A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Friday, September 01, 2006

My New Sports Hero

Marcos Baghdatis. I watched his second-round U.S. Open match against Andre Agassi last night and he completely won me over. Gutty, fun to watch, funny... well, let me give you the background, then I'll expound on why he's my new favorite sports personality.

For those unfamiliar with tennis, the U.S. Open is one of the four grand slam tourneys-- the biggest tournaments every year and the ones everyone wants to win the most. Agassi is 36, very old by tennis standards, and one of the games greatest champions, with 8 grand slam titles. In his youth he had a huge flowing mange of hair, was brash, abrasive, and often rather annoying. Over time he lost his hair and seemed to come to grips with the fact that he was very lucky to be playing a game he loved for a living and making a helluva good living doing it at that. He let his tennis do most of the talking, and by 2006 had become the elder statesman of tennis that John McEnroe will never be because John's just such an ass most of the time.

This years U.S. Open is Agassi's last tournament. He almost certainly won't win it-- he's simply too old, he's been battling a bad back for several years, and the skills that will rank him as one of the best ever aren't there any more. But 99.9% of the folks in the stands during one of his matches want him to win-- to make that one last run, ala Jimmy Connors' run in the same tournament in 1991. The 0.1% are the family, friends and coach of whomever Agassi is facing during that match. Agassi rallied to win his first match-- he dropped the first set-- to move on to the second round.

Okay, there's your set up. Fading champion, last tournament, 23,704 of the stadium's 23,712 spectators rooting vociferously for the old guy. Enter Baghdatis, the Greek player currently ranked #8 in the world, though I suspect he will soon move much higher than that. He was Agassi's opponent last night in the second round.

Tough place to be, huh? Everybody and their mother clapping, shouting, stomping and doing everything in their power to energize the other guy.

Right, so Baghdatis seems rattled by the whole thing at first-- who wouldn't be? He's making tons of errors, and can't seem to located his powerful first serve much of the time. First two sets go to Agassi, 6-4, 6-4. Now the crowd is really into it-- they came to say farewell to Andre (very few experts figured Agassi had much chance against the up and coming Baghdatis) and instead they were watching one last glorious effort by a champion.

In the third set, Marcos settles down. Only one break in the entire set-- but it's Baghdatis' and now it's two sets to one in favor of Agassi. The crowd has been quieted. Maybe Andre's tank is empty. Wouldn't be surprising-- adrenaline and the crowd's energy can only take you so far, can only keep you moving like a man 10-years younger for so long.

Does Agassi have enough left? Maybe, but you figure he's got to win the fourth set. No way does the old guy want to go to a deciding fifth set-- not with his 36-year-old legs and having lost all of his momentum along the way. Andre simply has to win the fourth set.

First game he holds serve. So far so good. The crowd is back into it, cheering loud and long between the points-- doubly so for the ones Agassi wins. Next game-- Agassi shows flashes of the return brilliance that has always been his trademark-- he breaks Baghdatis' serve. The crowd is going nuts. Third game, Agassi again holds serve. Crowd can sense it, Baghdatis looks beat, Agassi is moving with the agility of his 25-year-old former self. Fourth game, Agassi breaks again! Andre is up 4-0, just two games from the match, and Baghdatis is talking to himself and shaking his head.

Fifth game is later described by Agassi this way, 'It wasn't my back getting tight. It was my throat, my breathing.' Suddenly all the pressure was on Andre as he realized how close he was to a stunning victory. He played conservative and tight-- trying not to make a mistake instead of trying to claim the victory that was all but in his hands. Baghdatis broke his serve relatively easily and pounds his chest while looking to his coach and the four other people in the stadium pulling for him. There's still some heart in here, he seemed to be saying.

The crowd is edgy. Feeling that what seemed like a foregone conclusion-- a glorious fourth set thumping by Agassi-- is far more tenuous than they thought five minutes earlier. They too rally-- cheering wildly, perhaps a little manicly, for Agassi. Trying to will him to win those two games he needs to win the match. Baghdatis wins the sixth game easily-- he seems to have rediscovered his first serve, blistering aces and service winners at 120 mph+ and throwing in these gorgeous drop shots that Andre no longer has the legs to get to.

Agassi loses the next game and the next. His two service breaks of Baghdatis are gone, and his 4-0 lead is now a 4-4 tie. Oi! Agassi looks tired. He looks old, walking a little hunched over between points. Marcos is juiced, repeating his chest thumping gesture and urging himself on even as a few jags in the crowd actually start booing his tremendous effort to get back into a match that everyone wants him to lose.

Ninth game. Oh my what a game. Agassi has found some energy from somewhere. Baghdatis is still stoked from his four game rally. The crowd is nervous but still WAAAYYYY into the match and desperately trying to telepathically send Andre any boost they can. Back and forth, back and forth. Finally Agassi wins the game after several deuces. He does a little "Wow am I happy I finally won another game" dance. Phew. I'm tired just watching these guys go after each other for nearly three hours. But I'm grinning like a lunatic because this is great stuff-- literally the stuff legends are made of.

One more game.

But it's Marcos' serve, and he's not going gently into that good night (okay, he's not going to die, but you get the idea). Agassi fights back with the service return that has baffled many big servers during his two decade career. Duece. Agassi wins the point. Now it's match point for Agassi. Everyone is holding there breath. I was, and I was watching on tv, a 1,000 miles away. Big serve. Duece. Baghdatis eventually holds on, and it's 5-5. Agassi seems to be moving gingerly.

Marcos' breaks Andre failry easily in the 11th game, and Agassi's wife, former women's tennis star Steffi Graf, looks like somebody just punched her in the stomach. Baghdatis crushes several laserlike serves in game 12, and wins the fourth set. Two sets apiece-- we're going to a fifth and final set. And I'm pretty sure everybody in the stadium was thinking the same thing I was thinking, "Agassi is done. He played his guts out, but he's just out of juice. No way he can win a fifth set."

But you watch. Just in case. 'Cause you never know.

Baghdatis breaks Agassi in the first game of the fifth set. Crap. I guess I was right-- Agassi's tank is empty. Valiant effort and all that. But stick a fork in him-- he's done. At this point Jennifer woke up (she had fallen asleep on the couch with me about 2 hours earlier) and I decided it was time to go to bed with her. It was, after all, after 11, I had work the next day, and Agassi was clearly done.

So, I went upstairs and tucked in my wife, then came back down to brush my teeth. Figured, well, might as well watch the match while I'm brushing. It's 1-1 and Agassi is moving again. Hmm... you don't suppose? Nah... but what if? I finish brushing and keep watching.

Every now and then you watch a sporting event and it gives you chills-- even through the tv you can feel the energy, you can sense the impact of everything happening, you just know you're watching something special. Boy am I glad I didn't go to sleep early last night, because the fifth set was special indeed, and I had chills buzzing up and down my spine on several occassions before the thing finally ended, three and a half hours after it started. It was bizarre, fun, breathtaking and so full of drama that you could only nod your head in agreement when one of the commentators said, "This is incredible. If you took this to Hollywood as a script they would laugh you out of town because it would be so unbelievable."

It seems I missed a medical timeout while I was getting ready for bed. A medical timeout for Baghdatis, the 21-year-old. His left leg was bothering him. During the break, Agassi regrouped, channeled the crowd's energy. Channeled Jimmy Connors. I don't know, but he rallied back to break Baghdatis and the final act of the drama was under way.

The next few games were on serve-- but despite that fact the crowd was edgy. Baghdatis seemed to be holding serve easily, while every point Agassi won seemed to be a struggle. But it was still all even when it got truly surreal.

At 4-4 in the fifth, it was Agassi's serve. Again the points seemed to be a struggle for Andre and you wondered how much longer he could hang with Baghdatis-- especially given that Agassi had been able to do very little when it was Marcos' turn to serve. Duece. The next point Baghdatis rips a clean winner down the line to earn a break point. But wait. He's down near the linesman's chair on the side of the court, struggling to stand back up. He rolls on the ground, grimacing in pain and grabbing his right leg.

Cramps. Bad ones. Both legs we learn later, but worst in his right one. Baghdatis wants his trainer, but the new rules in tennis prohibit treatment during a game-- only between games. He must either play on or forfeit. He struggles to his feet and hobbles-- and I do mean hobbles-- to the baseline to receive Agassi's serve. Every step is clearly painful. Unbelievably, a few of the New York jags actually boo the guy. Because why? He's faking? On the verge of pulling off a stunning comeback and keeping his tournament alive he's going to fake cramps? Rigghht. Unbelievable jags-- simply getting up and walking over to the end line was a remarkable feat as anyone who has ever had a serious leg cramp can tell you.

Andre wins the point as Baghdatis can barely move toward the serve. But he's working out the cramps between points. Stretching, jumping, shaking. Anything to try and get his legs to work right. Yet it still seems he can hardly walk, much less chase down serves and ground strokes. Unbelievably, he hits a clean return of service winner on the next point. Duece. Andre wins the next point, working Baghdatis back and forth across the courth. Somehow the Greek seems to be able to move almost normally during the points even though between points it is clear that he is still in signifcant pain. He manages to force two more duece points, but eventually Agassi finishes the game off to move to 5-4.

Between games 9 and 10 Baghdatis gets some treatment for his cramping thighs. His first serve isn't even close. Neither is his second. He can't get his legs under him the way he's used to-- he's done. Agassi is going to hang on and pull it out with his 36-year-old body holding up better than Baghdatis' 21-year-old body.

Or not.

With each point Baghdatis seems to get a bit better, a bit smoother. The two exchange long ground-stroke rallies, sometimes painting the lines and with one gorgeous point where Agassi turned the tables on Baghdatis by hitting a drop shot just over the net. Fully rested I don't know if Marcos could have gotten to the shot, but over three-hours into the match and with his legs cramping he had no chance. Not that he didn't try. Baghdatis holds serve. Barely. 5-5.

Are we heading to a fifth set tie-breaker? That's what happens if both players win 6 games in a set. Starting to look that way.

But Baghdatis is still digging deep and moving a bit better. He's smiling in between his grimaces. Agassi is starting to move like he had at the end of set 4. Agassi serves in game 11 and this game was also a marathon. More tingles down the spine. More gritted teeth, more chest-thumping, more tension. Ye gods, what fun. I didn't even care that it was now nearly 11:30. I really didn't care who won the match-- truly it was a pity they both couldn't win. Agassi final puts the game away.

Serving at 5-6, Baghdatis seemed to be cruising to that tie-breaker, winning the first two points easily. But wait, he's not moving so well. Oh geez, the cramps are coming back. He double faults. He double faults again. Pulls out the next point, but Agassi crushes the return on the point after. Duece. Agassi wins the next rally, too. Match point. Baghdatis gets the first serve in, but Agassi returns it well. Baghdatis gets the shot back, but he's on the defensive and Agassi forces him to move and Baghdatis' next shot catches the top of the net and falls back.

Match over.

I was thrilled that Andre won-- late career runs are always fun. But I had to admire Baghdatis as he congratulated Agassi at the net-- very gracious and even managing a wry smile. I admired him even more when he gave a brief interview after the match-- on center court with the 23,000+ spectators who had rooted against him all night watching. Remarkably gracious, remarkably complimentary of Agassi. He said all the right things, and he actually meant them. He didn't carp about his cramps. He didn't whine about some of the calls he thought went against him. He didn't complain that he had to play not only against Agassi but also 23,000 of his closest friends. You could tell he was crushed to have lost the match, crushed that his balky legs had most likely kept him from pulling off a remarkable comeback, but he made no excuses and instead simply lauded Agassi for his great play and his great career.

My god it was wonderful.

Baghdatis showed heart, skill, grit, patience, and endurance during the match. After the match he showed grace, good sportsmanship and wisdom far beyond his 21 years.

And that is why he's my new sports hero.


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