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A Possible Swan Song for Two Ex-Champions

August 30, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Andre Agassi arrived at his first U.S. Open as a flamboyant, longhaired possessor of a fabulous ability to hit a tennis ball and the confidence to wear colors so bright they made sunglasses at night cool.

Lindsay Davenport arrived at her first U.S. Open as a shy, slump-shouldered teenager uncertain of her place in the worlds, real and tennis, but with an ability to whack a tennis ball so solidly that she could drive it past almost anybody. Because of that, she could win matches even if she was slow and unwilling to trust her talent or believe in herself.

It has been 18 years now since Agassi, 34, made his U.S. Open debut and became a first-round loser to Jeremy Bates. Davenport got here in 1991 and lost in the first round to Debbie Graham.

Since then, however, she and Agassi have won 11 Grand Slam titles -- Agassi has eight. But between them, they've won only three U.S. Open championships -- one for Davenport, two for Agassi -- even though both grew up dreaming of starring in New York.

"It's home and my favorite surface," Davenport said.

"There's nothing like a night match in New York," Agassi said. "I look forward to it every year."

Neither is a favorite for the 2004 tournament, which starts today. Each has hinted that this could be a swan song Open. And each has had a strong summer hard-court season, with the kinds of results that prompt flashbacks to 2002, when Pete Sampras made his last stand to win a final major title before retirement.

Agassi knows a little about that. He was Sampras' beaten opponent on a magical night on center court.

"It was a great way to go out," Agassi said. "But I don't think Pete was thinking about retirement at that moment. Neither am I. You just don't know what you would think if you were to win. All I know for sure is that I still think I can win."

The last time Agassi won the U.S. Open was in 1999, his best season. It was the year he won his only French Open, an achievement that made him a winner of each major title at least once. He was a Wimbledon finalist and, two months later, in a dramatic five-setter, denied Todd Martin an Open championship.

Still, Agassi has had some of his toughest losses here, embarrassing first-round losses to Aaron Krickstein in 1991 and to 61st-ranked Thomas Enqvist in 1993, and heartbreaking defeats by Sampras in the 1990, 1995 and 2002 finals.

"Tough moments here, definitely," Agassi said, "but also the place where there is the greatest energy."

After struggling with injuries over the last two years, Davenport suggested at Wimbledon that the end of this season would be the end of her career.

"I want to have a family," said Davenport, who is married to investment banker Jon Leach. "I miss my house when I'm away. I miss my life."

But this summer, Davenport's aches and pains have stayed away. She won all four hard-court tournaments she played. She beat Venus Williams twice and Serena Williams once. She took care of 2004 French Open champion Anastasia Myskina and French Open runner-up Elena Dementieva.

Davenport admitted that her successes this summer have led to a certain dream.

"To win another Grand Slam [tournament] would be ... I don't think I could put it into words," she said. "It would be the most special thing I could do after not winning one for over four years. The U.S. Open would probably be the one I'd want the most."

Davenport cherishes her Slam victories -- the U.S. Open in 1998, followed by Wimbledon and Australian Open triumphs -- because she never expected to win any.

"I grew up with very down-to-earth parents and my dad's quote was always, 'You better get a scholarship if you want to go to a good college, because we're not going to pay for it.' I really wanted to go to Stanford. I never really thought of playing in the pros."

Stanford never quite happened, and now the career is winding down.

Agassi did dream of winning big tennis tournaments and being famous. Now, he can turn pensive in a second.

"I wish it was easy and obvious to know when you're supposed to retire," he said. "I wish there was a big sign or something: 'Quit now!' Because I know some things are harder and harder. The training, the recovery. Leaving home. But there's also the voice that tells you that you can still do it. There's not a voice that tells you to stop."

That voice might shout were Agassi to win here in what would be a big upset.

Top-seeded Roger Federer and second-seeded and defending champion Andy Roddick have set themselves apart, and started a budding rivalry during Federer's come-from-behind victory at Wimbledon.

Federer has never been past the fourth round here, though. The noise and heat, the crowds and attitude of New York don't suit the even-keeled Federer, whose game and personality are based on grace and quiet, easy movement.

Roddick, who said he was working on a 150-mph serve, loves the cacophony of the USTA National Tennis Center, adores the energy created when people bump and shove, shout and scream.

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