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Thank you, Andre, for 21 years of emotion-filled tennis
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NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi is not the best tennis player who ever lived. He is not even the best of his generation. That would be Pete Sampras.

And yet, 23,700 fans remained on their feet for more than four minutes on a glorious Sunday afternoon at the U.S. Open, clapping so hard their palms turned red, crying so hard their eyes turned red, showering the 36-year-old icon with a send-off rarely seen in sports.

Agassi would later get a standing ovation from his fellow players as he entered the locker room, ''the ultimate compliment,'' Agassi said, and -- perhaps most rare -- a third ovation from members of the media, who packed the interview room and hung on his every word for 45 minutes.

Sampras didn't get this kind of reaction when he hung up his rackets. Not even close.

But Agassi is different. Always was. He's more interesting than Sampras and Roger Federer put together. He's the emotional guy who made tennis cool, the guy who let us ride the roller coaster with him as he evolved from long-haired teen in denim and Day-Glo to bald father of two in conservative whites, from fast-food junkie to fitness freak, from bratty punk to introspective philanthropist. We watched him go from No. 1 to No. 141 and back to No. 1. We watched him marry, divorce and marry again.

And this week, we watched him stagger to the finish, endure four back injections over six days, win two epic matches over younger and stronger men, and finally come to grips with the fact that his heart could carry his fragile body only so far.


''Seventeen years ago, he was a kid with big eyes, big dreams and a big forehand,'' said Agassi's close friend and trainer, Gil Reyes. 'As cliché as this sounds, I told him, `There's a star up there with your name on it. Go get it. You will need to stand on the help and love of others to get there. Not step on, but stand on.' As I watched him cry, I thought, 'You made it, kid. You made the finish line with honor and dignity.' ''

It didn't matter to the crowd that Agassi didn't win the final match of his career. Didn't matter at all.

Even Benjamin Becker, who just pulled off the hugest victory of his life, was on his feet, applauding, his eyes brimming with tears. ''Everything today is for Andre,'' said Becker, who won 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 7-5. ``He deserves it.''

Agassi sat slumped over in his chair, sobbing uncontrollably, soaking in the moment he knew would eventually come. He pulled up his aching body, stepped to Center Court and grabbed the microphone to address the crowd with whom he shared a 21-year love affair.

He didn't have a prepared speech. Just pure, unadulterated emotion. Very much the way he played tennis.

Agassi did not want U.S. Open organizers to make a big fuss over his retirement. They suggested a glitzy tribute with speeches and a ''This is Your Life'' video. He nixed the idea. He didn't want a choreographed farewell. He wanted it to be real and raw.

He got his wish -- and then some.


''The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I have found,'' he told the crowd. ``Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments. You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams. I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life. Thank you.''

No, Andre. Thank you. Thank you for bowing to your fans, for answering that one extra question in the press conference, for speaking so respectfully of your wife, for raising $56 million for disadvantaged children and for teaching athletes everywhere the way it should be done.

More than 200 players stood up to applaud Agassi during a meeting earlier in the week. He left them with these words: ``Be good to each other.''

Excellent advice. For all of us. Thank you.
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