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October 24, 2014

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Agassi looking forward to being in front of local tennis fans

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Elise Amendola/The Associated Press

Tennis great Andre Agassi holds his plaque as he is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., on Saturday, July 9, 2011.

Andre Agassi will have a short commute to work this week.

Agassi’s hall-of-fame tennis career took him across the globe, an adventure that included long flights, sleeping in unfamiliar hotel rooms and living out of a suitcase. But come Saturday, the Las Vegas resident will be at the Thomas & Mack Center for his next match.

Agassi, who retired from competition after the 2006 U.S. Open and this summer was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, is playing in his hometown as part of the 12-city “The Champions Series” tennis tour.

The Las Vegas stop, which will start at 7:30 p.m., is one night of play and will feature Agassi, Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and Michael Chang.

“Driving from my house to (a match) will definitely have a different feel,” Agassi said. “This is home. Playing here is something I’m definitely looking forward to.”

The event starts with a one-set semifinal match, which will be followed by the semifinal winners playing in an eight-game pro-set championship match. The month-long series ends Oct. 22, with the top three competitors sharing $1 million in prize money. Jim Courier, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander are also part of the series.

For the 41-year-old Agassi, the chance to play in front of friends in his hometown, with its small but loyal tennis community, makes this no ordinary match.

He last played in Las Vegas in 1997 at the Las Vegas/USTA Men’s Challenger tennis tournament at UNLV during the lowest point of his career. Agassi’s greatness is defined by eight grand slam titles, but in the ’97 season he played in just 24 matches while battling a wrist injury and saw his ranking drop to No. 141.

His struggles, however, were brief. Agassi’s career included 60 tournament titles, an Olympic gold medal and an 870-274 career record. Along the way, he became one of tennis’ biggest draws, especially when he faced rival and good friend Pete Sampras.

“His tennis speaks for itself in what he has done and accomplished,” Sampras said. “He always let people inside his head to see what his is feeling and what type of person he was. It wasn’t a mystery.

“He was always very gracious in victory and defense. He just brought so much excitement to the game.”

Being reunited on the series is something the players don’t take lightly. While the level of competition clearly won’t resemble those matches of yesteryear — Agassi has a bad hip and Sampras’ back troubles have long been a hindrance — the players say it’s still high-quality tennis and intense competition.

“We’ve slowed down a bit in getting from Point A to Point B, but we still hit the ball pretty clean and are going out there to compete,” Sampras said. “Certainly, the people will enjoy it.”

Chang, who used to live in Henderson and still fishes at Lake Mead, takes pride in being part of one of greatest eras of tennis. It’s a time when the popularity of the sport was at its peak.

That’s something the players have been reminded of during the series. The interest from fans in spending one night reliving past greatness has been humbling for the players.

“It’s not like we are in the finals of a grand slam, but we are having a lot of fun and hitting some great shots,” Chang said. “I’m working and prepared to play some great tennis.”

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