Closer to the end than the beginning

Agassi soldiers on at age 33

NEW YORK -- The best of the rest of his generation is gone.

Almost alone now, Andre Agassi soldiers on.

Sunday at the U.S. Open, it was against Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the resumption of a match postponed a day earlier by showers. From the way Agassi began dissecting the match afterward, you half-expected an audible "creak" when he drew one elbow close in to support his chin.

"Well," he began, "it makes for a long day, there's no question about that."


This came from a man who needed less than an hour to wrap up a straight-set win, who over the years transformed himself from a brash kid with a loud, pastel wardrobe and Vegas showgirl-styled hair to a model of decorum, monochromes and aerodynamic efficiency.

One look at Agassi now with his shaved head and basic outfits -- white for the heat of the day, black during the cooler evening sessions -- lets you know the man is about business and nothing else. At age 33, with the realization that he is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, Agassi can't afford to be any other way.

A decade ago, he was a kid more interested in hawking sneakers, cameras and the like and the Open draw matched him against Jimmy Connors, then an aging star himself. At one point during the match, a fan yelled to Connors, "He's nothing, you're a legend."

However that slight might have affected Agassi then, when he was all words and no deeds, it cannot touch him now. He has eight major championships, another 50 tournament wins, is married to Steffi Graf and has a second child on the way.

Asked what that fan might yell if he'd been in attendance Sunday, Agassi broke into a wide grin.

"He's probably in the 55-and-olders watching Jimmy play still," he said. "I have no idea."

The truth is, Agassi knows exactly what that fan would say. While Agassi is loath even to utter the word "legacy," there's no denying it's on his mind.

Pete Sampras, the rival whose unsurpassed career will one day help define Agassi's as well, said goodbye in an emotional farewell to the sport last Monday. On Tuesday, Michael Chang followed Sampras to the sideline, the procession closely observed and commented upon by Jim Courier, the final member of a Fab Four that made up arguably the most productive generation of American tennis players ever.


Beginning with Sampras' breakthrough win here as a 19-year-old in 1990 (he beat Agassi in the final), Andre and those three amigos won an incredible 27 of the 55 Grand Slam tournaments leading up to this one. Sampras won 14 -- more than half the total -- but the bigger surprise may be that Agassi ascended alongside him into the sport's stratosphere.

Most of the reasons why were on display in his dismantling of Kafelnikov, most notably the way Agassi broke back early in the third set to steal the momentum, then took the Russian's heart with two service games at love and another break to earn himself the chance to serve for the match.

The final winner was a well-disguised, two-fisted, inside-out backhand that Kafelnikov had neither the chance nor the inclination to run down.

"I think he played just as good as he did here four years ago," Kafelnikov said, marking Agassi's last Open title, "or maybe even better."

The price Agassi pays for that, though, becomes dearer by the day. He has a son, Jaden, who turns 2 next month and when asked to describe his off-day preparation routine from morning to night, Agassi said: "Start by changing some diapers, followed by, you know, cooking some breakfast for a 2-year-old ... and then we move to the tennis part, which is just basically about 45 minutes or an hour on the court."

"I don't know how it's

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press

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