Agassi turns back clock in first round

NEW YORK -- Eighteen years ago, more than half a lifetime ago, Andre Agassi lost a first-round match here.

It was 1986, and he was a nerveless 16-year-old with enough hair to stuff a sofa and perhaps even an easy chair. Agassi fell to Jeremy Bates, but he would return to the National Tennis Center and win two titles, in 1994 and 1999.

On a sultry Monday evening, Agassi began his 19th U.S. Open tournament against a nerveless young American named Robby Ginepri. Playing like the early edition Agassi, taking the ball early and pressing the attack, Ginepri, the 21-year-old, found himself two points from the first set. And then Agassi summoned something from his past.

Agassi rallied past Ginepri 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-2 in a match that got progressively easier. What lies ahead in this stomach-wrenching fortnight will be anything but easy.

At the age of 34, Agassi may or may not be playing in his final Grand Slam event. It was almost eerie when Todd Martin, another 34-year-old American, announced his retirement in a late-night press conference that immediately preceded Agassi's.

"I knew he was sort of thinking about it," Agassi said. "The players and the game are going to miss him a lot. It's always a bit sad when somebody you spent so much time with over the years, played so many matches against, decided to move on."

And now, Bud Collins was moved to observe, Agassi is the Last of the Mohicans in that great class of American peers that included Martin, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Pete Sampras.

"I've never been 34 before," Agassi said, "so you are always anticipating why things are going the way they are."

With the way things have been going, it has been a difficult season for Agassi. He started quickly, as he has in recent years, with a semifinal appearance in the Australian Open, losing to eventual finalist Marat Safin. But then he lost in the first round of the French Open -- in straight sets to someone named Jerome Haehnel. A hip injury forced him to pass on Wimbledon.

Just when Agassi seemed to be done, he resurfaced in Cincinnati, a prestigious Tennis Masters Series event. All Agassi did was take out Carlos Moya in the quarterfinals, Andy Roddick in the semis and Lleyton Hewitt in the final for his first victory of the season. Wins over the No. 4-, No. 2- and No. 6-ranked players in the world suggested that Agassi might still have the stuff to win a major tournament.

There were some who thought that Agassi might have drawn more than he could handle in Ginepri, who was already playing in his fourth Open; last year he made it to the third round before losing to Martin. Earlier this year, Ginepri reached the round of 16 at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

At the beginning, Agassi seemed to labor. In fact, after failing to hold serve for the first set, Agassi trailed Ginepri 3-5 in the tiebreaker before running off the last four points. Two unreturnable serves were the difference. Over that hurdle, Agassi settled down and started sharpening his angles from the baseline. Ginepri, enormously eager at the start, steadily lost his intensity.

Agassi, at 34, still has enough to win a match here. Now, does he have enough to win six more? And if he manages to win, will he step away from the game? Agassi got a good first-hand look at Pete Sampras' farewell match. He lost the 2002 U.S. Open final to Sampras.

"It was a great way to go out, but I don't think Pete was thinking about retirement at that moment," Agassi said recently. "Neither am I. You just don't know what you would think if you were to win. All I know for sure is that I still think I can win."

Sampras, you may recall, did not immediately announce his retirement. He slept on it for months, even hitting balls with former coach Paul Annacone at his home in California when questions arose in his mind. Finally, at last year's U.S. Open, Sampras walked away in style, taking a victory lap 352 days after his win over Agassi.

"You know, I really didn't know at the time," Sampras explained here last year. "I thought about it a little bit during the two weeks, but I never realistically thought I was going to win and stop.

"It's a process, retirement. It's not something you wake up one day and say 'I'm retired.' You need to go through all the emotions, and I did that. I went through everything I had to go through to be convinced I'm 100 percent done. And that's where I am right now."

Where is Agassi?

"You can't come to a tournament like this unless you feel like you can beat the best," Agassi said. "I was practicing well, but confidence was pretty low for a while. Once it sort of translated [into match play], I really relaxed and played a level of tennis I hadn't in a while.

"You've got to have the belief that I can still do it. You're playing with the house's money. It's been a great ride and you still get to do it."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.