Hail and Farewell: Agassi Makes His Last Stand

He was the oldest and the first of them to turn pro, 20 years ago, at the precocious age of 16. He's the one many tennis fans initially would have tabbed Most Likely to Spontaneously Combust.

Fooled you. Instead of going up in flames, Andre Agassi burned his athletic candle at both ends. He is the last of his fabled generation still playing, and when he shoulders his racket bag after his final match at the U.S. Open, he'll formally end an era in American men's tennis that may be impossible to replicate.

"It's a sad day for me to see him retire," Jim Courier said, harkening back to the competitive fraternity formed by the five premier U.S. players of his day. "It's like seeing your last friend graduate from college. It really means you're a grown-up now, and it's fully in the next generation's hands. I live a little bit vicariously through him, loudly when I'm not broadcasting and very quietly when I am."

Agassi, Todd Martin, Courier, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang were born in that order in a statistically improbable cluster between April 1970 and February 1972. They grew up in the Nevada desert, on both coasts and in the Midwest. They represented a potpourri of ethnic backgrounds, and their fathers included a former boxer, a research chemist and a civil engineer.

None of them would be confused in a police lineup. Scrappy baseliner Chang was an eternally boyish 5-foot-9, while the 6-foot-6 Martin had an elder statesman's aura long before he retired. Agassi morphed from a Rapunzel-tressed teen trendsetter in denim shorts to a streamlined fitness freak, retaining only his steady, soulful gaze. Sampras was a darkly clean-cut assassin on his serve and at the net; the ruddy, big-swinging Courier was seldom without his regular-guy ballcap.

Together, they would win 27 Grand Slam championships, 189 tournament titles in all. (A sixth American, MaliVai Washington, reached his only Grand Slam final at Wimbledon in 1996.) They led the U.S. team to Davis Cup trophies in 1990, 1992 and 1995.

Their collective record stands at 3,209-1,278 for a winning percentage of .715. All reached the ATP's top 10. Other countries have experienced simultaneous surges and great players whose peak periods have overlapped.

Australians John Newcombe, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall combined for 14 Grand Slam titles in the post-1968 Open era, continuing the success they began in the '50s and early '60s when they played alongside countrymen Roy Emerson and Lew Hoad.

American legends Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe swashbuckled their way to 15 Slam wins from 1974-84, and their careers intersected with those of Arthur Ashe, Roscoe Tanner and Stan Smith, who won another six.

The so-called Spanish Armada that included French Open champions Sergi Bruguera and Carlos Moya drew attention chiefly for their clay-court mastery in the mid-'90s. If the fleet of Russian women who have sailed into the WTA's top 10 continues its success, history may someday view them as a conquering navy.

But the globalization of the game and the body-bashing expansion of the tournament calendar are making it increasingly hard for players from one country to hold court. The record of the Fab Five could become a fossil in relatively short order.

"I don't think it's going to happen again," Martin said. "I think we can produce five players as good as we were, but not necessarily as good relative to the global competition."

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