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Agassi gave until his body gave out

9/4/2006 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi is only 36 years old, but these final days he has shuffled around like a senior citizen, limping into restaurants, hobbling through the hallways underneath Arthur Ashe Stadium. Four injections in five days did little to quiet the shrieking pain in his back.

He was unseeded here and his one-time No. 1 world ranking has slipped to No. 39. And yet, when he stepped onto center court for his first two matches, the eight-time Grand Slam champion came alive. Elevated by a full house of passionate believers, his aching body seemed to, fleetingly, live in the past.

On Sunday, Agassi -- his face frozen into a perpetual grimace -- walked into Arthur Ashe for a third time to play a 25-year-old qualifier named Benjamin Becker. His heart, his soul and the U.S. Open crowd were desperately willing, but this time he couldn't rise above his horrible physical reality.

Moving poorly and with great effort, Agassi lost the last match of his glorious career, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5. His career trademark was taking the ball early, on the rise, but on this day he was too often too late. Despite his inability to reach many shots at the edges of the court, he managed to stay in the match all the way to the end.

It would have been sad if it hadn't been so curiously uplifting. Perhaps courage is a word better applied to exploits in the theater of war or in the face of natural disaster, but it might best describe Agassi's final performance.

With Becker serving for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, the stadium of 24,000 spectators was stone silent. After Becker won the first three points of the ultimate game, the crowd stood and cheered. They didn't sit down. After Becker's 133-mph ace whizzed past Agassi, he walked slowly to the net, congratulated Becker and sat in his changeover chair, beaten but not defeated.

Amid a sustained standing ovation, Agassi, tears beginning, walked to the middle of the court and issued his signature four-corners, bow-and-kisses routine. Then he returned to his seat and, finally, he began to sob. The applause continued -- Becker never stopped -- and Agassi walked out for a second salute. He sat back down and buried his face in a towel and, still, the love flowed.

"I was sitting there realizing that I was saying goodbye to everybody out there," he said later, "and they were saying goodbye to me. Nothing I've ever experienced before. Overwhelmed -- [I] was overwhelmed with how they embraced me at the end."

For more than five minutes, the crowd tried to give back to Agassi, after he had given them so much -- maybe too much -- of himself. It was this tender and symbiotic relationship that Agassi addressed when he finally stood to speak.

After two halting attempts to find his vocal chords, he began in voice choked with emotion, "The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I have found. And over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I've found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I've found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could have never reached without you.

"Over the last 21 years, I have found you and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life. Thank you."

In 111 words, Agassi had succinctly captured his deep bond with the tennis fans of New York. The address underlined his decision to end it here. His circumstances were in no way as dire as Lou Gehrig's when he faced a deadly disease upon retirement in 1939, but his emotion and sentiment were the same. Clearly, Agassi considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Less than an hour later, he was more composed in a standing-room-only, post-match interview session. He tried to explain why it was so important for him to play out this last match. His answers were laced with tiny gasps as he was, presumably, visited by spasms of pain.

"This is sort of the last window to a whole series of windows throughout my career," Agassi said. "I feel like the color of the last one can affect how you see the rest of them. I didn't want to be tainted with a lack of desire or preparation.

"I'd rather just be inside the lines."

From the beginning, Agassi was not himself.

"I was still tight," Agassi explained. "But then the pain came quickly. I knew I was in trouble at that point."

He had difficulty bending low for shots, particularly on the backhand side. Still, he found himself serving to force a tiebreaker in the first set. At 30-all, moving in toward the service line he was in position to hit what would have been an easy winner in his prime. This time, the backhand glanced wide. On set point for Becker, Agassi couldn't get over the top on a second serve and, at a modest speed of 84 mph, it sailed long.

Agassi's plaintive wail as he struck the ball foretold its path.

Becker, a player so obscure he was escorted out of Arthur Ashe when he tried to watch Agassi's spectacular second-round match with Marcos Baghdatis, was admirably poised in so difficult a situation. The former NCAA champion for Baylor via Germany, failed to show any nerves whatsoever until the second-set tiebreaker.

His first two serves were double faults and it was a hole from which he never emerged. A forehand into the net by Becker sent the crowd into hysterics.

Amazingly, twice Agassi was two points from drawing even at 5-all in the third set, but Becker's bigger serve (27 aces) and forehand prevailed. Agassi was broken at 5-all in the fourth set and Becker served out the match.

The bottom-line numbers do Agassi little justice. He has won more than $30 million in official prize money and his final record of 870-274 gives him an extraordinary 1,144 matches. Only Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Guillermo Vilas played more.

After Agassi had spun slowly around one more time to wave to the crowd, he walked into the tunnel and through the corridor toward the locker room. When he opened the door, the players were waiting for him. They were on their feet, and prompted by Ryan Sweeting, they, too, were applauding.

"The greatest applause that any person will ever receive in their life is that which comes from their peers," Agassi said. "It's not like we're a company who's working together to accomplish something. We're people that succeed, in some cases, at the demise of the other.

"To have them applaud is the ultimate compliment."

At the end of his eloquent 40-minute interview, Agassi asked, "Are you guys going to really miss me or are you just acting like that?"

The answer was another standing ovation -- a rare tribute from a typically cynical media contingent.

Agassi said he is looking forward to spending more time with family, friends and working with his foundation.

"[Tennis] always comes with a cost. You're not doing something. You need to be resting. You need to be training. You need to be going somewhere. Everything you do has come with a sacrifice, it's come with a price tag, whether it's physical or mental.

"You always had to be somewhere and be thinking about being somewhere else. I look forward to being wherever I am."

Agassi, through all the pain, was typically introspective and insightful. No athlete has ever explained himself better.

"I don't think it was sadness," he said, reflecting. "It was a beautiful feeling, combined with a real excitement for the future."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.