Love match keeps Agassi playing to win

At every point in Andre Agassi's flamboyant career, from his early days as a long-haired, garish under-achiever to his maturity as a balding master of the courts, showmanship has been his hallmark.

At every point in Andre Agassi's flamboyant career, from his early days as a long-haired, garish under-achiever to his maturity as a balding master of the courts, showmanship has been his hallmark.

Steffi Graf, in contrast, bestrode the sport with a panache that belied her introverted nature. When she and Agassi married in his home town of Las Vegas in 2001, some wondered if the bond was strong enough to last. Two children later, Agassi has revealed that at the end of every day he chalks on a small blackboard in the kitchen, trying to express the many things Steffi means to him. And he does not mind who knows it.

It may seem soppy to the less romantically inclined, but Agassi reduced his wife to tears recently with his tribute to mark her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.

With reference to the notes he chalks in the kitchen, Agassi said: "Sometimes just a brief line, sometimes a short story, but always just the overflow from a grateful heart, and yet after these months and years of writing to you each night, I have never been at a shortage of ways to reflect the light you've brought into my life."

In conclusion, he said: "Stefanie, you have spent many years of your life competing, but right here where we stand, in the ears of your children, and right now in my heart, you have no rival."

It will be five years at the earliest before Agassi qualifies for the Hall of Fame (current players are ineligible), even if he decides to retire at the end of his 19th consecutive US Open, which starts here at Flushing Meadowon Monday. Due to turn 35 next April, he is asked when will he hang up his rackets every time he is seen with one in his hand.

"Oh, man, I don't know," was his latest response when asked if he was ready to join his American peers, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, in retirement. "You miss the guys you came in with, but you have to choose your own road. And I'm still trying to do this."

Agassi's reluctance to be drawn on retirement was understandable, given that he had just won his first Masters Series title since March 2003. His win against Lleyton Hewitt in Cincinnati on 8 August brought his career singles tally to 59.

"If it's possible," he added, "[Winning in Cincinnati] certainly gives me new life. All you want to know when you're out there is that you have the chance to win. It gives me a lot of belief going into the Open. It's a function of work ethic and commitment and focus. That allows me to feel great about the journey that I'm on. That's what it's always been to me. It's the same challenge at 18 as what I'm feeling now."

Agassi has not expressed such belief since losing in five sets to Marat Safin, of Russia, in the semi-finals at the Australian Open in January. "It's a lonely world out there when there's no one to sort of pass the ball to," he said. "You get exposed if you don't believe in what you're doing. You can't hide out there, and we've seen that over a number of months with me. But Darren [Cahill, his coach] stood right by me. He's had a lot of belief at times where I've had a lot of questions.

"I found it actually comical when he's telling me that I can turn this around and start winning these tournaments and beating the best guys. It sounded comical to me, just because I felt that far from it. But I've kept trust in him, and you need excellence around you to succeed."

Even his ardent admirers would be stunned if Agassi added a third US Open title to those he won in 1994 and 1999, especially since fully-fledged Grand Slam champions number, among the younger generation, such as Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, who is defending here, and Hewitt.

"I saw a great stat," Agassi said, "about the amount of players that served over 120 miles per hour in 1992 versus the amount of players that do it now. The discrepancy is huge. It was 50-some-odd players in 1992 served over 120. Now there's 174 of them that can do it. So the game has elevated in pace and power and athleticism. And it forces you to not just be able to beat a variety of players, but to do it at a high standard.'

Asked if the newcomers called him "Pops", Agassi smiled. "No - don't give them any ideas, please. I don't sense age when it comes to these guys until life sort of throws you those curves. You're having dinner and you want to order a glass of wine and you ask and then you say, 'never mind', because they can't - they're not old enough to have a glass of wine. And then when I see some of them preparing in front of video games, that also reminds me of my age. But other than that, there's a healthy respect for what goes on inside those lines, and that carries on in the locker-room as well.'

Tennis's most famous couple have more in common than personal wealth and a vault of silverware. Both were driven by ambitious fathers and spent their adolescence locked in the sport. Peter Graf's handling of his daughter's finances ended with a jail sentence for tax evasion. Mike Agassi taught Andre the rudiments of hitting a tennis ball and then sent him to Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Florida. Agassi Snr's version of events is about to appear in a ghosted biography, The Agassi Story, due to be launched here next week.

Steffi Graf, 35 last June, retired in 1999, having won 22 major singles titles - seven at Wimbledon - including a Grand Slam and Olympic gold medal in 1988. She seems to have settled smoothly into the role of wife and mother. She says: "Nobody that knew me would ever have thought I would have ended up in Las Vegas - growing up in Germany, with the green forests, and ending up in the desert. But I've been so blessed with my husband and my children. Life couldn't be any better for all of us."

For the moment she appears content to cheer on her husband as he continues to tread the courts. Soon, however, it may be Steffi's turn to chalk a message on the blackboard.

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