On Sept. 3, as he said goodbye to his fans at the U.S. Open, retiring tennis star Andre Agassi dabbed away tears. His lower lip quivered while he spoke, his voice on the verge of breaking during the minute-long farewell.
"You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could never have reached without you," he told the crowd at New York's Arthur Ashe Stadium.
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For those watching, it was one of two indelible images from the final moments of Agassi's storied 21-year career. The other image is of Agassi in pain, his agile body seizing up during his last match, his long-injured back rebelling against the demands long made upon it.
Agassi, 36, had announced his retirement six weeks before, at Wimbledon. Though many factors influenced his decision, "I can't suggest that the pain didn't play a big part," he says. "It starts with your body and moves to your mind."
Asked how long he'd been suffering from back problems, he thought for a moment before timing it to a milestone in his life: his son's birth. Five years ago.
"It was a physical issue that grew to be a real physical concern," Agassi says of the degenerative disc disease spondylolisthesis, which caused one of the vertebrae in his lower back to slip out of place. As the disease progressed, the disc began pinching his sciatic nerve, a condition called sciatica that causes low back pain that shoots down the leg. By the end of the Open, even the injections of cortisone and other anti-inflammatories that he'd been taking since March could no longer help. He lost his final match to 25-year-old Benjamin Becker, a German who'd turned pro the year before and was ranked 112.
Still, when it was over, thunderous applause filled Arthur Ashe Stadium. The crowd gave Agassi a four-minute standing ovation as he rested in a courtside chair before making his goodbyes. To Agassi, it was not a loss. He had accomplished what he set out to do: finish the match, despite the pain.
"It was such a perfect end to what I consider to be a wonderful journey," Agassi says. "My goal was to do this as long as possible, and even if I'd been in a healthy place, I would have had to make this decision eventually."
When WebMD spoke with Agassi, about a month after his final match, he had yet to begin adapting to his new life. In fact, he says, it's business as usual.
"Of course, I [no longer] have to worry about training, about physical rehabilitation. I don't have to focus in those confines. But I'm as busy now, if not busier. It's quite typical, really. After each of the last 11 Opens, I've tended to shut down a bit and try to make up for lost time," he says. "My goals and commitments are always pushing me forward. I don't think the new lifestyle has been felt yet."
One thing he doesn't feel anymore, he says, is the pain.
"Now, I'm fine. I haven't been pushing my body to its limits. Tennis -- it's a pretty ballistic sport that we play. The pain has been a function of what I've asked of my body."