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

Updated: September 5, 2006, 1:07 AM ET
Associated Press

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.

Andre Agassi
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesThe Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd sent an emotional Agassi off with one last standing ovation.

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.

Andre Agassi: Career Highlights
Andre Agassi
• Career record: 870-274
• Titles: 60
• Grand Slam titles: 8
• One of five men to win all four Grand Slams.
• Fifth on men's career wins list (870).
• Most men's Grand Slam appearances in the Open era (61).
• Seventh-most career men's titles in the Open era (60).
• 16 times in the top ATP year-end top 10, tied with Jimmy Connors for the most ever.
• Tied for sixth all-time men's Grand Slam titles (8).
• The only man ranked in the year-end top 10 during three different decades.
• Only man in the Open era to win a title in 18 different years.
• Oldest man to be ranked No. 1 (33 years, 13 days on May 11, 2003). Held that spot for 14 weeks.

-- The Associated Press

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.

Andre Agassi
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonFighting a bad back, Agassi struggled to keep up with the 25-year-old Becker.

"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.

Agassi's Farewell Speech
Andre Agassi's on-court speech to the crowd after the final match of his pro career, a loss to Benjamin Becker in the third round of the U.S. Open on Sunday:

"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."

-- The Associated Press

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.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press