Dignity is in incredibly short supply in sports stars these days, so seeing a tear-stained Andre Agassi talk with eloquence and emotion to the crowd Sunday after losing in the third round of the U.S. Open — his last match as a professional tennis player — was practically an ode to the unique relationship of star athletes to fans. But I don’t buy the assessment we heard in the buildup and post-sob analysis of the retirement match that the importance of Agassi’s career arc was in leaving behind the “image is everything” tag that dogged him through rebel posturing, neon outfits, Barbra Streisand, wild hair and pirate headgear. That take is too convenient, and doesn’t do justice to Agassi’s particular genius. Part of his maturity was that he traded a glossy, dismissive form of image consciousness for one that arises organically from becoming a wicked competitor on the court and a charity founder off the court. After all, Agassi told everyone that this would be his last U.S. Open. That shows a full awareness of the fruits of glory, and a hope that come late August, the vibe would be positive, the intensity would be invigorating, and the crowds would come and help push his creaking 36-year-old body well into the tournament. And that meant we got two thrilling, unforeseen wins last week before his game finally fell apart. That’s the mark of a smart contender and showman. And how many donations will come into his foundation because of all the retirement hoopla? Plenty. That’s the mark of a smart fund-raiser. He even called John McEnroe in the broadcast booth Saturday when the tournament play was rained out, and CBS dedicated the day to Agassi by airing his classic U.S. Open matches — which naturally included a few losses to Pete Sampras. Why, asked a good-natured Agassi, are all the rebroadcasts of matches he lost if it’s supposedly his day? Hilarious, and the mark of a shrewd caretaker of his own legacy. What more can one ask from a superstar athlete?
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