<
>

Andre's giant: Agassi wins epic match vs. Baghdatis

9/1/2006 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi and 23,700 or so of his closest
friends went through all sorts of highs and lows, as he built a big
lead then faced a sudden deficit, as he looked set to extend his
career then teetered on the verge of ending it.

Through all that, through nearly four hours of thrilling tennis,
Agassi -- 36 years old and burdened by a bad back -- held up better
than the kid across the net.

And so he plays on.

Buoyed by a cortisone injection, along with a raucous, sellout
crowd that boosted his spirits when things looked bleak, Agassi
kept his final tournament going by beating eighth-seeded Marcos
Baghdatis of Cyprus 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 at the U.S. Open.

"You're not guaranteed these moments," Agassi said, "and to
feel it out there is something I can keep with me forever."

They traded stinging strokes as Thursday night became Friday,
and it was the 21-year-old Baghdatis who broke down physically, his
body contorted by cramps in both thighs during an eight-deuce,
four-break-point game that Agassi eventually held to lead 5-4 in
the fifth. At one point, Baghdatis dropped to the ground. Later, he
used the chair umpire's stand to stretch his aching legs.

And there was Agassi, still hustling to reach seemingly
unreachable shots, responding with winners, and skipping out to the
baseline to start games at his record 21st consecutive Open -- one
for each year of Baghdatis' life.

"Would I have been disappointed if I had lost? Sure," Agassi
said. "But at the same time, how can you be disappointed when it's
all sort of surreal?"

When it was over, they shook hands at the net, then embraced.
Baghdatis wished Agassi good luck. Agassi asked Baghdatis if he was
OK. And Agassi was quick to thank the fans who are enjoying
quite a ride right along with him at Flushing Meadows. It's a
parade that will go down in annals right alongside Jimmy Connors'
run to the 1991 Open semifinals at 39.

Now comes this third-round matchup: Agassi vs. Becker. A classic
right? Well, not quite. It's Benjamin Becker (no relation to
Boris), a 25-year-old qualifier from Germany who's ranked 112th and
has won zero tour titles. Becker knocked off No. 30 Sebastien
Grosjean in straight sets.

Get past that, and Agassi could face Andy Roddick in the round
of 16.

Baghdatis' very first serve of the second-round encounter was a
fault, eliciting hoots from the stands. Moments later, someone in
the upper deck yelled: "Andre, this is your house! And it's all of
us against him!"

As if there were any doubt. Agassi is, after all, an American at
the American Grand Slam, one of the most popular players in recent
tennis history -- and everyone knows each match here could be his
last as a pro. That final part is also why Agassi went to the
hospital this week for the latest in a series of shots to dull pain
from a troublesome sciatic nerve; he could barely stand after his
first-round victory over Andrei Pavel.

Does he ever wonder whether those injections are worth it?

"It is worth it, and I'm not wondering," Agassi said. "This
is it for me. Where am I going from here?"

Against Baghdatis, Agassi missed consecutive backhands to get
broken in the fifth set's opening game. Agassi wiped sweat from his
brow, shook his head and trudged slowly toward the sideline. Was
the end near?

"Yeah, we were all getting worried," his brother Phil said.
"You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes before
you die? There was his career, flashing before your eyes."

But with the lead -- and momentum -- finally on Baghdatis' side,
it was the youngster who asked for a medical timeout to get his
strained left thigh massaged.

Agassi took a seat and sighed, while the crowd chanted, "Let's
go, Andre!" And there was nothing wrong with Agassi's back when he
stretched for a low volley at a sharp angle to break right back in
the next game. Agassi shook his fist and clenched his teeth, still
spry after all these years.

Later, Baghdatis' legs locked up, and he dropped to the ground.
But he got up and continued to play.

"I just wanted to fight," said Baghdatis, who attributed his
cramps to stress. "I wanted to stay on the court. I'll do anything
to win."

Agassi had appeared to be in control after the first two sets
since he had won all previous 58 matches at the Open with that size
lead. And he was up 4-0 in the fourth set, before winners began to
come more frequently from the racket of Baghdatis, who knew his
role going in, saying: "Sure, I'm the bad guy for tonight."

Agassi and Baghdatis share a sponsor and wore shirts with the
same weblike design. The difference: Agassi's was country-club
white, while Baghdatis' was a neon orange. And the kid topped off
his look with a hip headwrap, the sort of thing Agassi might have
donned a decade or more ago.

The clock might as well have been turned back, though, the way
Agassi smacked balls from inside the baseline, the thwack from his
racket echoing off the court's walls. He was having a great time,
plain and simple, just like his wife, former star Steffi Graf, who
was smiling and clapping in the stands. Agassi saluted the crowd
when it did the wave in the third set. When Baghdatis sailed one
lob long, ending a point, Agassi went ahead and hit the ball
through his legs anyway, as if to say: "Hey, I've still got it."

But Baghdatis, an up-and-coming star who reached the Australian
Open final and Wimbledon semifinals this year, wouldn't make it
easy, even after he tumbled and hurt his left wrist in the first
set. He was visited by a trainer, who gave him some pain pills, and
Baghdatis' two-fisted backhand gave Agassi fits.

"That's life," he said. "It could be unfair, but so many
things happen that are unfair in life. ... You can't cry about
it."

An animated Baghdatis shook off a shanked overhead by laughing and crossing himself, and when Agassi eventually trailed, Graf covered her mouth, the picture of worry.

Baghdatis finished with 86 unforced errors, 39 more than Agassi, an eight-time major champion and one of only five men with a career Grand Slam.

Because Agassi went only 8-7 this year before the Open, he's
unseeded, which is why he had to face someone ranked as highly as
Baghdatis so early.

Not only did they put on quite a show, but Agassi also provided
the day's signature moment even before swatting a ball: After a
morning practice session, he autographed a teen's forehead with a
marker, making sure the final "i" was dotted.