WATCH—Stories of the Open Era – International Tennis Hall of Fame:
Flushing Meadows is tennis’ largest stage, and over the last 50 years, it has been the site of some of the sport’s greatest dramas. This week, we’ll count down the 10 most memorable US Open matches of the Open Era. To follow the countdown, click here.
Every match ends in a handshake, but how many require two?
The second-round contest between Andre Agassi and Marcos Baghdatis at the 2006 Open wasn’t just any match, of course. It was the 870th, and final, victory of Agassi’s 21-year career, and it was a five-set, four-hour epic that left the two men lying next to each other on twin stretchers in the trainers’ room at Flushing Meadows.
The American and the Cypriot were barely able to move, but as they watched highlights of their match on ESPN, they managed to bring their hands together.
“In my peripheral vision I detect slight movement,” Agassi recalled. “I turn to see Baghdatis extending his hand. His face says, ‘We did that.’ I reach out, take his hand, and we remain this way, holding hands, as the TV flickers with scenes of our savage battle.”
It was a battle that, when it began, Agassi didn’t believe he could win. He was 36, suffering from sciatica, and was just 8-7 on the season. But he had dedicated himself to making it to New York for the Open one more time, and two cortisone shots later, while standing “stick straight,” he had managed to beat Andrei Pavel in the first round. But Baghdatis was No. 8 in the world and had reached the Wimbledon semifinals two months earlier. At 21, with long hair, a flashy baseline game, and a wide smile, he reminded many of Agassi himself two decades earlier.
But Agassi had help—23,000 screaming fans’ worth. At the start of the match, someone in the rafters set the tone by hollering, “Andre, this is your house, and it’s all of us against him!” It was an echo from the late 1980s, when Agassi had faced an aging Jimmy Connors at the Open, and a fan had pledged the stadium’s support to Jimbo by yelling, “He’s a punk and you’re a legend!” Now Agassi was the legend, and Baghdatis knew his role: “I’m the bad guy for tonight,” he said as he walked on court.
For the first two sets, and for much of the fourth, the good guy was in control, to the delight of the crowd. Whatever pain Agassi felt—he had received anti-inflammatory injections for three straight days—he hit through it, until he led 4-0 in the fourth set, and the match had turned into a party. But the loose atmosphere helped Baghdatis relax, too. The winners began to flow from his racquet, and he came all the way back to steal the set.
The two dueled to 4-4 in the fifth, and the audience only grew louder with each game. Then, at the moment of maximum tension, it was Baghdatis’s turn to break down. He cramped, and struggled to walk, yet he still prolonged the ninth game for another 16 thrilling, agonizing, seemingly never-ending points.
Three games later, Agassi had his 870th win, and Arthur Ashe Stadium had reached peak decibel level. “Like a jet engine and a giant heartbeat,” is how Agassi described the audience that night.
Agassi wouldn’t leave the grounds until 3 A.M., and he had to be carried to his car. He had gone as far as he could. Two days later, he lost his last professional match to Germany’s Benjamin Becker in four sets, and told the fans, “I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.”
No memory could have been stronger—both for its pleasure and its pain—than his final victory two nights earlier.
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