Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 28, 2005 (uncut)
Agassi Marks the Spot 2005 US Open Preview<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Whoever coined the proverb, "a leopard never changes its spots," was clearly unaware of a tennis player named Andre Agassi. As someone who's known this cat since pre-pubescent days on the junior tennis circuit, let me attest that he hasn't just changed his spots, he's made them better.
I could go on McDonald's munching to ab crunching, final set tanking to a number one ranking but you get the point.
Yet it may be Agassi's off-court transformation that is most telling and perhaps the key to his on-court success.
If "beside every great man there is a great woman" (Revised Version), it's not difficult to imagine how wife Steffi Graf has had a slight bit more positive influence on Andre's career (and life) than, say, former bride Brooke Shields. With 22 Grand Slam titles of her own, Steffi, in all likelihood, understands what it takes to succeed.
If "pursuing a cause greater than oneself" yields richer meaning in life, than you can see how spearheading a state-of-the-art charter school in Las Vegas puts hitting little yellow fuzzy things in perspective. This from a 10th grade dropout (who's never been short on street smarts): "Every match I win now, it's for the kids." * Even more, Andre has two of his own, no doubt spawning normalcy in the midst of an occupation where there's little.
Unfortunately for the 35-year-old Agassi as he takes the new blue courts for his 20th US Open, his opponents will not be thinking about the future Hall of Famer's metamorphose as a player and a person, but rather how to transition him back to Las Vegas. Unfortunately for them, he's not going to go easily. As a matter of fact, I'm picking him to be the last man standing.
"What?! You're crazy!" you say. How can I bet against Mr. Otherworldly, the defending champ and world number one Roger Federer, who has nine titles and a 64-3 record this year? After all, the Swiss Master blows holes in tournament fields on a regular basis leaving them resembling his national cheese. He recently sauntered over Stateside to play his first and only US Open tune-up since strolling to his, yawn, third Wimbledon title in a row. The result? But of course, he won his 22nd straight final in Cincinnati over his personal whipping boy, Andy Roddick. There's a lot of truth to one fan's placard: "Federer is betterer."
But never, and I mean never, discount the inspiration factor. The world always has its seemingly unbeatable sporting Goliaths, but then comes along someone ready and believing that it's their turn, their time. Our hockey lads did just that when they defeated the Big Red Machine in Lake Placid. With this year likely being his curtain call on his favorite stage, no doubt Andre is believing in miracles against the Big Fed Machine.
Even with his 38-1 record on hard courts this year, I still think Federer's artistry is better displayed on the softer canvases of clay and grass. Agassi on the other hand, with a win in Los Angeles and a final in Montreal this summer, loves the predictability of the bounce on (art) Deco-Turf, where he can stand up on the baseline and yo-yo his opponents into submission.
Then again, maybe, just maybe, someone else will do Andre's bidding. Rafael Nadal, the young Spaniard who does a good Hulk Hogan python-flex impression, has garnered nine titles of his own this year and has come within a whisker of beating Federer on a couple hard court occasions. Or maybe up-and-down Russian Marat Safin can double his pleasure and Federer's loss total on hard court by duplicating his Australian Open semi-final victory over Roger.
Past champ Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, who has lost to the champion in the last six Slams, is always a tough out for opponents except for Roger that is, who double-bageled him in the US Open final last year. Maybe Andy Roddick, 1-10 overall and 0-5 in finals against Roger, will finally summit Mount Federer and end his almost-two-year major title drought. My advice for ARod is to start thinking about complimenting his own game rather than Roger's all the time.
Bottom line: Agassi can win the Open if Federer has an off day in a head-to-head encounter, or if Federer loses to someone else, or if Andre doesn't have to defeat more than two of the aforementioned. There you have it enough "ifs" to make Rudyard Kipling proud.
On the women's side, the storyline should read something to the effect, "The Duel of the Disabled Divas!" World number one Maria Sharapova, American matriarch Lindsay Davenport, sideshow Serena Williams, past champ Justine Henin-Hardenne, resuscitated Wimbledon champ Venus Williams, and defending US Open champ (remember?) Svetlana Kusnetsova, have all missed large chunks of the summer hard court season with injuries.
My pick? Ask the tour physiotherapist but not in earshot of Belgian Kim Clijsters, who went on a tear this summer winning three tournaments and establishing herself as the heavy favorite for the Open. After some past Grand Slam final disappointments, here's hoping Kim lofts her first major trophy notching one for the nice gals.
After winning Wimbledon last month, Roger Federer was asked by a reporter, "A lot of players have talent, but they go out and blow up, and have a bad day. Why do you feel you can play at the level you do so regularly?" Roger's response: "I can't answer how consistent I'm playing. I amaze myself how incredible actually I use my talent to win."
Yes, we're all amazed too, but this modern-day tennis giant better watch out the next fortnight for a climactical pounce by a Las Vegas leopard. For with two previous US Open crowns to Andre's name, the stage is perfectly set for a Miracle on Thrice.
* Tennis Magazine, September 2005
David Wheaton recently authored his first book, University of Destruction. Before taking up typing, David was a US Open singles semi-finalist and doubles finalist in 1990. He will be competing in the US Open Over 35 Doubles Championship next week. You can find out more at www.davidwheaton.com.
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