Agassi, One of a Kind

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The farewells to Andre Agassi pouring in from far and wide, during this and next week's U.S. Open, are deep and heartfelt. This is the last time we will see the champion play the game he partly reinvented and there is no doubt that he will be sorely missed. It's not that men's tennis doesn't have its charismatic stars at the moment. The dual between polar opposites, the debonair and flapless Roger Federer and the fiery matador Rafael Nadal, brings excitement and intrigue to every major tournament. The fluidly athletic Andy Roddick, my pick to win the Open this year, openly emotes, as did his new coach, 5-time Open-champ Jimmy Connors, and that kind of vulnerability is always a draw. Andre's retirement won't leave a void, but we will surely miss him.

So many of the current tributes to Agassi focus on the clichéd notion that we are feeling sentimental about him because we've watched him grow up over the past 20 years. It's certainly true that it is rare in sports to follow a 16-year old, typically brash, exhibiting typically questionable 16-year old taste, evolve into a 36-year old philanthropist, dedicated husband and father, with exceptional class. But we witnessed Pete Sampras go from lanky teenager to elder statesman with receding hairline and, regardless of all the respect we fans engendered for Pistol Pete, I can't say we embraced him with open affection as we have Andre. Andre's uniqueness, his spirit that seems to have spoken to so many of us for so long, is that he seems to--even in the very moment of concentrated action--recognize and be grateful for the grand experience of playing this game that has taken him to every corner of the globe, this game that has showcased his particular skills of seeing the ball early and striking it earlier than any other player in the history of the sport, this game that has made him, his family, and his philanthropic organizations vastly wealthy. He's been called the zen master of tennis, fascinated by the journey, moreso than the destination. Fans instinctually respond to an athlete's core character. With Connors, we witnessed a warrior charging into battle and that true grit roused the fight within us. With McEnroe we had a perfectionist, a moody artist, and we were at once in awe of his craftsmanship and somehow fascinated by his boorish arrogance. With Borg, and now with Federer, we have elegant ballet maestros who sweep us along into their effortless dance. The reason we have responded so universally to Andre, I think, is that his on-court persona has served as metaphor for the 21st century mantra: embrace the Here and Now. From yoga to meditation to psychotherapy, a shared goal of our current era is to live in the moment. Divorce yourself from the past. Move on. Discipline yourself from racing ahead down a future road that you have not yet come to. Live in a heightened, alert, awake, Here and Now state and you will be happy. Sound like the Dalai Lama? Sounds like Andre Agassi. Andre has long been talking about the clarity of the moment, the process of immersing his best self, his whole self, in the game. We have heartily embraced this zen guru who takes the court each and every time as a walking metaphor for a philosophy of living to which we aspire.

When you walk into Andre's house, about 15 miles from the Las Vegas strip, the house he shares with his wife Steffi Graf, also one of the all-time grand champions of the sport, you cannot find a trace, not the smallest hint, of their many years of titles and trophies. When Andre's at home, he is every bit in the moment there, father extraordinaire, loving husband, as he is riveted on the proverbial fuzz of the ball on the court.

Andre's match tonight, against the extremely talented and match-tough Marcos Baghdatis, could well be the last we will ever see of the zen master of tennis. You lead an inspired life, Andre. Thanks for sharing it all with us.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad