Ronald Atkin: Andre does a Jimbo - and snarls at Father Time

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The Independent Online

To such improbable heights has the Andre Agassi saga soared over the past few days that there has to be an irony somewhere. That irony lies in one of Agassi's more memorable quotes: "I would probably consider it a great success never to be like Jimmy Connors in any respect whatsoever."

By his pain-defying heroics at the US Open, the stage where he has opted to ring down the curtain on his career at the age of 36, Agassi has conjured vivid memories of Connors, at 39, snarling in the face of Father Time himself to reach the semi-finals of the 1991 US Open.

Connors had to be brought round intravenously after each sally on to the tennis battlefield. With Agassi, it is cortisone, administered with what one New York paper chillingly described as "a seven-inch needle over a 30-minute period". Ouch.

What Agassi is doing to his future health only he knows, but what he has done to the punters at Flushing Meadows is to apply a match to their emotions. Agassi has been firmly clasped to the bosom of New York, a city whose embrace is reserved only for the very best, and he has merited every affectionate squeeze.

Going out at the Grand Slam where he made his debut 21 years ago, Agassi has clocked up eight victories at the world's top four championships, and is one of only five men to have won all four. This, the farewell event, is his 61st Grand Slam, a record.

It could have been an even more impressive record but for the fact that, early in his career when teenage brattishness was rampant, he played Wimbledon just once in five years because "it does not fit in with my plans". He was even more disdainful when it came to the Australian Open, which he deemed not worth bothering to attend. When the likes of Connors and John McEnroe pointed out that he was talking tripe, Agassi relented, and found out that he not only enjoyed playing those two Slams, he was actually capable of winning them.

Ever since he was thrust into the footlights' glare on his fourth birthday, hitting with Connors at Caesars Palace, Agassi has been the marketing world's dream. When you consider that he first walloped a tennis ball while still in nappies, was it not inevitable that he would grow up larger, and weirder, than life? What else could you expect from someone who was not only born in Las Vegas but has chosen to live there ever since?

Agassi's brand of street theatre appealed and appalled in equal measure in those early years. I have seen him kneel in prayer after beating Boris Becker at the US Open, despite having been warned for swearing at officials earlier in the same match. When it rained he would borrow a hat or umbrella from a spectator; he developed an early taste for bowing to the customers; he was occasionally guilty of tanking a match (not trying); and, especially in company with his brother and manager Philip, he enjoyed mocking the media.

As his advertising slogan proclaimed, image was everything. He kitted himself out in hot lime, volcano pink, even ecclesiastical purple, painting the nail of his little finger to match whatever colour took his, or his sponsors', fancy. He was proud of a grunge diet, Coca-Cola and a burger for breakfast.

But, hey, we all grow up, don't we? Agassi certainly did, maturing most impressively as player and person. It was reflected in the results. When he finally found out where Australia was, he immediately won their championship, and then subsequently captured it three more times in four years.

Having twice larked his way to defeat in the Roland Garros final, Agassi won in Paris in 1999 to complete the full set of Grand Slams, an occasion which set the tears flowing and hastened the maturing process. At peace with his profession, despite the mounting toll of injuries to a body exposed at too early an age to the unyielding demands of the sport, he presented an unfailingly courteous face to all except the most dunderheaded inquisitors, and impressed people in the right places by a willingness to divert much of his wealth to good causes.

With all that came the realisation, publicly acknowledged, of how lucky a human he was. At his Wimbledon farewell this summer, Agassi paid tribute to the All England Club as "a place that first taught me to respect the sport, to appreciate what a privilege it is to play a game for a living, when people work five days just to play on the weekend".

Now, give or take another miracle or two, his time in the glare is up. How appropriate that the final bow is being taken under the gaze of Andy Roddick's new mentor, one James Scott Connors. No one could be more aware of what Andre Agassi has gone through in order still to be standing to take that final bow.

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