US Open Night Magic

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And this is The Score. A myriad of thoughts and emotions flooded my brain and heart in watching Andre Agassi's retirement match last week-end at the U.S. Open. The champ played his heart out for 21 years, a remarkable tribute to his discipline and, in the end, it wasn't his desire or focus or fitness that faded. It was his body. After his 5-set thriller against Marcos Baghdatis, a week ago tonight, when Andre yet again delivered his signature drama, he literally lay on the sidewalk outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, writhing in pain, unable to make it as far as the locker room. On Sunday, the last time he graced the place he called home for two decades, he agonized his way through every single point, his lower back in clear distress. And I kept shaking my head, incredulous that this impeccably trained specimen of an athlete is too old for the game, just past his 36th birthday. Tennis is far more demanding in this era than it ever was before. For one, this time of year, right after the U.S. Open, used to signal a four-month break. The fall used to be recovery time, training time. September for these players now means prepping for the end-of-year championships in mid-November. Shortly after that they're Down Under for the Australian Open. It's a year-round sport. And most of the clay and grass tournaments, easier on the legs, have been replaced with pounding stress on unforgiving hard courts. So many of today's players have severe wrist injuries, too. The old flat strokes have now evolved into extreme wrist rotations which is causing tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome and in quite a few cases requiring surgery. It's bewildering to see a 36-year old, who should not be too far past his prime, so physically debilitated. Yet it's a telling statement of just what the tennis beast has become. There's another athlete to applaud for his longevity this week. He's actually played 22 years, one more than Agassi. And he's survived, even thrived, all this time in a much more brutal sport than tennis. Damon Allen, brother of famous All-Pro running back Marcus Allen, just this Monday became the most prolific passer in the history of professional football. Allen has spent his entire career in the Canadian Football League, alongside such notable stars as Warren Moon and Doug Flutie. But, unlike Moon and Flutie, who were determined to make their mark in the NFL, Damon Allen was happy to play where he was appreciated. He's a scrambling, out-of-the-pocket quarterback and back in the day, that wasn't de rigeur for NFL quarterbacks. He's only 6 feet tall, 190 pounds, which is almost tiny lined up next to the Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb NFL quarterbacks of 2006. But Allen had plenty of size 20 years ago and still wasn't courted by the NFL right out of Cal State Fullerton. Canada did want him so he went North...and stayed. Allen is 43 now and, by the way, he's not yet retiring. There is buzz that he might be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he does retire. Hard-liners say he's not qualified, that it's easier to excel up in the Canadian League. Others say it's not called the NFL Hall of Fame. It's the Pro Football Hall of Fame and it seems to me that Damon Allen is a Hall of Famer, no argument needed. Actually, Agassi and Allen used the precise same phrase this week. They both said they've been "living a dream" these past 20-plus years. I again thought of both Agassi and Allen this week upon the news of Bob Mathias' death. 2-time Olympic decathlon gold medalist, Mathias is considered the greatest athlete of his era, the late '40's, early '50's. A quote about Mathias by his old Stanford track coach floated around this week: "He's a dream competitor, the one in 10,000 who has the temperament to match the talent." Bob Mathias--track and field, Damon Allen--football, Andre Agassi-- tennis. Special athletes, born with talent, visionary enough to cultivate the right temperament to let that talent shine. In all three cases, the shine has been brilliant. This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that's The Score.



Diana Nyad