Farewell to Andre

My column from Monday’s Star:

Remember the time where Andre Agassi was all over TV, selling cameras for Canon? I checked out a commercial from 1990 on youtube.com Sunday, and it features Agassi in various stages of undress living a life worthy of a paparazzo’s attention.

And, of course, it ends with him standing with his long blonde hair flowing in an artificial breeze. He lowers his Oakleys slightly and uttered those three words that made him famous — or at least notorious — “image is everything.”

Or maybe it just started there.

Agassi has come farther than almost any athlete I can think of. He turned pro at 15, armed with a lust for life and a lethal forehand. The bad boy from Las Vegas won his first title in 1987 at Itaparica, and five years later, after years of griping about the All England Club’s wardrobe restrictions, won his first Grand Slam title on the grass at Wimbledon.

That was the flamboyant Agassi. That player started melting slowly away in the mid 90s, thanks to injuries and a lack of passion for the game. His ranking slipped to 147 in the world in November of 1997 — the lowest point since his debut season.

He could have taken his pile of money and rode off into the sunset. Instead, he accepted his losses in his battle with Father Time by toning down his off-court lifestyle, cutting his hair and becoming the most fit player on tour.

He made the highest one-year jump in ranking in ATP Tour history, going from 122 to 6 in the world at the end of 1998. He has since won 24 of his 60 career titles — including five of his eight Grand Slams.

He’s also become one of the most generous athletes of our time, pouring millions upon millions of dollars into his foundation.

Agassi’s odyssey, between the lines and otherwise, ended Sunday at the U.S. Open in New York. He made Benjamin Becker the answer to a trivia question, falling to the 25-year-old German in four sets.

I was sitting at a table with my wife and two friends, making me the only hard-core tennis fan in the bunch. Still, watching a man who has morphed from malcontent to elder statesman stand in a stadium full of fans and cry is a moment that transcended interest in sports.

He fought back tears as he said his goodbye, and as a fan of the game, it was a little hard to watch. I was always more of a Pete Sampras fan, but I have learned to love Andre over the past few years. I will truly miss him.

Those commercials in the early 1990s have followed Agassi for his entire career, but it’s the memory of a great champion — and a better man — saying farewell to a sport and its fans that will define his legacy.

That image, at least, is everything.

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