My last hurrah
NEW YORK -- During my last year on Tour before I officially retire, there have been a lot of "last" experiences. Tuesday night was the last singles match I'll play at the U.S. Open, and it may have been the most exhilarating experience of them all.
I played against Andy Roddick, one of my friends and someone I respect a ton, both professionally and personally. He got the better of me, just as he did in my last match at Wimbledon a few months ago, but it was a night I'll never forget.
The crowd was electrifying and I was determined to not only compete, but also enjoy what would most likely be my last opportunity in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Roddick served an incredible 77 percent first-serve percentage and, while I had a tiny chance to steal the first set, his superior skills won out. My goals were to play aggressively, focus on my service games and make Andy hit an inordinate amount of passing shots.
I did the best I could, but it wasn't enough. Our embrace after the match was something I will always appreciate as Andy told me, "We will miss you out here." He was incredibly gracious, before, during and after the match, even going so far as to give me some extra tickets for some of my friends when I came up short.
I've had to confront a lot of emotions going into my final Grand Slam event, and it was a tough balance acknowledging them and still trying to prepare for a match against one of the greatest players in the world. The U.S. Open has meant so much to me over my career and well before I even had a tennis career.
I started coming to the U.S. Open when I was 8 years old and my brothers and I would try and sneak into the player's lounge when we weren't franticly running around the grounds trying to watch every player we had ever heard of.
Most kids went to summer camp; I went to the U.S. Open. I fell in love with the sport and was determined to hoist the U.S. Open trophy above my head one day. I never came close to that level of success, but I savored every experience I had on the courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
All in all, I played the U.S. Open 13 times, 11 times in the main singles draw. My record here wasn't anything spectacular but I am very proud of a 5-0 record in five-set matches and my tough third-round, four-set loss to eventual champion Andre Agassi in 1999. I had to get 98 tickets that day for my friends and family and I played an even match with the best player in the world in my favorite tournament.
I won my first match in the main draw as wild card after winning the Boys 18 Nationals in '95 when I upset David Prinosil. I couldn't believe I was actually competing in the U.S. Open, not to mention winning a match. It was one of the most amazing feelings I have ever had and one I thought about often for motivation during tough times in my career.
Last year during my quarterfinal mixed-doubles victory, I blew out my back (which has been a lingering problem throughout my career, requiring 19 cortisone injections). I needed emergency surgery and was told my career was over. I desperately wanted to play one more U.S. Open and over the course of my ongoing rehabilitation process, I constantly thought about getting back on the U.S. Open courts.
The ovation I received Tuesday night upon entering the court and the subsequent experience of playing made all of the arduous physical work and gut-wrenching soul-searching over the past year well worth it.
The U.S. Open will always have a special place in my heart. But from now on I'll have to view it from the stands just like everyone else.
Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He's competing in his 13th U.S. Open.