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On his terms: Agassi's career ends with loss to Becker

9/5/2006 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi walked off the court the way he
wanted, to a champion's ovation.

In the end, despite all the tears, it hardly made a difference
to him or his fans that he didn't win.

A career for the ages came to a close Sunday with Agassi worn
down and wincing, losing to 112th-ranked Benjamin Becker 7-5, 6-7
(4), 6-4, 7-5 in the third round at the U.S. Open.

Betrayed by a creaky body that needed four injections this week,
his spirit never waned. And that is something Agassi and his fans will always
remember.

"For me, it was never about winning and stopping," he said.
"It was about getting the most out of myself for as long as
possible," he said.

Agassi announced this summer that the Open would be his final
event. It seemed unimaginable that he could win seven matches to
take the title, but after two inspiring victories, fans began to
hope and wonder.

Instead, the end came with Agassi looking more like a 36-year-old man with a bad back and ready for retirement than the younger version of himself he appeared to be in the first two rounds.

"I just credit the doctors that I was able to play out there
today," he said. "I didn't expect a whole lot physically. And
sure enough, it was real early when I wasn't feeling so good."

The 25-year-old Becker started strong, showing few nerves, and
closed out the match with a 133 mph ace.

Moments later, Agassi teared up on the blue court as he
addressed a crowd that showed up early at Arthur Ashe Stadium and
tried to spur him all afternoon.

"The scoreboard said I lost today," he said. "But what the
scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I've found."

Becker, who had to win three qualifying matches merely to make
it into the Open, applauded as Agassi spoke. Agassi's wife, Steffi
Graf, and their two young children looked on.

"He was my idol growing up," Becker said.

He joined the crowd for a four-minute, loud standing ovation
saluting Agassi, who stared out at the crowd from his chair, wiping
tears from his eyes.

Agassi was greeted by another big cheer from fellow players when
he walked into the locker room. Toward the end of that tribute,
Becker entered.

"It was awkward, me walking in," he said. "You feel bad, too.
I couldn't really be happy."

Agassi needed cortisone and anti-inflammatory shots to keep
playing this week. Although he pushed himself to the limit, he was
just plain shot.

Hobbling, grimacing and breathing hard, he frequently stood,
watching to see whether Becker's shots landed good. Reduced to
hoping rather than hitting, Agassi showed just flashes of the
brilliant returns and pinpoint backhands that made him an
eight-time Grand Slam winner.

"I don't take pride in my accomplishments," he said. "I take
pride in the striving."

The crowd clearly felt his pain, booing when his German opponent
hit drop shots that made Agassi run.

"You could tell his back was hurting," Becker said. "It was
hard to be tough, to go for your shots. I didn't say, 'I have to
hit a drop shot because he is hurting."'

Becker said he tried to focus on the match, rather than what it
might mean.

"I never really thought about it that way, that this is the
last time he could play," he said.

Before his agonizing, five-set win over Marcos Baghdatis that
started Thursday night and finished Friday morning, Agassi
envisioned the ending. Or, instead, how he did not want his career
to finish.

"I just don't want to go off the court limping," he said at
the time. "It's not what I want to do."

After three matches and more than 10 draining hours on the court
where he loved to play, he still was standing.

More than 20 minutes after the match, Agassi was still crying as
he limped through the hallways. He finished with a competitive
career match record of 870-274 and a lifetime of memories -- for him
and his legion of fans.

Across the newly renamed USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis
Center, there was a collective moan and cries of "Oh, no!" at
Louis Armstrong Stadium when the scoreboard posted the final
result. Outside the big bowls, crowds wandering the grounds fell
silent.

The daytime start took away much of the buzz that usually
follows Agassi. He came out to a big cheer, but fans quickly saw he
was in trouble and shouts of "Let's go, Andre!" were replaced by
groans when his shots missed.

Becker, the 2004 NCAA champ from Baylor, came out with his hat
backward and full of energy. No relation to Boris -- never even met
him -- Benjamin certainly made a name for himself.

After beginning the match with a double-fault, Becker began
rocketing aces at 140 mph, and that's when he looked like Boris. He
won 13 straight points on serve and, perhaps most important, kept
his composure as planned.

"Try to see it as another match," he said before taking the
court.

Becker advanced to play the winner of the later Andy
Roddick-Fernando Verdasco match.

Even in his final match, Agassi had his moments.

He outlasted Becker to take a 22-point game early in the second
set, then pumped his fist when he won the tiebreaker. His
4-year-old son, Jaden, joined the celebration, raising both arms
and shouting "Hey!" as music blared during the changeover.

But it was obvious this Agassi was not the same one who ruled
the courts with such verve for so long. Not that he was about to
walk away.

"I didn't come here to quit," he said.