U.S. will be hard-pressed to fill Agassi's void
Matthew Cronin / tennisreporters.net Matthew Cronin says tennis in the U.S. is in jeopardy if the remaining American stars can't be more like the well-loved legend ago
What will U.S. tennis do without Andre Agassi? Struggle mightily to grab attention, that's for sure. On the court, well, that's another question.
Tennis suffered a monumental loss on Sunday, when the most popular player in the sport's history retired after a 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5 loss to Germany's Benjamin Becker.
Agassi's last attempt to win the U.S. Open was on the lips of nearly every sporting fans in the world, as ear-ringing cheers for his every shot burst out of the mouths of the 23,712 fans in attendance at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
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Tears flowed faster than the Hudson River did on Saturday when Tropical Strom Ernesto ravaged New York. Agassi cried for a solid half hour after the loss, and it was hard to find a dry eye exiting the stadium after he delivered a heartwarming speech.
Fans took to the 36-year-old like no other player before him and didn't want to see him strike his last ball. The man personifies fan interactivity, and while cynics may scoff when he says that he truly leaned on his fans' shoulders during the tough times of his turbulent but incredibly successful 21-year career, he really meant it. No one can fake a cry that long, and when Agassi finally left the court after bowing and blow kisses to the crowds eight times, he felt closure.
"Well, I was sitting there realizing that I was saying good bye to everybody out there, and they were saying good bye to me," he said. "It's saying good bye. It's a necessary evil. But we were getting through it together. That felt amazing."
Over the past seven years, Agassi was an automatic sell out at every tournament he played at. And it's quite unlikely that any of the current U.S. pros will ever have a full day of rainy day television coverage devoted to their career highlights, but that's what occurred on Saturday. Agassi's three matches at the 2006 U.S. Open were the toughest ticket in New York, and that's saying something when both the Yankees and the Mets look World Series bound.
No other U.S. player packs them in like he does. Part of that is because of his on-court results, which were stupendous. He ended his career with eight Grand Slam titles, but moreover, since he pulled off his remarkable comeback to win the 1999 French Open over Andrei Medvedev, he's been highly competitive at every tournament in which he's played. But part of that is also because he touches the fans by recognizing them. It's not just the bows and kisses that matter, it's that he makes eye contact and touches their hearts.
"They've pulled for me,' he said. "In many cases, how they pulled for me on the court has helped me in life. In other cases, how they've pulled for me in life has helped me on the court. Over the years, it's been hard to separate the tennis from the relationships. They got me through a lot."
The other U.S. players remaining in the tournament could learn a lot from Agassi. Serena Williams is nearly as accomplished as he is and certainly has her legions of fans, but does she touch them the way Agassi does? It seems they admire her more for her fight than for her gentle humility.
Serena Williams and the rest of the American stars must learn to be more like Andre Agassi to save tennis in the U.S. (Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champ, makes the teenage girls swoon with his good looks and his on-court bravado. James Blake is a classy guy with a touching back story who fans are beginning to take to, though he lacks an impressive resume at the majors. As a result, numerous general sports fans have no idea who he is.
Lindsay Davenport, who is nearing retirement, has never been comfortable interacting with fans. She's 30 years old now and it's taken her 12 years on the tour to throw in a fist pump or two, much less smooching the fans way. This may be her last U.S. Open, and she's taking the quiet country road to potential assault on the title. On Sunday, she requested to play on Grandstand (Court 3), far from maddening crowds that take over Ashe Stadium.
Davenport played at the same time Agassi did, guaranteeing that whichever folks went to her court would be her hardcore fans. She won a dramatic 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 decision over Katerina Srebotnik, and actually cracked a smile after the victory. As one reporter said, it was unusual to see her showing such positive body language.
"I'm really happy to be playing," she said "Just because I don't laugh or smile (and) do whatever other players do on (the) court, I've really had a great time here. The crowd was really behind me. I was trying to get myself going and feel positive and energetic. It was working."
Like Agassi, Davenport came into this U.S. Open after spending much of the year nursing a back injury. She would be well suited to try to draw the fans into her matches — to have people hanging over the rafters chanting her name and screaming in delight after every winner.
Her form is not good enough yet to warrant being called a serious contender for the title in Flushing Meadows. But with the proverbial "sixth man," helping psyche out her foes, she could make a big push.
"I don't really know how to do that," she said. "I don't know really how to manipulate people. I was just doing it for myself. I should take some lessons, though."
All the U.S. players could learn a ton from Agassi. He's a natural when it comes to forming positive relationship, even with strangers. That's because he treats everyone like friends. The fans love him because he loves them. If tennis is to remain popular in America, the remaining U.S. stars better learn that quickly.
Roddick says he's doing all he can, but he says that he alone cannot replace Agassi.
"I know I put a lot of time into it, that's a responsibility," Roddick said. "I don't know if one person can help fill that void. It's a team effort with all the stars and guys on tour. But he's pretty much irreplaceable. I think we can watch and learn, and take the example that he set and do our best."