Saturday, September 02, 2006

Fare Thee Well

Its an odd time to write this... a Saturday in September... college football's opening day. UT is kicking off in just over an hour.

I've never talked about this here before... and I think this weekend is probably the most appropriate time.

I want to say goodbye to my favorite athlete. A man I've cheered on over 2 decades. The greatest individual athlete I've ever seen in person. An artist... as brutal as Mike Tyson in his prime... with Joe Montana's touch. A burst comparable to Dion Sanders... Eyes like no other on planet earth.

Tennis is as brutal a sport as there is. When you're out there losing... there is no one to save you. No teammates... no coach... just the lines.. the net.. and the man on the other side. Thousands of people watch while you are systematically destroyed, and nothing you do helps. The only thing comparable is boxing... and at least in boxing someone on your side can end the misery by throwing in the towel. Its no place for the weak of heart.

In his early twenties people doubted... but I never did. One legend goes like this...

A gaggle of media types are standing around at an athletic convention where Nike has a big big presence. Their poster boy... the Rebel if ever there was one, is hyped everywhere. These grizzled old writers are skeptical... with good reason. They wonder aloud what the fuss is about.

A couple of the boys at Nike get wind of this sentiment. Word is sent out... and the crusty old skeptics are escorted to some batting cages Nike has set up. They stand around a while waiting to see what the fuss is about... but happy to watch major leaguers take turns hitting the 95mph machine

Then he shows up.

Andre Agassi stepped into that machine picked up a bat... gave a nod to the controller, and took off running full out, right at the barrel. The machine blasted a 95mph fastball right at him.


You say hitting a round object with a round bat is the hardest act in sports?

Andre Agassi did on the run. Over and Over again.

What most people don't know about Andre... is that all those people who questioned his commitment to Tennis were exactly right. He never chose tennis. He didn't particularly like it. He did it because his dad made him do it.

People thought that he had a confidence problem before he won Wimbledon... and they assumed that after that big win, he'd rip of title after title. But he faded. Why? Because he never had a confidence problem at all. He had a motivation problem. A problem that got worse after the win, not better. After he went in hoping that winning would finally satisfy him. After it, he looked around and asked, "Is this it? Is this all there is?" He was wondering if it worth spending his life for that feeling, and he was pretty sure it wasn't.

So much has been made of his up and down career, and what could have been if he'd just been focused early in his twenties. But how many people can say they were the number 3 player in the world in a sport they didn't particularly like?

How many people can say they won Wimbledon, on nothing but raw talent?

And why did Andre hate tennis?

After he won Wimbledon in 1992... his first phone call was to his dad. What did dear old dad say?

"You should've won in 4 sets."

Throughout his career Andre has bared his soul to the tennis world. He's been through more than any other athlete I can think of, from the dizzying highs of Rock and Roll Tennis to the miserable lows of all those Grand Slam Finals lost. From US Open Champion... to changing his own score cards on some backwoods qualifier tournament... ranked 250th in the world.

The last reincarnation of Andre... the one most of you probably know as the short bald guy... He is the result of Andre Agassi finally deciding he likes tennis. After being a pro for 11 years... Andre looked around and thought... hmmm... Maybe I'll actually try.

The result is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. The last man who will ever win all 4 grand slams. One of only a hand full to have one 8 or more total.. and without question, the most beloved tennis player in the history of the game.

I suspect sometime in the next few days... Andre Agassi's career will come to an end. He's retiring at this year's US Open and every match could be his last. If you get a chance, I recommend staying up one night to watch. These matches... these nights... they come around once every 10 years or so... and it will be a long time before the next one. The crowd will be insane... screaming their lungs out for the man they grew up watching. Pleading for the games Greatest Entertainer to pull out one big show... for the Game's Greatest puncher to throw one more hay-maker from 3 feet inside the baseline.

If you hate tennis... watching a matches like these will make you wonder why you don't watch more.

But then you'll remember... Its only special because of a great player... and great players don't come around that often.

Thanks for your time Andre. Thanks for changing the game. Thanks for translating tennis to all those millions of American sports fans. Enjoy every second of this encore sir.

Its been one helluva ride.

No comments: