Guts and Glory
What a weird, yet spectacular, way for a legend to survive for one more day.
The U.S. Open men's singles match between Andre Agassi and Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus that began Thursday night and ended at 12:38 a.m. Friday morning was as magnificent a piece of sports drama as you could imagine.
It was one of those that made you say, "Damn, I wish I was there" as it went on. And on. And on, with 23,000 New Yorkers unwilling to leave until it was over.
That Agassi's victory was still reverberating as the news filtered in from Japan that the U.S. men's basketball team had again been beaten was an interesting contrast.
As Agassi plays his final matches and prepares to exit the stage as a sporting icon, the prestige of U.S. sport seems as wobbly as never before.
The Americans couldn't win the World Baseball Classic and are now clearly, without debate, no longer a giant among Lilliputians when it comes to international basketball. The Greeks, for goodness sakes, didn't put a single NBA player on the floor in knocking off the Americans.
Barry Bonds is widely discredited, as was Mark McGwire before him, as are Justin Gatlin and Marian Jones in track and field. Even in Agassi's tennis world, the ongoing discussion is over how the U.S. is no longer an international power.
There is, of course, Tiger. But it's not hard to get the feeling a Ryder Cup win better be around the corner.
Re Agassi, his match against Baghdatis went five sets, but that was only after Agassi won the first two but then lost the next two. In fact, he lost the fourth set after leading it 4-0 then inexplicably falling to pieces, looking as though he couldn't get to retirement fast enough.
The tennis wasn't always bold or pretty, and Baghdatis seemed determined for much of the night to give the contest away by accumulating an nightmarish number of unforced errors.
With his battered back obviously making every step a tricky one, Agassi sucked it up and fought on into the the fifth set when suddenly the colorful and charismatic 21-year-old Baghdatis - 15 years Agassi's junior - began to struggle physically himself.
In Baghdatis' case, it was nasty leg cramps. The ninth game of the fifth set, with the match tied two sets apiece and 4-4, was in itself a drawn out drama. Both of Baghdatis' thighs clenched in awful cramps, leaving him only to wave weakly at Agassi's serves. Unable to get treatment during the middle of a game, Baghdatis grimaced and groaned and hobbled around, gamely trying to figure out a way to stay in the match despite not being able to run.
Still, however, Agassi couldn't finish him off. With Baghdatis all but unable to move, Agassi doublefaulted, creating the eighth deuce of the game.
It was like watching two men torture one another. Or seeing two scorpions repeatedly stinging one another.
Finally Agassi prevailed, and eventually he won the deciding set 7-5, keeping his dream of one last Grand Slam surprise still alive.
"Tonight is just another example of moments you're not guaranteed to have in life," said Agassi as he was interviewed post-match by John McEnroe.
The Flushing Meadows fans cheered every point won by Agassi and every one lost by Baghdatis, only cheering the Cypriot as he walked off the court after the match.
The emotional wave of an Agassi run is starting to build, but at the same time, given the difficult time he has already had winning two rounds, it seems impossible to believe he could actually take the tournament.
Agassi's next opponent, in an odd coincidence of names, is one B. Becker, but not Boris, the king of German tennis at the same time as Agassi's wife, Steffi Graf, was the queen. Agassi last faced that Becker back in 1999 and held a commanding 10-4 career edge over him.
This Becker is also a German, 25-year-old Benjamin Becker. But this Becker just graduated from Baylor University where he was a three-time All-American in tennis.
He came into this U.S. Open ranked 112th in the world, and upset Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean yesterday.
If Agassi can get past Becker, he would likely face Andy Roddick. If you project an Agassi title here, it's also worth noting he's in Rafael Nadal's half of the draw.
And we haven't even said Roger Federer yet.
So the odds are hugely, overwhelming against Agassi winning it all, maybe even greater today after his painful marathon against Baghdatis, the tournament's No. 8 seed.
But every match Agassi survives, in whatever fashion, is a victory for tennis, one more opportunity to witness a legend and another reason to understand how much this athlete will be missed when he's gone.