It was 110 degrees on the court here at the Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles. The ice fans pointed at the players as they sat down on the changeover. Andre Agassi was playing Fernando Gonzalez in the quarterfinals. Agassi is 36 years old and he’s about six weeks away from walking into his tennis afterlife. He’ll retire after the US Open.

…it’s not just the game you’re leaving, it’s the people you’ve shared this experience with, which is just as important.

He’d won four titles here but a loss today would be Southern California’s goodbye to Andre Agassi.

He first started coming here as a junior tennis player when Southern California was a mecca for junior tennis. “Being from Vegas we would drive down here every other weekend to compete in tournaments. …It’s a special place. In some cases when I’m driving around, I have more memories as a child even than as an adult because I spent so much time here, ” he said after the match. But he’s not just walking away from memories and he’s not just walking away from tennis: “…it’s not just the game you’re leaving, it’s the people you’ve shared this experience with, which is just as important. I’ll miss it. I’ll miss it dearly.”

He did lose the match but it was a superb three set battle. Gonzalez had to play an excellent strategical game as well as hit a few rocket propelled forehands to win it. He hit a forehand so hard in the first set that it looked like a knockdown. Agassi stumbled trying to react to it and the ball knocked the racket out of his hand. The journalist sitting next to me, Scott Schultz, head writer for ToplessSportsNews.com, I’m serious, likened it to “getting your ankles broken by an Allen Iverson crossover dribble.”

Gonzalez broke Agassi on that shot and won the first set but Agassi took the second set on a point where Gonzalez was curiously unaggressive. The ball was called out but it landed on the line and Gonzalez didn’t challenge the call. Hasn’t he been paying attention, instant replay has arrived. He’d been up 40-0 but lost that point then lost the game to go down a break.

Agassi battled back from 0-40 and three match points to get to 5-5 in the third set before finally losing his serve and the match on another memorable point. The match was over, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. Gonzalez has been playing a smarter game since he hooked up with his new coach Larry Stefanki, former coach of John McEnroe among others, but today we should talk about Andre. It was time to say goodbye.

When you see him close up, it’s surprising to see how big he is. Not tall but wide. He has broad, strong shoulders and a solid physique. More surprising is the softness of his voice. After he walked into the interview room, all of the journalists ran up and put their voice recorders on the table beside him to be sure to pick up what he said because he speaks so softly.

We started with the usual questions about the match. Is your body holding up? “Yeah, I’m hanging in there.” Did the heat bother you? “No, …the heat of his forehand was much more of a factor.” Your game seems to be improving. “Yeah, I’m more in the flow of my rhythm out there.” And he gave an expert and lengthy analysis of Gonzalez’ game. But really, everyone wanted to know how he felt about leaving Los Angeles and tennis and what will he do after he retires.

Tiger Woods is finally opening up emotionally to the public, he broke down and sobbed for a good long time after he won the British Open last week, but this has never been a problem for Andre. I can’t think of a more heartfelt, personable athlete. If you ask him a question, he answers with care and feeling. He thinks nothing of telling you how dear the people in his life are to him.

…it’s not just the game you’re leaving, it’s the people you’ve shared this experience with, which is just as important.
Pete Sampras won fourteen grand slams by focusing singularly on tennis. After a few years he retired but he got bored and returned to play World Team Tennis this summer. Agassi has always been a diverse guy. He has a charter school in his name in Las Vegas. He’s had a tennis program there for the last seven years. He has a business that his best friend, Perry Rogers, has run for the last thirteen years. “I anticipate certain challenges but being bored is not one of them, ” he said.

He’s built a family, a close community, and he’s looking forward to working even closer with the people in that community. I feel like I’m speaking in hushed, reverent tones here and I am. I’m in awe of the man. I have great respect for him and I have to tell you, when someone asked him if bowing to all four directions of the stadium after each of his matches had more meaning now that he was leaving the game and Agassi responded, “I think the better understanding you have of the world around you, the more everything means. The longer I’ve done this, the more it means to me for sure, ” I was in tears.

I’ve only been a tennis journalist for a few years and attended only a few media sessions with Andre but they’ve been memorable because he’s a memorable person in this sport. I’d seen him play many times, of course, but I didn’t realize how intelligent his game is before I started studying the game in so much detail.

I also knew he’d taken time off from the tour to come to terms with himself. He was taking time off so he could make the switch from playing the game for others, primarily his impossible-to-please father, to playing the game for himself. He came to the realization that many of us come to after we finally get tired of battling the critical voice of our parents persistently rattling around in our head. We realize that our parents were doing the best they could and we accept them for that. In the process, we come to accept ourselves because we can’t blame them any more.

Along the way he turned into a thoughtful, caring human being who could easily communicate his feelings. And he looked around him and starting helping others in his community.

It’s not like he’s walking off into the sunset. He’ll play a role in US tennis in some form or other and he’ll be more involved with his projects in Las Vegas. But I will miss him and I might have to wait a long time for someone else like him to come along in the tennis world.

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