh," she said, coyly, "you're talking about watching whom?"
"Mr. Agassi," came the reply
"You're just helpless when you watch," Graf said. "That's the tough part. I'm a very active person and I want to be able to control things -- and I can't. So, in a sense, it's harder watching.
"Obviously, you feel love for yourself; it's for him and that makes it even harder."
A year ago, Agassi had a Court 1 practice session with Michael Chang a few days before he had his French Open farewell. Chang congratulated Agassi on his daughter and Agassi returned the favor, wishing Chang the best in future endeavors. When will tennis be in Agassi's past? It probably depends on how competitive he manages to stay in these Grand Slam events that still dominate his physical and emotional calendar.
During the NASDAQ-100 Open in Key Biscayne back in March, Agassi talked about his routine.
"I feel like today's match is so crucial for tomorrow's plan, and these tournaments are so crucial for my lead-up and overall preparation for competing against the best in the world," Agassi said. "I'm still sort of focused on that challenge of doing it. The winning stays every bit as enjoyable, and the losing as you get older is more disappointing because opportunities are rarer."
Sort of focused? Agassi, wittingly or unwittingly, betrayed his sometimes divided focus. Seven weeks later, it manifested itself in his disappointing result in St. Poelten.
"I can say at this point in my career, I don't have any regrets," Agassi said. "I think I'm mostly lucky for that. They say it's better to be lucky than good sometimes. That's where I feel like I've been luckier than good to take the path I've taken."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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