With a limp and an over-the-shoulder wave, Andre Agassi departed Roland Garros and the French Open championships today, the loser of a five-set, first-round match to a qualifier, Finland's Jarkko Nieminen.
Despite the pleas of his French fans, Agassi's pitched battle with pain ended in his 58th Grand Slam event, a record number of appearances at the sport's premier events.
Agassi stumbled early, dropping the first set to Nieminen, then surged back to take a 2-1 lead. But, unknown to the thousands of spectators, the match was already over, Agassi said.
"Middle to the late part of the third [set], the nerve in my back started getting inflamed," said Agassi. With that, he said, he began to feel a searing pain, running from his right hip down his leg.
Diagnosed as a sciatic condition earlier in the year, the pain was stifled, Agassi said, by an injection of cortisone three months ago. "It had great results for me for a few months," the 35-year-old said.
When the pain returned, he said, he knew he could not win today's match. "Yeah, I almost shook hands at two sets to one up because … to serve was painful, to move, you know, to stand, then even to sit.
"So it was getting worse and worse for sure, and I knew it. It was hard to stay out there," said Agassi.
Despite the intensifying pain, Agassi refused to call for a trainer or withdraw from the match. "I just didn't want to walk off the court," he said, "I didn't want to lose that way."
He lost the last two sets 6-1, 6-0.
Agassi said he still expects to play at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, hoping that a second injection might give him relief. He said he had been told that he might be allowed to receive two or three injections per year.
Record Legacy at the Grand Slam
Agassi's record number of Grand Slam appearances has surpassed Jimmy Connors, who had been regarded as the all-time endurance champion. Tournament officials said it was discovered that Connors' name had been entered in the 1971 Wimbledon draw but he did not play.
"Wasn't aware of that," Agassi said, when asked about the record. "The more you play, the more chance you have to win, right?"
At the same time, he refused to consider the idea of retirement, which would still allow him to claim he was the oldest entrant in this year's French Open.
"Well, it's what I do," he said when asked by a reporter whether he might prefer to tend to his family or a burgeoning charity effort in Las Vegas.