NEW YORK -- Beneath the stands of Arthur Ashe Stadium, 5-foot-tall posters of U.S. Open champions decorate the otherwise spartan hallways leading to the door Andre Agassi will step through to reach center court for the final time.
There, on a wall between photos of Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick, is a shot of Agassi from his 1994 triumph. His blond hair is long, his face is unshaven, his shirt's a loud purple, and his accessories include a pinkie ring, a dangling earring and a chain necklace, all gold. The getup says "rebel," and that was certainly his reputation for the first decade or so of his pro career.
The Agassi who will play in his last U.S. Open -- indeed, his last tournament -- looks quite different, from the bald head on down. And his reputation has changed as much as his appearance.
"This has been the stage to sort of prove myself over the years. It started with lack of acceptance and has grown to a wonderful embracement, and on both parts. I think I started off a little unsure about playing here, and I grew into loving this more than any place in the world," Agassi said Saturday.
"This stadium has its electricity and its feel because of every fan that's sitting out there. So I look forward to sharing one more go-round."
He leaves the game as an elder statesman, not merely because he's 36, but also because of his success on the court and his demeanor and extensive charity work off it. Through all the in-the-public-eye parts of his personal life (Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields, Steffi Graf) and ups and downs of his professional life (career Grand Slam, No. 1 in 1995, No. 141 in 1997, back to No. 1 in 1999), he's been one of tennis' most dynamic and popular players.
Which is why, even though there are myriad intriguing plot lines to follow when play begins Monday at Flushing Meadows -- Can Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet in a third consecutive Grand Slam final? Will Roddick thrive with new coach Jimmy Connors? Can Maria Sharapova win a second major title? Will Serena Williams, whose sister Venus withdrew with a wrist injury, shake off the rust of a six-month layoff? How will instant replay's Grand Slam debut go? -- all eyes will be on Agassi.
It's why U.S. Tennis Association TV ads promoting the tournament feature him with the tag line, "The Legend." It's why the plan is to showcase him against Andrei Pavel of Romania in the only center court match Monday night.
All that, even though hardly anyone expects the unseeded Agassi and his troublesome back to leave New York with a Grand Slam title to add to the eight he already owns. Agassi included.
"I don't know what to expect," he said. "That's the part of it that's pretty hard to get my arms around."
He needs cortisone injections to deal with the pain and allow freedom of movement, and whatever soothing effects the shots provide last only weeks now instead of months. There's also the matter of match practice, of getting into a groove by facing top competition in a string of outings before a big event. He doesn't have the benefit of that, either, having pulled out of two tournaments this month.
"As of right now, I feel good," he said. "I have my good days and my not-so-good days. So real similar to all of us."
Still, it's quite clear that it's not about wins and losses at this point. It's about saying, "So long," for Agassi and for everyone else.
"There's a lot of great feelings associated with what I'm going through. There's real excitement. There's sadness in knowing that a big chapter of your life that you've poured yourself into is coming to a close, and there's excitement for the future, for the next stage, the next adventure," Agassi said.
"You're saying goodbye to a job, you're saying goodbye to people you've done it with, but you also are in position to take the next plunge in life. And, you know, I've just never done this before."
It's not surprising that Agassi himself, along with the USTA, TV executives and fans, would like to see him make one last good showing. Perhaps something akin to Connors' fist-pumping parade to the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals at age 39, considered so thrilling to this day that rain delays prompt producers to dust off the old footage.
But other players want Agassi to go out on a high, too.
"Oh, yeah, I would love to see him win many matches. That's the first thing I think every player looks at this time around: Who does Agassi play? Where is he in the draw?" two-time defending champion Federer said. "He's got a tough draw, there's no question. But I still hope he's going to have a good run like last year."
Agassi reached the 2005 final in what might very well turn out to have been his last hurrah, and it might have had a lingering effect this season. He took off months at a time, and he's played only 15 matches, winning eight.
At least everyone knows this is it for Agassi, who announced his retirement plans before Wimbledon. His great rival, Pete Sampras, didn't tell the world he was done until a full year after what turned out to be his last match, a victory over Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final.
By making his exit at the Open, Agassi is coming full circle: His first major tournament was in New York as a 16-year-old in 1986. Two years later, he reached the Open's semifinals, and in 1992 he won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. He would add U.S. Open titles in 1994 and 1999, four Australian Open titles and the 1999 French Open title, making him one of five men to win all four majors.
"My 21st time is really going to end up being like my first time because I've never been here as my last," he said. "So it will be emotional. I have yet to prepare myself properly for the emotions throughout this whole sort of summer and most of the year. But in this case I'm sure I'm underestimating everything I'm going to feel and experience."