Originally created 05/25/05

Andre Agassi at crossroads in career



PARIS - His back rigid, his feet shuffling in stutter steps, his face contorted from a burning pain down his leg, Andre Agassi arrived at a crisis in his career.

His future in tennis hinges not so much on his age, 35, as on the inflamed sciatic nerve that flared up and rendered him helpless in the middle of his first-round match at the French Open. It's the kind of chronic injury that has sent other champions into retirement, and it could ultimately do that to Agassi, even if he's not quite ready to walk away.

He's fought that pain for months, sought relief from it with cortisone, but felt it come back with a vengeance Tuesday when it radiated from his lower back to his right hip and down to his ankle. Groundstrokes hurt. Serves hurt more. Agassi considered quitting the match even when he led two sets to one, but he grimaced and played to the end, eventually succumbing in five sets to No. 95-ranked qualifier Jarkko Nieminen.

"It was getting worse by the minute," Agassi said of the pain that struck him in the third set of his 7-5, 4-6, 6-7 (6), 6-1, 6-0 loss. "I knew it wasn't going to be pretty after that. But I didn't want to walk off. I just didn't want to do it. And there's nothing the trainer could do.

"I almost shook hands at two sets to one up because to serve was painful, to move, to stand, then even to sit. It gets more irritated, more inflamed, more stiff. It was getting worse and worse. It was hard to stay out there."

Agassi never called for a trainer. He popped a couple of Advils and hoped for the best. He had a cortisone injection deep in the back a few months ago to reduce the inflammation and calm down the nerve. That helped for a while, allowing him to play without much pain in Rome and Hamburg.

Week by week, though, Agassi could feel the effects of the cortisone wearing off. The pain came back in spurts, jabbing his hip and leg.

"When I go home in the evening, and I'm walking three blocks from the restaurant, you wouldn't guess I'm a professional athlete," said Agassi, who set an Open-era record by playing in his 58th major event. He won the French Open in 1999 to complete a career Grand Slam, but now has lost in the first round here two straight years.

Three-time French champion Gustavo Kuerten, who has struggled with hip trouble for years, also was knocked out in the first round. Unseeded and the winner of only two matches this year, Kuerten fell to David Sanchez 6-3, 6-0, 4-6, 6-1.

A third former French champion, Albert Costa, lost to American Vince Spadea.

No. 2-seeded Andy Roddick and No. 3 Marat Safin advanced, along with women's favorite Justine Henin-Hardenne and No. 2 Maria Sharapova.

Cool, windy weather exacerbates Agassi's problem, he said, and that's exactly the kind of weather that greeted him against Nieminen. The flags atop center court at Roland Garros snapped in the breeze, and fans bundled up in sweaters and jackets. Not a drop of sweat showed on either player's shirt.

Agassi looked anxious and off stride even in the first set, losing five straight games after winning the first three, then dropping the set after he was broken at love in his last service game. Four double faults helped cost Agassi the long opening game of the second set, but he relied on his wiles to even the match.

It was fascinating to watch Agassi, off his game but trying to wear down his left-handed, 23-year-old opponent from Finland. Like an aging boxer, Agassi stood his ground in the center, controlling the points when he could and not running too much. That ploy, though, carried him only so far. It took him through the third set tiebreaker, despite his pain, but couldn't take him farther.

Broken to 2-0 in the first game of the third set, Agassi walked off the court even as Nieminen was pulling back his racket to hit a winner that made it 3-0. Agassi wouldn't quit, but he couldn't play. He rushed through points, in a hurry to lose. Pride and professionalism kept him on the court while he took a beating the rest of the way.

The question now is where he goes from here.

Wimbledon? Agassi, who won his only title there in 1992, tried to be optimistic.

"I think I have high hopes with another injection," he said. "But something tells me I'm at a stage of my career where I'm going to be living with these injections, because this is unplayable when it feels like this. There's nothing you can do to get comfortable.

"To be out there against some of the best athletes in the world, it's impossible."

Agassi acknowledged that doctors told him he could safely take only three cortisone injections a year in his lower back to treat his condition.

"I'll keep plugging along until I feel like there's nothing I can do about it," he said.

Retirement is a consideration if the pain doesn't allow him to play as a contender, he suggested. Asked why he's still playing when he's won all the majors, has nothing left to prove and could be spending more time with his wife, Steffi Graf, their two children and his charity work, Agassi hesitated, searching for the right words.

"Well, it's what I do... until I don't do it anymore," he said. "It's given me a lot. I'll assess the necessary components at the end of the year. But I can't afford to pollute the potential of my winning matches or tournaments with sitting on the fence, with where I am, what I'm doing, why I'm doing it. Some things you have to question, other things you have to not question. You have to just put your head down and work."