Washington tennis fans have seen Andre Agassi evolve from a long-haired teen to a neatly shorn father of two, from baggy denim shorts to classic whites, from image-obsessed rebel to the sport's senior statesman. Next week, they may be seeing Agassi in their city for the last time.
Every August since 1990, as surely as Washingtonians will swelter in the heat and the Redskins head to training camp amid high hopes, Agassi has lugged his racket bags to town for the Legg Mason Classic. This year's appearance marks his 16th consecutive and 17th overall.
Tennis insiders can't recall a streak like it outside of Grand Slam events. It's a testament to Agassi's loyalty, as well as cause for wondering who will fill his role as the top draw at Washington's hard-court classic after the 35-year-old champion retires.
"I don't know if there has ever been anyone that has had the pull at the gate and on television in tennis as Agassi has had," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who is also a commentator for ESPN. "He has moved the needle in terms of TV ratings more than anyone, and I would include [Pete] Sampras in that."
Agassi's not talking about retirement just yet. He intends to keep playing, he has said repeatedly, until he can't compete effectively anymore.
Images of his last major tournament appearance were painful to watch, as Agassi limped through the final two sets of his first-round loss at the French Open in May, hobbled by an inflamed sciatic nerve in his lower back. Still, he rolls into Washington for next week's Legg Mason on the heels of an impressive showing in Los Angeles, where he has advanced to the semifinals of the Mercedes-Benz Cup after a two-month hiatus to recover from his flare-up in Paris.
"I hear a lot of commentators who don't follow tennis that closely saying, 'Agassi is washed up and is done,' " McEnroe said. "The reality is he's still sixth in the world [despite] playing a relatively limited schedule. The last time I checked, the rankings don't lie."
Agassi headlines one of the Legg Mason's stronger fields in memory. With five Legg Mason titles to his credit (his last coming in 1999), he is joined by past champions Andy Roddick (2001), Tim Henman (2003) and James Blake (2002).
Roddick, 22, will be playing in his second tournament since Wimbledon, where he lost in the final to Roger Federer for a second consecutive year. He took a few weeks off to unwind on his boat then wore out the paparazzi's flashbulbs by squiring around Russian sensation Maria Sharapova at the ESPY Awards earlier this month. Roddick's return to tennis at Indianapolis was less sensational, ending with a loss to American Robby Ginepri. Citing a sore right knee, he withdrew from his next tournament, in Los Angeles.
Others in the Legg Mason draw: 1998 U.S. Open finalist Mark Philippoussis, granted a wild card, and Rockville's Paul Goldstein, who is surging up the rankings. This year's tournament also includes a USTA Pro Series women's event, featuring rising players seeking a place on the top women's tour.
Agassi has cycled through so many triumphs, setbacks and comebacks in a 19-year pro career it's hard to keep track. But his latest injury lingered longer than he'd hoped and required a cortisone injection (he limits himself to three or four a year). When he's pain-free and hitting without constraint, no one strikes the ball more cleanly.
"It's phenomenal that a human being can time it that well, to be so precise and hit a small ball so hard, so far away, and have it hit a line so often," gushes Steve Bellamy, president of the Tennis Channel, which will cover the last three days of the tournament. "I don't think there are five people in the history of sports that have been so precise with their athleticism."
Agassi's gift for striking the ball and his drive to claw back to the top after plummeting to a career-low 141st ranking in 1997 have placed him in rare company. He's one of just five players to have won all four Grand Slam titles.
While age has exacted a toll on his speed and power, Agassi is a more shrewd player than ever. And, by all accounts, he is a more mature man, driven by his charitable work on behalf of at-risk children in his hometown of Las Vegas and a desire to do what he can to help tennis become a stronger, more popular sport.
He has consistently done his part in Washington, says Legg Mason tournament chairman and co-founder Donald Dell.
"Andre came here in 1987 as a young, long-haired teenager who was kind of a 'walk-on-the-wild-side,' " Dell recalls. "He had a great flair for the game and was very popular. One year we had Agassi and Sampras in our tournament together, and the calls coming in for tickets asking about who was scheduled to play when were honestly about 10-to-1 in favor of Agassi over Sampras. It was staggering to us."
Adds tournament director Jeff Newman: "When Andre plays, it's a different night out there, for sure. He just has that aura about him -- the personality, the ability to really get fans to be more on the edge of their seats than other players."
That said, Newman is confident Washington tennis fans will continue to support the tournament long after Agassi retires. "Roddick has been someone that we're hoping could take the reins and be here for many years to come," Newman added. "But no one player really makes this tournament."