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Curtain set to come down on Agassi's storied career

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Aug 24 (Reuters) When the curtain comes down on the storied career of Andre Agassi at the US Open, the sport will lose one of its most enigmatic figures.

The 36-year-old Las Vegas native no longer has the big hair or the big forehand but he can still sell tickets like a rock star.

''It's not an easy time from the standpoint of concentration,'' said Agassi, who has spent the last few weeks on a farewell tour of tournaments he had once dominated.

It would be foolish to think Agassi could repeat the 1991 performance of Jimmy Connors, who made a Hollywood-like run to the Open semi-finals aged 39.

Or the time in 2002 when Pete Sampras bid adieu to the sport by lifting the championship trophy over his head with a victory over his good friend and rival Agassi.

But whenever Agassi has been counted out, he seems to rise to the occasion -- like reaching last year's Open final with three consecutive five-set wins. It took world number one Roger Federer to finally stop him in his tracks.

When asked by reporters at a recent tournament what his dream sequence would be at the Open, Agassi did not really have to answer, merely saying, ''Hmm, let me see. What would be a good ending?'' Amid the laughter, he became a bit more practical saying, ''Regardless of how it ends, it's going to be great.'' Agassi has had a patchy season, battling injuries and an inconsistent game. With an 8-7 record this year, his world ranking has fallen to 37.

That won't matter to the crowds at Flushing Meadows, who will undoubtedly cheer his every shot, knowing that each time he steps on the court could be his last. No longer is he virtually guaranteed a spot in the second week of the Open.

DOMINANT ERA Only the second man in the professional era to have won all four grand slam events, Agassi is at peace with his decision to step off the court and embrace family life with wife Steffi Graf and their two children, four-year-old Jaden Gil and two-year-old Jaz Elle.

''I look forward to not having to do things, like waking up everyday and saying, 'Okay, what do I have to do today?' because of my schedule,'' he said. ''It's going to be a bit more on my terms, which is what I want my life to look like.'' Agassi's retirement signals the end of an era of dominant American players. When he joins Sampras, Connors and John McEnroe among others on the golf course, he leaves the nation's tennis fortunes in the hands of a handful of inconsistent or unproven performers.

While he is far from predicting gloom and doom, Agassi concedes Federer and Spaniard Rafael Nadal are the class of the current field.

''The reality is that between Federer and Nadal there hasn't been a whole lot of room for anybody else to win,'' he said. ''That's the reality. I don't think it's a crisis.

''I still think we have 290 million people in our country. I think if we can get the racket in the right hands, that can change quickly.'' Agassi, however, very much wants to live in the moment and make the highlight reels of the 2006 Open, which begins on August. 28.

But at 36, the aches last just a bit longer and the days of playing consistently great tennis are fewer.

''You're playing against the best guys in the world and, you know, there are times you're feeling more ordinary than you want to,'' he said.

''I just want to have some good days when it matters most.'' REUTERS PM PM0914

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