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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
Andre Agassi announced his retirement just before Wimbledon started this week. He addressed the press in England, on the grounds of the All England Lawn and Tennis Club, such a fitting setting in that he won his first Grand Slam tournament on the Wimbledon grass back in 1992. He welled up with tears several times, his voice also choked with emotion. He spoke with such reverence about what kind of person he's become during his 21 years as a tennis pro, actually thanks to his years on the tour.
It's been somewhat heart-wrenching to watch Andre play his first two rounds this week. After the first one, he looked stiff, almost limping, far older than his 36 years. For the second one, he said he was simply lucky to wake up feeling limber and full of energy, as if that was a rare occasion any more.
It doesn't happen often that we watch an athlete literally grow up before our very eyes. I was one of the U.S. Open tennis announcers during the time that Andre played his first matches there in New York. And here's where I beg to differ from the sports columnists who have been writing headlines all this week such as "From Punk to Elder Statesman," from "Brat to Guru". Yes, he was a teenager when he crashed through onto the elite tennis scene. He was a walking metaphor for his Las Vegas roots. His style sense was suspect, with his straggly bleach-blond hair unattractively streaming out the back of his hat, with his wildly colored shirts and his denim shorts. But wardrobe snafus aside, Andre was always, always a classy gentlemen on the court. Even as a teenager, he didn't choose the route of McEnroe vulgar language or Connors obscene gestures. He basically accepted questionable line calls gracefully and came squarely to the net to congratulate an opponent, even if it was a bitter loss.
I'm sure Andre would like to have those three summers back, when he was too immature to recognize the perspective of what skipping three consecutive Wimbledons would mean to his future storied career. Immature is the word to describe his stance of not playing Wimbledon because he refused to comply with the all-white mandate. Immature, yes. A punk, no.
One of those early years at the Open in New York, I was doing the post-match interviews when Andre was thrilling the crowd in a night match. The USA Network cameras kept capturing a gaggle of teenage girls who were members of the Andre Agassi fan club. Our producer decided to bring the girls into the studio for me to interview while Andre was still playing. They were so excited that they screeched their delight, unintelligibly, through their braces. It turned out that the match ended and Andre came into the studio while they were still there. He gave them all hugs, asked them what school they attended, asked if they played tennis. He acted more like a 36 year-old than a teen.
Andre was only 25 when he embarked on his philanthropic work for underprivileged children in Las Vegas. His Foundation has raised some $52 million to date. At 25, young enough for bratty behavior in many circles, but especially among the highly successful and mighty rich athlete set, Andre was no brat.
The way I figure it, we have about three more weeks to witness the extraordinary, if somewhat faded, talents of Andre Agassi. He goes up against the fiery Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon on Saturday but grass is not yet Nadal's playground, as is clay, so we have a good chance of Andre still being with us on Center Court in London next week. Then we'll get two weeks of his famous wide-eyed concentration late August, early September at the U.S. Open. Then Andre's off full time to his kids in Vegas, both his own two kids and the kids in need to whom he gives so generously.
He's been a special, versatile tennis player. He's been an articulate, gracious ambassador for the sport. I'm sure many of you are in synch with me now when I say I'm going to miss Andre terribly. It's been quite gratifying, watching him grow up. Even he was never a punk and didn't have that much evolving to do.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
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