Evolution and Appreciation of Agassi

No other player in modern tennis history has changed as dramatically -- in physical appearance, personal philosophy and corresponding conduct, and public perception -- as Andre Agassi.

Over an extraordinary 21-year pro career that concluded with an agonizing, intensely emotional, astonishingly gutsy journey to a third-round loss at the U.S. Open, Agassi, now 36, has gone from long-haired punk rocker to bald-then-shaved-headed portrait of the mature and responsible husband, father, and champion of the courts and worthy causes. A gladiator for all, and for the ages.

The teen idol you could count on to do and say the immature thing has evolved, at age 36, into the people's choice, even among purists he once infuriated.

That was never more evident than at his sentimental swan song Open. Battling bravely despite an aching back that would have sidelined almost anyone else, he beat Andrei Pavel in four tough sets and Marcos Baghdatis in an unforgettable five-set passion play before succumbing -- but not surrendering -- to qualifier Benjamin Becker Sunday, 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5.

Agassi exited tearfully, and manfully. He wept courtside at Arthur Ashe Stadium as a capacity crowd -- including Becker, a 25-year-old German who went to Baylor and won the NCAA singles title -- rose and showered him for what seemed like an eternity with heartfelt applause. Then Agassi thanked the fans -- and all the crowds who helped will him so far -- with a short, sweet, uplifting speech punctuated with sobs and sincerity.

It has been a remarkable and riveting transformation, an odyssey as dreamlike and occasionally self-contradictory as "The Wizard of Oz." Agassi has traveled a yellow-brick road from clueless kid with undeniable talent who at times seemed to lack heart, brains and courage, to an accomplished adult whose achievements on the court, values, and contributions to several communities have established him not as a tactless imposter, but a kind and wise wizard.

The self-absorbed kid who used to quit when it was convenient, routinely showed up opponents, thumbed his nose at tradition and trash-talked authority, has grown up to be respectful and respected -- a man of determination who never gives up.

Agassi has traded ennui for empathy, condescension for compassion, angst and attitude for reformation and rectitude.

Colleagues and crowds have gradually, sometimes grudgingly, come to appreciate Agassi as an activist, a philanthropist, a redoubtable winner in every sense of the word. The rebel with a camera commercial but without a cause has become an idealist with an effectively realistic approach to humanitarian missions, a tireless crusader for disadvantaged kids.

The impressive journey from confused prodigy to clear-minded man of principle and purpose is complete now, but it will not end with his retirement, for Agassi has gained a stature that transcends tennis.

He has distinguished himself as one of those global sports luminaries who can continue to generate headlines and endorsement deals and charitable contributions, positively affecting lives long after he has hoisted his last trophy and cashed his final prize-money check.

He can be an ongoing role model not only for his own family -- wife Steffi Graf, a great and graceful champion in her own right, and their children -- but for countless other kids who need to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives and then reach out to help others less fortunate.

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