American tennis icon Andre Agassi was here in the nations capital this week to play in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. It was one of his final appearances before he retires after the U.S. Open later this month in New York. In a career lasting more than 20 years, Agassi has transformed himself from a young renegade into a venerable champion.
Andre Agassi burst onto the tennis scene in 1986 with long, bleached hair, neon shirts and an abundance of attitude. The flamboyant young rebel was greeted like a rock star by screaming younger fans, fascinated with Agassi's aggressive play and outrageous behavior on the court. Agassi told VOA Sports that starting so young was a great opportunity.
"It's fueled me to take a closer look at myself probably a little earlier than I would have normally," he said. "I mean, I've considered it a blessing in my life, but with a slight turn of perspective you would not wish it on anybody, you know? Because you have two ways to go when you face yourself at an early age. To survive it is one thing but to thrive on it is another, and it has been something I've chosen to thrive on."
But with Agassi in Washington for his 17th appearance at this hard-court tournament, the years have finally caught up with the former number-one player in the world. A chronic back injury has stolen some of his speed and flexibility making periodic cortisone injections a necessity.
While Agassi once relied on one of the most rigorous training regimens to get him into match shape, he must now temper those extreme workouts with periods of rest.
"It is hard to stay healthy out here year after year with the trials and tribulations of competition on surfaces," he said. "And the way this game has evolved athletically has made it more challenging from a physical perspective."
Andre Agassi's record speaks for itself. He has won eight major titles and is one of just five men to capture all four of the Grand Slam titles: Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. He won the Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, and owns 60 career titles, including five here at the Legg Mason Classic.
But Agassi does not consider himself to be the elder statesman of American tennis.
"To consider myself a statesman would be an inaccurate thing to say. Because for me, its always about respect," he said. "Respect for your peers and respect for your sport. And you know, that is not something you demand, that is something you earn, and you have to earn it every day. "
Each day Andre Agassi gets closer to his announced retirement after this months U.S. Open. But he says it is an interesting transition.
"It has been great doing this my whole life, you know. And it is not just saying good-bye, by the way, to a sport, to a business, to hitting a tennis ball. It is saying good-bye to all the people you have done this with," he said. "From the fans, to the sport itself, to your peers, you have lived something on so many different levels. And to walk away from that, I don't take that lightly at all. "
Since announcing his plans to retire, Agassi no longer dominates on-court. He has dropped out of the top 20 in the ATP rankings and has gone just 6-6 this year. But Agassi says he is not sad to be retiring, and is ready for the next stage of his life.
"There's a lot of it I'm going to miss," he admitted. "But really if you do it right there is an evolution at work here. It will grow into something more than I could have hoped for when it comes to all the things I value. I'll miss doing this in front of the fans of this game. I'll miss that. I'll miss the practices out there with people lining up on the fence. But I don't know if I can say I'm sad, because I really believe it's going to grow into something better than this."
Coming into this tournament, Andre Agassi's singles record was 866-271 in his 20-year career and he has won more than $31 million in prize money.