The King of Queens

Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters won the U.S. Open singles titles, but it was ageless Andre Agassi who owned the fans' hearts at Flushing Meadow
September 18, 2005

What will the kids remember? The big moments in the stadium, with thousands of people screaming their father's name? The little moments in between, like the time Dad bit that piece of candy in half so Jaden wouldn't choke on it, or the mornings Jaz brought him his coffee? Or maybe they'll remember that little playhouse with the slide next to it, just outside the players' lounge at Arthur Ashe Stadium. They all spent a lot of time there during those two weeks that seemed to last forever. Just after 4 p.m. on Sunday, Andre Agassi was standing next to the house's tiny window when his three-year-old son told him the kind of thing parents laugh about for years. "Kick butt, Daddy," Jaden said.

Agassi pulled his 23-month-old daughter close then and, just before leaving for perhaps the most remarkable match in one of sport's most remarkable careers, looked up at his wife. Steffi Graf, who knows something about winning Grand Slam finals, put on a sober look and clapped her hands. "Go get him," she said.

Agassi did as he was told. He turned and hustled into the building, passing his brother Philip, who had been in Flushing Meadow 20 years ago for Andre's first loss at the U.S. Open. The two locked eyes and bumped fists, but Andre kept going. "He's just going to come out swinging," Philip said.

What will the kids remember? Maybe that the old man almost pulled it off. Midway through the men's final of the 2005 U.S. Open--with the match split at one set apiece and the 35-year-old Agassi having just broken the serve of the world's No. 1 player, Roger Federer, to go up 4-2 in the third--disturbing thoughts began flying through Federer's usually imperturbable mind. Maybe this is a fairy-tale tournament. He's going to come back from a set down to win? Is this a joke or what?

The confusion was understandable. For the first time in months the same Federer who had won his last 22 finals looked as if he could lose. The packed house at Ashe, 22,859 strong and overwhelmingly pro-Agassi, began to believe. Though fearing a flare-up in his inflamed sciatic nerve, though coming off his third five-set match of the tournament, though the oldest man in a U.S. Open final in 31 years, Agassi suddenly had the upset of the decade in his hands.

But then Federer did what great players do. He stayed calm and worked to find his game. Then Agassi did what old men do, what 39-year-old Jimmy Connors did in the Open semifinals in 1991: He began to act his age. He found that all the yearning, all the hard work that had carried him this far wouldn't be enough. The afternoon sun had faded away, the harsh stadium lights gleamed off his bald head. A shanked Federer backhand dropped on the baseline, Agassi sent a forehand wide, two more winners from Federer fell in, and the defending champion broke back. Agassi began to groan as he swung, and by the time the third-set tiebreaker ended at 7-1, he was finished. The 24-year-old Federer won his sixth Grand Slam title 6-3, 2-6, 7-6, 6-1, the last set a showcase of unparalleled talent in its prime. For the first time since Don Budge did it in 1937-38, a man had won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years running. Agassi has played Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and, of course, Pete Sampras. But battling Federer in a Grand Slam final for the first time, Agassi faced a kind of tennis with which he wasn't familiar: airtight strokes and an ability not only to generate spectacular shots but also to switch instantly from defense to offense.

"He's the best I've ever played against," Agassi said of Federer. "There's nowhere to go. Other guys you play, there's a safety zone, there's a place to get to, there's a way, you know? He plays the game in a very special way. I haven't seen it before."

Of course, no one had seen anything like Agassi before he broke onto the scene in 1986. Taking the ball impossibly early and wearing outrageous clothes, he embarked on a career marked by strange absences and confounding comebacks, odd eloquence and startling crassness, and he won three of his eight Grand Slam titles--Wimbledon in '92, the U.S. Open in '94 and the French Open in '99--when no one expected it. So despite Federer's excellence, despite the stirring breakthrough of Kim Clijsters to win her first major, this U.S. Open belonged to Agassi. He had hobbled out of the French Open in May, his back flaring, a first-round loser. He had skipped Wimbledon and briefly considered retiring. "I told him to take a few days off, maybe a week or a week and a half, and then we could talk about it," says his longtime trainer, Gil Reyes. "He called the next day and said, 'I ain't finished. Let's get this right. Let's fix it.'"

The numbing salvation of two more cortisone shots and the benefits of Reyes's exercise regimen kept Agassi pain-free the rest of the summer and set up perhaps his most riveting tournament run yet. Rolling past the huge-serving, 6'10" Ivo Karlovic in the second round, then dangerous talents Tomas Berdych and Xavier Malisse and resurgent Americans James Blake and Robby Ginepri, Agassi fired the crowd's emotions like no one since Jimbo went on his astonishing roll. "If I was in the stands," Blake said after his five-set loss to Agassi on Sept. 7, "I'd cheer for him too." When Agassi tried talking to the crowd after Sunday's final, the last of a weeklong series of shouts from the seats interrupted, "We love you!"

Agassi answered, "I love you, too," neatly summing up the fortnight's unusual tone. Perhaps it was the disturbing images beamed up from New Orleans, but rich-and-spoiled tennis carried itself with a rare gravitas in New York City; when Agassi teared up at a press conference on Sept. 1 and said, "I'll be a part of anything that might make a difference," the tournament assumed a seriousness that it never quite lost. The USTA pledged $500,000 to the Red Cross; players filmed public-service announcements and donated equipment for an online charity auction; Clijsters announced that she was donating $25,000. Contribution buckets and stands were set up on the grounds of the National Tennis Center, and by Sunday fans had chipped in $65,000.

"It puts in perspective how lucky I am to run around [a tennis court] and have my family there," said the fourth-seeded Clijsters, who beat Mary Pierce 6-3, 6-1 in the women's final. The 22-year-old Belgian had raised another $25,000 before the tournament began to help build an orphanage in India for victims of last year's tsunami. "It can all be over very quickly," she said.

Clijsters knows. Last year left wrist surgery knocked her off the tour for eight months; she watched the 2004 U.S. Open unsure if she would ever play again. Like Agassi, Blake, Ginepri and Pierce, Clijsters added to this Slam's sober feel with her tale of a career reborn. Unlike them, however, she didn't seem hell-bent on making up for lost time. Tennis had defined her life, after all; she had begun dating Australian pro Lleyton Hewitt when she was 15 and become a full-time pro at 16. For the first three months of her layoff Clijsters didn't miss the sport. She and Hewitt broke off their engagement last fall, and she became involved with Brian Lynch, an American basketball player in Belgium. By the time she returned to the tour in February, Clijsters was better conditioned, with a firmer serve and forehand. But even while dominating the summer hard-court season, she announced a plan to retire after the '07 season. For years she had been depicted as the tour's Happy Warrior, too nice to win; she had lost four Slam finals. But even after dispelling that image by thrashing Pierce last Saturday night, Clijsters had no thought of changing her plans. She wants children and doesn't want to wait.

"Brian's the most important thing in my life now," she said after the final. "I would give up this title, straight away, just to have him. Because at the end of the day when you go home, the trophies are not talking to you. They're not going to love you. I want the people I love with me."

Clijsters's attitude was typical of this Open. Though there were the usual minor squabbles over umpiring and gamesmanship, the sport seemed to have come down with a case of contagious maturity. Even as he grinds the tour deeper under his heel, Federer remains the most universally liked No. 1 ever. And Agassi, who spit at a chair umpire during the 1990 U.S. Open, has pretty much forsaken his old antics. No one has a bad word to say about him. "One of the more genuine people I've ever met," says Blake. "He's the last person to act like a superstar in the locker room. He's happy, friendly with everyone, having a good time. If you just mention a charity event, he's going to be there. If he likes you, he'll bend over backwards to help."

Yet what happened between Agassi and Blake in their quarterfinal still took the Open by surprise. The 25-year-old Blake, after missing last year's Open with a bout of shingles--which followed the death of his father, which followed a training accident in which Blake broke his neck--seemed ready, after two flawless sets, to seize his place at last as the next U.S. star. But Agassi wouldn't give way, grabbing the next two sets. Blake lifted his game to force a tiebreaker in the fifth, and thus began a stretch of near-perfect tennis, both men pushing beyond their limits. Agassi said later that he had never, not even in his classic matches against Sampras, played before a louder crowd. Blake went up 3-0 in the tiebreaker, looked up to the sky and said, "I love you, Dad."

Jaden and Jaz slept through that moment, so they'll have to ask their dad someday about that night and how a 35-year-old man, coming back from two sets down, somehow won the first fifth-set tiebreaker of his 20-year career. Maybe Agassi will tell them how Blake held off one match point with a stunning forehand, and how the best returner in history then topped that on the next match point by hammering the perfect return, another forehand to the pocket where sideline and baseline meet. Maybe he'll tell, too, how thousands went silent for an instant, waiting for the call that never came. How Blake sagged, and some fan threw a dozen napkins fluttering into the air. "Unbelievable!" a man screamed. Maybe Agassi will tell his kids how that man was right. Afterward Andre and Philip joined Reyes and Andre's coach, Darren Cahill, for dinner at that old Manhattan saloon P.J. Clarke's and relived the points. Soon they were reliving other battles, other furious nights at Flushing Meadow, back when the Open felt new.

Once, when he was young and worried that he was squandering his talent, Agassi would've awakened on the morning of a Grand Slam final sick to his stomach. But that was six years and five Grand Slam titles ago; no player, ever, has had as productive a second act. Agassi woke up on Sunday morning calm. The most pressure he feels now, he says, comes when he cuts Jaz's fingernails. "It's about not defining myself by what happens [on the court] anymore," Agassi said afterward. "I pretty much know who I am, and I work on being more of that every day. Having a beautiful family makes any disappointments a bit easier and the good a lot better."

His daughter got to him first as he walked out of Ashe Stadium after the final. Agassi isn't sure if he'll play there again, but, really, it doesn't matter. What's left to prove? He shuffled over to Jaz. "Daddy didn't win," she chanted. "Daddy didn't win."

Agassi picked her up, and then Jaden walked up and asked, "Who did you play?"

"Some guy with long hair," Agassi said.

Someday, you can be sure, Daddy will tell about him, too.

For years Clijsters had been depicted as the tour's HAPPY WARRIOR, too nice to win. She dispelled that image by thrashing Pierce last Saturday night.

"He's THE BEST I'VE EVER PLAYED against," Agassi said of Federer after the final. "He plays the game in a very special way. I haven't seen it before."

PHOTOPhotographs by Manny Millan REVEL YELL Federer let out a shout of triumph after closing out the match to win his second straight title in Ashe Stadium. PHOTOPhotographs by Manny Millan BRAVE HEART Agassi courageously attacked Federer from the start, keeping him on the run with sharp forehand drives. PHOTOBOB MARTIN EXIT STRATEGY Even after winning her first Grand Slam trophy at 22, Clijsters said that she'll quit in two years to start a family. PHOTOBOB MARTIN DIFFERENT STROKE Federer's backhand was balky until the third-set tiebreaker, when it helped him turn the match around.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)