<
>

Agassi: The ultimate sound byte

NEW YORK -- Tennis purists will miss Andre Agassi because of his peerless return of service and his unmatched control of the ball from the baseline. More casual fans will feel deprived of his demonstrative personality, his grit, and his heart.

That's all fine and good. I will miss Agassi, quite selfishly and simply, because he was the best interview in sports.

Child actors don't often evolve into thoughtful, skilled thespians. That's why they generally wind up on late-night, soul-baring interview shows, whining about how life treated them and generally behaving like a logical extension of their former bratty selves.

Agassi made his share of ill-advised comments as a kid, which is to be expected when you grow up in front of a camera. He matured into the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Oscar for Eloquence. His speech on center court Sunday after playing the last point of his career was astounding, even for a born showman -- concise, expressive, original and forced out around the tennis ball-sized lump in his throat.

His post-match press conference was another all-timer. One of the more thoughtful -- and brave -- questions was posed by Robert Lusetich of The Australian, a national daily newspaper.

Question: I don't know if you're going to take your kids out to hit tennis balls. When you look back at your father, at such a young age, instilling this game into you, some would say in a very obsessive way, do you reflect back that as hard as it was, you probably wouldn't be sitting here today if he hadn't?

Answer: That's for sure. There's no question about it. What we've gone through, our moments of not seeing things eye to eye, it has been his journey and it has been my journey.

The pride I take in everything I've experienced has to do with what I've poured into it, not necessarily what that experience was. I mean, I think tennis is one vehicle. I think we can find excuses in life or we can find inspirations. I've always tried to find inspirations. I am thankful for my father giving me this game.

The emphasis is mine. Remember, this was not a premeditated sound byte. It was an off-the-cuff response to a query about the most complicated relationship of Agassi's life, an hour after the most emotional moment of his career, when he was red-eyed, spent and unable to sit still after a third day of pounding on his bulging disc like a snare drum.

I wasn't around for Agassi's first act. I caught up with him in the summer of 1997 when he was in competitive freefall, out of the top 100.

Agassi forever endeared himself to me at the '97 U.S. Open after he won his third-round match, which was as far as he'd go that year. Veteran tennis writer Charles Bricker of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel opened things up with this provocative question:

Q: Andre, when you play this well, like you have this week, it leaves the rest of us wondering why you cannot or will not commit yourself to playing like this your entire year?

A: You have to answer me why the hell you're wearing a shirt like that first.

Every head in the room swiveled to look at Bricker, whose T-shirt depicted the florid green face of the cartoon character Gumby. Agassi continued over the laughter.

A: Answer it. That's a messed-up shirt.

Then Agassi -- married at the time to actress Brooke Shields -- responded to the original question with a soliloquy about his struggle to be more consistent.

A: I wish in many respects that I could, you know, balance more at the same time. But part of me says that's not the way I do things … I'm trying to give all to everything in my life. And it doesn't seem to do anything but drain you. So I've responded to it real simply by focusing my attention intensely at different times. … I just made a decision to work at it. You know, to start enjoying my work, getting into my work and doing it. … It has to be a commitment that transcends the hype of whether I'm back or not. But more than anything, it's just not wanting to do anything in a mediocre fashion. It's not easy for me. If I've ever given that impression, I've misrepresented myself because it's been tough on me.

A few minutes later, Agassi admonished a reporter seated in the front row for picking his feet, interrupting another reporter in mid-question.

Q: Excuse me?

A: I was telling this gentleman not to pick his feet unless he wants to sit in the second row. You have to be on your game when you step in here.

That was my introduction to Agassi's verbal volleying. He could morph from playful to introspective to impertinent in moments.

He didn't play favorites between the hard-core tennis beat writers he saw every week and reporters he saw once or twice a year, like me. If you asked an intelligent question, you got solid eye contact and a good return of service.

Agassi also understood that he would hear some intelligent questions hundreds of times, and he gave them their due just as he would give any well-struck forehand.

In the summer of 1999, I had a chance to sit down with Agassi and a couple of other reporters on a muggy night in Washington, D.C., during the Legg Mason tournament. Agassi had won the French Open to begin Act II of his career, then lost to Pete Sampras in the Wimbledon final.

I asked him what he saw after all these years when he saw Sampras across the net. If Agassi was weary of that field of inquiry, he didn't show it.

"I see a guy that has a longer right arm than left arm," he said. "I see him as X's and O's. I see him as someone that has to be dealt with. I see what it is that I have to do. … You never like to continually lose to somebody. You have to prioritize the matches and understand why you lost them and then assess if it's something you're really struggling with or if it's a question of being outplayed. … I was playing well, but he stopped me from playing great."

Fast-forward to Sunday, when -- inevitably -- someone asked him to compare his retirement scenario to that of Sampras, who, of course, went out on a winning note against him.

"It's one thing to win a title and then to decide, hey, that was great, I'm not playing any more," Agassi said. "It's another thing to say, OK, this is it, that's my shot over there, and that's what I'm going to do for the next few months.

"It's apples and oranges," he said, neatly encapsulating one of the greatest rivalries in sports, and reminding me of the old Nike commercial that cut quickly back and forth between them as they gave diametrically opposed answers to a rapid-fire quiz: "Boxers. Briefs. The Coyote. The Roadrunner. Drama. Comedy. Coffee. Tea." And so forth.

Most athletes are uncomfortable when they're asked to place what they do into the bigger picture. They either over-aggrandize themselves or they prefer to stay micro, resisting outside analysis. Agassi used every pixel of the giant screen where he got to perform. He never shied away from tennis as a metaphor. He knew that was why most people were watching him, not because he ran down impossible shots and put them back over the net.

"I think we all look for hope and love, and sports has the platform to offer a few moments that actually give people hope and the belief they can accomplish things in their own lives," he said on that summer evening in 1999, a few weeks before he would win his final U.S. Open.

Sunday, Agassi was asked if he could describe how tennis was a paradigm for life. A relatively small percentage of the general population can use the word "paradigm" in a sentence, but Agassi got it and obliged:

"You're out there alone," he said. "You're playing a sport that requires you to problem-solve. It requires you to do it in a somewhat emotional state. It's a bit of life there. You learn to trust yourself."

He's going to stop playing. But I hope, quite simply and selfishly, that he won't stop talking.

Frequent contributor Bonnie DeSimone is covering the U.S. Open for ESPN.com.