After slogging through his least productive stretch of tennis in seven years, Andre Agassi has informed Wimbledon officials that he is pulling out of the prestigious tournament, citing a hip injury that he says has bothered him for months.
Calling his decision "regrettable," the 34-year-old Agassi notified the tournament referee's office of his withdrawal in a letter received yesterday morning.
The development comes just six days before play at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club begins, and it is sure to fuel speculation that Agassi's once brilliant career is coming to an end. But Agassi moved to squelch such chatter by closing his letter, which was reprinted on Wimbledon's official Web site, with the sentiment, "My hope and plans are to see you next year."
Agassi joins a growing list of high-profile players who have withdrawn from Wimbledon because of injuries: The Nos. 1 and 2 women, Belgians Justine Henin-Hardenne (viral illness) and Kim Clijsters (wrist); Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten (hip); and French Open champion Gaston Gaudio (foot). But Agassi, Wimbledon's 1992 champion and a finalist in 1999, is the most accomplished among them and the most beloved among British fans.
"Obviously, it's a huge blow to him and to us -- just to have been able to watch him give it one more shot at Wimbledon," said ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe, a former touring pro and current U.S. Davis Cup captain.
McEnroe theorized that Agassi's decision was based on several factors: the hip ailment; an unwillingness to entertain speculation about his waning career; and, above all, a desire to be as fit as possible for the U.S. Open, which he won in 1994 and 1999.
"I think he's kind of trying to regroup and say, 'The summer season is where I play my best, and let me see if I can get myself in position to have one more good U.S. Open,' " McEnroe said during a conference call.
The U.S. Open gets underway Aug. 30. Two weeks earlier, Agassi is scheduled to compete in Washington's Legg Mason Tennis Classic. Tournament director Jeff Newman said yesterday he hadn't heard anything to indicate that Agassi wouldn't compete in Washington.
Agassi has amassed 58 tournament titles in an 18-year pro career and is one of only five players to have won all four majors (Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) that make up a Grand Slam. He is equally hailed for his resilience and resolve, clawing his way back to No. 1 after sinking as low as No. 141 in 1997. Early last year he became the oldest player to hold the No. 1 ranking, at 33 years 13 days.
But the last four weeks have been particularly humbling for the eight-time Grand Slam champion. In mid-May he lost in the first round at St. Poelten (Austria) to a Serbian qualifier ranked 339th in the world.
Then came the French Open, where he was bounced in the first round by a qualifier ranked 277th. Agassi moved poorly on court and seemed bewildered by his body's betrayal. Asked afterward if he expected to return in 2005, he said: "Hard to say. I mean, I want to come back, but you just don't know. . . . It's a year away. That's a long time for me right now. The chances get less every year, that's for sure."
Few expected Agassi to be a threat at Wimbledon given his recent struggles, but expectations sank even lower when he lost his third consecutive first-round match at Queen's last week, to 60th-ranked Igor Andreev. He was later fined $1,000 for skipping the post-match news conference. It was the first time since August 1997 that Agassi had suffered three consecutive defeats.