Agassi finds respect and urgency in each match

On the night when most observers thought Andre Agassi's career would conclude, the 36-year-old showed he can still play with -- and beat -- the world's best players on the biggest stages. Bonnie DeSimone explains.

Updated: September 2, 2006, 6:43 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi was supposed to walk up to the net Thursday night, shake hands with a slightly altered mirror image of his younger self -- an agile, gifted entertainer with frosted hair, bottomless brown eyes and a killer smile -- and graciously pass the torch.

Agassi was not supposed to have a chance against No. 8 seed Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus. This second-round U.S. Open match was supposed to provide the perfect stage for the graying ghost of tennis' past to yield to the flesh-and-blood of tennis' future. The tribute speeches had been delivered and folded back into pockets. Glasses were figuratively raised for the final toast.

Andre Agassi
Seth Wenig/AP PhotoAlthough he went the distance, Agassi improved to 59-0 at the U.S. Open when winning the first two sets.

But Agassi opted to make the evening a competition rather than a ceremonial transition. He prevailed over Baghdatis in a 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 thriller that surely will take over No. 1 on the list of Rain Delay Replays.

"It just seems like it's getting better and better," Agassi said of his improbable triumph before a delirious 23,712 at Arthur Ashe Stadium, most of whom stayed until well after midnight to witness his latest miracle. "[It] just keeps getting topped, and the feeling of that kind of enthusiasm … my head was ringing when I came in the tunnel afterwards.

"I've lived a dream for 21 years. It's going to be impossible for me to be disappointed with a result when you have that sort of support and feeling out there. This is why I chose here [to retire]."

Foul weather is forecast for Saturday afternoon when Agassi would be scheduled to play again. He might be praying for precipitation as he recovers from his five-set, nearly four-hour pound-a-thon that is sure to aggravate his already inflamed back.

His next opponent is 25-year-old, 112th-ranked Benjamin Becker of Germany -- no relation to venerable countryman Boris Becker -- who upset 30th seed Sebastien Grosjean of France to advance.

Agassi sat down gingerly to talk with reporters after the match and said he will try every safe medical option. "I do want to make sure I give myself the best look here, but I don't want to compromise the rest of my life," he said.

But he said he is not looking too far into the draw. "These last two [matches] have taken all of me," he said. "You got to just, you know, treat each match with a great amount of respect and urgency. That's how I'm approaching it."

The 36-year-old Agassi was 48 hours removed from getting a painful cortisone injection for his back. He was the one who was supposed to be physically vulnerable. Instead, a charged-up Agassi skipped across the court and fist-pumped after crucial points while the 21-year-old Baghdatis hobbled and wobbled his way through much of the night.

For starters, Baghdatis looked pale and nervous as he waited in the tunnel entrance to the stadium, a guy on the way to a date he suspects might not go well. "Andre is playing at home,'' he said with a weak smile.

Marcos Baghdatis
Ed Betz/AP PhotoBaghdatis seemed to be taking control of the match until he started having leg cramps in the middle of the fifth set.

Then Baghdatis had to gulp painkillers for his left wrist, which he jammed when he took a tumble in the first set while sprinting to track down a ball. His play was listless and flatfooted for a stretch, and he would commit a whopping 83 unforced errors in the match, most of them off his faltering backhand.

Agassi moved well and hit groundstrokes with power, but opened the door for his rival on his serve. Baghdatis just couldn't take advantage in the end.

A two-set lead in Flushing Meadows is usually a padlock for Agassi. Going into Thursday night's match, he was 58-0 in U.S. Open matches when he was ahead by that margin. But he squandered that advantage, losing the third set as Baghdatis regained his strokes and his confidence, and frittered away a 4-0 lead in the fourth set.

Baghdatis had a cramping left thigh massaged twice by a trainer in the fifth set and collapsed on the court when it began spasming again. He limped around during much of the last few games -- when he wasn't launching laser serves and hitting winning passing shots.

His expressive face reflected the whole range from comic to tragic. He griped. He exulted. He sank to his knees and crossed himself after one of his overhead smashes caromed off the net tape and bounced out of play. He thumped his chest and let out a primal howl after winning a key game.

"I just wanted to fight, you know?" Baghdatis said afterward. "Playing Andre in the center court of Arthur Ashe, the last thing I want [is] to just die on the court. I will do anything to win. That's all. That's what I did."

He was a candle who refused to be snuffed, and he continued to glow with ungrudging admiration for his vanquisher when they finally did meet at the net. The two men patted each other's shoulders, and Baghdatis cupped Agassi's bald head in his big hand.

"I wish him luck not only in this tournament but in his life, because he's given so much to this sport," Baghdatis told the raucous crowd that had rooted hard and sometimes disruptively against him.

Agassi returned the compliment.

"It's a guy like that that makes it easier to walk away from the game because you see what kind of hands it's in,'' he said. "He's just a true professional with a lot of style and a lot of charisma and a lot of talent."

Frequent contributor Bonnie DeSimone is covering the U.S. Open for ESPN.com.