It was all done well below the radar. Andre Agassi, one of the most recognizable men to play tennis, drove up in a black Chevy Suburban and ducked into the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. On Monday’s fireworks-filled opening ceremony on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Agassi would have fit right in, but he opted out of any role which would have put him on the literal red carpet.
In his return to these grounds Wednesday, he sat quietly behind a desk in the USTA membership area, sipped cola from a clear plastic cup and signed “Open: An Autobiography.” Just a quick glance at the pages and it’s clear that any homecoming here might be complicated.
How did it feel to be back, where he won two titles including his five-set victory over Todd Martin in the 1999 final? Agassi smiled at the question.
“It always feels good,” he said.
For years he was the hellion at the U.S. Open, with his unruly hair and denim shorts. He matured into the tennis’s version of an elder statesman, with an equal in wife Steffi Graf. Now, Agassi finds himself four years into retirement and on the ballot for the 2011 International Tennis Hall of Fame.
“It's going to be tough for him to get in — I don't know if he's got the credentials,” joked James Blake when asked about his former mentors.
Agassi’s numbers speak for themselves. He won eight Grand Slam titles, including the rare accomplishment of one at each major and two here in New York, and held the No. 1 ranking for 101 weeks. He won 60 singles titles during a career where he amassed a 870-274 record.
More importantly, he proved tennis wasn’t just a young man’s game. Past his prime and sliding to No. 141 in the rankings, he willed himself back up to the No. 1 spot at age 33 and retired on his own terms in 2006.
Agassi, now 40, seems torn over his tennis career. In the autobiography he signed, he wrote about how he hated the sport as a teenage, of his struggle with substance abuse. His life was fodder for the tabloids because he was excellent at what he did and and he was interesting -- given to beautiful women and with a hint of the personal demons he later detailed.
Perhaps that was why Agassi’s return to the Open Wednesday came with a stipulation: No interviews, no ceremonies. Instead, he talked to his friend, former player Justin Gimelstob, for The Tennis Channel for a few minutes.
“Coming back without my tennis gear, being around the crowds, it feels so different,” Agassi told Gimelstob.
Todd Martin, Mardy Fish and James Blake, who intersected with Agassi at different points in his career, all agreed that his induction into the Hall of Fame is a foregone conclusion.
He had the game for it. Agassi could change the direction of a ball like no one else, said Fish. Martin said that in an era of speed players and fast courts, Agassi excelled despite the fact that he didn’t have a huge serve.
Blake, who was a young unknown to the established champion, said he was always surprised when Agassi was there calling him with a scouting report the night before a match, or to offer a night out at his Las Vegas nightclub.
“To be a normal guy, to be one of the guys in the locker room, I respected him so much for that,” Blake said.
Andy Roddick said that he takes Agassi’s example when it comes to how he interacts with up and coming players.
“I think all the young guys know that if they have a question, I'm always happy to answer it,” Roddick said. “I think that's pretty consistent with how Andre was with me, you know. So I kind of followed his lead on that.”
When it came to his rival Pete Sampras, things weren’t always so sunny. Although they were among the best players in the world for a long stretch, neither has remained a public part of the Open, unlike John McEnroe, Jim Courier or champions who remain involved with tennis federations in their own countries.
Martin thinks that Agassi’s legacy is the painful, personal and very public growth he endured.
“In the end, even though he played an awfully long time, he’s got the better part of his life to live after he stops hitting tennis balls,” Martin said.
It seems like Agassi has not yet decided how his life after tennis, Hall of Fame or not, can exist alongside an ongoing role in the sport. Certainly, he has time to figure that out.