"I say let him play forever." These are the words that came out of the mouth of James Blake referring to Andre Agassi, the 35-year old veteran of 20 U.S. Opens. Just minutes earlier, Agassi defeated Blake 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) in a thrilling quarterfinal match of the 2005 U.S. Open. It was, indeed, an epic battle and a comeback for the ages.
The match began on the evening of Wednesday, September 7th but it did not end until 1:10 am on Thursday, September 8th. As the players walked out onto the court and prepared for their much hyped battled, I sat there in front of the television glued to the set. I knew one of two scenarios were about to play out. Either were we going to witness a classic, a match to remember or we were going to see Agassi, methodically and solidly, defeat a less battle tested Blake, overwhelmed by the moment; the biggest tennis event of his life!
As the first set developed and moved into the second, it now seemed obvious that a third scenario was taking place. James Blake, the 25-year old from nearby Connecticut, was taking the bull by the horns. He was not at all overwhelmed; he was ready and all fired up! Well-placed serves, penetrating groundstrokes, and all-out hustle combined with too many unforced errors by Agassi brought us to a 6-3, 6-3, 3-2 score. In favor of Blake!
If only Agassi could stay out long enough to raise his game a notch, long enough for Blake to come down a bit. "Let him play forever" is really what I was really thinking, "let him play forever!" What I knew, however, was that Agassis time was just about over. The two-time champion had never won a match at the U.S. Open after being down 2 sets. He seemed be getting more and more impatient as Blake was getting better and better. The end was near. It was the final mile of a brilliant and wonderful marathon of a career.
Then it happened! Agassi lifted his game, Blake came back to earth. It was a gradual process. The fans were screaming and yelling. More tennis they wanted, more tennis! It was as if they were saying "let him play forever." No, they also appreciated Blakes effort. They were saying "let them play forever."
Third set for Agassi, fourth set for Agassi. All tied up and entering a fifth set. I was still focused on the match and determined to stay awake. I knew midnight would be a distant memory by the time this one was over. How could I be so exhausted and yet so awake at the same time? I wasnt going anywhere! The 20,000 lucky fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium werent going anywhere! Agassi and Blake were not going anywhere! Not until this was settled. As late as it was and I tired as I was, I was well aware of what I was watching! I knew eventually the match would end, but I didnt want it to. "Let him play forever," "let them play forever!"
The fifth set evolved. Blake broke serve to go up 3-2. Agassi broke back. Back and forth, back and forth they went. Blake had a chance to serve out the match at 5-4, but couldnt. The fifth set, filled with ferocious groundstrokes, superb serves, and even better returns, was tied at 6-6. Here comes the tiebreak. How fitting. This is what we all hoped for. This was a classic with the winner still yet to be determined! I knew now, as I sat on the edge of my couch, that the end of the match was near. But as late as it was, I didnt want it to end. Neither did the crowd. Well worry about getting up for work tomorrow
. well worry about it in a few hours. "Let him play forever!" "Let them play forever!"
The momentum in the fifth set tiebreak appropriately twisted and turned from side to side, player to player. Blake took an early lead, Agassi caught up. Finally on the fourteenth point of the match, Agassi ended it all, almost three hours after it began, by ripping a service return that landed deep in Blakes court and on the sideline out of Blakes reach. The greatest returner the sports has ever seen did it once more to send everyone home.
There have been longer matches played and there have been matches played at a higher level from beginning to end, but this match on this night was special. It was Agassi trying to scale the mountain one more time and Blake reaching for new heights. It was two of Americas best tennis players battling under the stars and bright lights of New York on Americas grandest stage. The entire scene was dramatic and intense.
The night ended with both players being interviewed on court moments after match point. Agassi and Blake were both gracious and humble. Agassi stated that he was not the big winner, tennis was. Yes, tennis was the big winner but so were you Andre Agassi, so was James Blake, so were the thousands in attendance, the millions viewing on television and many others involved in getting us to the point we were at on that night.
I do not know what the future holds for these two valiant warriors. Yes, Agassi reached the final and battled Roger Federer evenly for 3 sets before succumbing to his younger, stronger, better rested opponent. Agassi is nearing the end of his career. He has been ranked as high as #1 in world and during mid-career as low as #141. He has eight grand slam titles to his name. His place in history is secure. Blake has a renewed confidence and a game that is stronger than ever. He has the chance to ride this success to a solid top ten ranking and a long career as a top tier player.
All good things come to an end as the Agassi-Blake match did last night. There will be a time when Agassi retires, Blake too! Time stops for no man, but on that early September evening for awhile I wanted it to. "Let him play forever!" "Let them play forever!" That night I wish they could.