Tuesday, September 5, 2006 at 9:53 AM

As Agassi whimpered into retirement, his fans showed that "image [really] is everything"…

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

At the risk of raining a little on Andre Agassi’s retirement parade, I feel constrained to express what will probably be the only published criticism of his deification, which began with an unprecedented 8-minute standing ovation at the US Open on Sunday. Because, even though he seemed to grow as a human being with every strand of straggly hair he lost during his 21-year career; in fact, Agassi never lived up to the hype, or even his potential, as a tennis player.

Therefore, when I saw him hobbling off the court after winning his penultimate match on Friday – in truly spectacular fashion, I thought that he would have liked nothing more than to say his scripted goodbye right then. Because I knew (and I suspect Agassi knew) that he would show up for his next outing prepared – not so much to play a competitive match as to deliver a benediction on his career.

And so he did…deliver a made-for-TV benediction: A real tear jerker, which has been replayed so many times that most of you could probably recite it now by heart.

Of course, the imagery of Agassi emulating Lou Gehrig’s career-ending speech – in pathos and eloquence – would have been appreciated by anyone familiar with the most sentimental moments in sports history. Unfortunately, where I’m sure many of the fans applauding him on Sunday know what Lou Gehrig’s disease is; I suspect few of them have any clue who Gehrig was.

Moreover, apropos clueless, it was one thing that some sportscasters got so carried away with emotion that they began calling Agassi the best (and sexiest) tennis player in history. But to see video clips of Agassi’s peers (like John McEnroe and Jim Courier) echoing this fickle idolatry was extremely disappointing.

After all, I could not help wondering what Pete Sampras – Agassi’s former nemesis and the man who is, indisputably, the best tennis player in history – felt about being relegated to a footnote so quickly. Furthermore, what does it say about Agassi’s respect for the integrity of his sport when he touts Roger Federer as the best tennis player in history, when Federer’s accomplishments on the court (ie. in terms of major titles and Grand Slams won) pales in comparison to Sampras’s?

Agassi certainly deserves praise for cultivating a more charitable and appealing image off the court than any other player in the modern era. But no one has been more dominant and exciting to watch on the court than Sampras. And, here’s the proof:

NOTE: Whimpering emotionally and physically into retirement on Sunday, Agassi (36) joined the ignominious gallery of sports greats, including Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, who retired losers. By contrast, Sampras (35) retired a winner – as champion of this very same tournament in 2002.

ENDNOTE: Because I have such admiration for Agassi’s charitable work, I urge you to click here to read an independent review of his foundation and here to contribute to it.

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