Extended Service: After nine years as a pro, Goldstein?s winding down.
Extended Service: After nine years as a pro, Goldstein?s winding down. Credit: Michael Baz/Legg Mason Tennis Classic

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The Legg Mason lost its longtime lunch ticket and most frequent competitor last year when Andre Agassi retired. Agassi’s farewell, after 17 D.C. tour stops, was full of pomp and circumstance. There’s a good chance another of the event’s mainstays could call it quits after the 2007 tournament, which begins next week. But this year’s potential goodbye guy won’t be feted as grandly as Agassi was.

“Andre deserved that attention. I don’t,” says Paul Goldstein.

Counting an appearance in the Legg Mason qualifying tournament as a Sidwell Friends star, Goldstein will be playing in the Carter Barron event for the 14th time. That puts him right behind Agassi as a Legg Mason loyalist.

Goldstein, born in D.C. and reared in Rockville, was once the boy king of the local tennis courts. But he turns 31 in August, and there are rumblings on the local tennis scene that he might soon call it a career. He has been paring down his tournament schedule for the last two years. He just ended a two-month layoff, one of the longest of his career, with an appearance in this week’s Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles.

The recent sabbatical coincided with the birth of his first child. And while Goldstein isn’t ready to announce his retirement just yet, he’s not ready to sign on for another year on the tour, either. As he heads into his annual coming home soiree, Goldstein sure sounds like a guy who’s been thinking about packing up his racquets.

“For so many years, I lived out of a suitcase, either on the road for tournaments or training in Florida, pretty much all year,” Goldstein says from California, where he now lives. “I cut back a lot last year and even more this year. Now, if I’m not in a tournament, I’m at home. With a daughter, I’m committed to playing out through the end of 2007. Then, I’ll reevaluate everything.”

The 16th Street courts have always been special for Goldstein. As a kid, he cheered on the biggest names in the game, habitual No. 1 seeds such as Jimmy Connors, Andres Gomes, and, yes, Agassi, while sitting in the stadium grandstands.

In 1995, a year out of high school and playing as an amateur, Goldstein entered and won the local wild-card tournament, which was open to any amateur or pro hack and was used at the time by promoters to attract media interest in the upcoming event. The wild-card winner got a spot in the Legg Mason’s main draw and became eligible for a $1 million bonus should he beat the odds and all the touring pros to take the championship.

“I lost in the first round,” says Goldstein. “I was an amateur then and couldn’t accept money, but a million dollars would have changed my mind. But I didn’t.”

Without the fantastical payday, Goldstein happily went back to Stanford and resumed one of the best amateur tennis careers in the Open era. In 1994, he had become the first player in more than 70 years to win three straight USTA national titles, which earned him an invitation to play in the U.S. Open. Then in June 1998, as a senior captain of Stanford’s undefeated squad, he became the first player in NCAA history to play on four national championship teams.

Just months after getting his biology degree, Goldstein used the Legg Mason to make his pro debut. He won the first set, but, despite the pull of friends and family and all the fans aware of his local-hero status, Goldstein lost his first play-for-pay match to an internationally ranked out-of-towner named Sargis Sargsian.

He figured out long before jumping to the pro level that the folks up there wouldn’t be impressed with his amateur credentials. Ever since Don Budge’s days, a great amateur career in tennis has been about as small a deal in his sport as it is in golf.

Though a science student, Goldstein knew enough about history to know that folks who want to make a mark on the court either avoid college or don’t stay long. Stanford had a long line of stars, from one-year student John McEnroe on down, who had prematurely withdrawn from classes.

Goldstein, however, says that his dominance of the amateur ranks never made him consider skipping school for the pros.

“There’s this stigma attached about going to school,” he says. “It was there to some degree when I was 18, but much more so today. When I won [USTA national titles] and got into the U.S. Open main draw, I got beat bad each time. So coming out of high school there was no reason to think I could make a big impression on the tour, a guy weighing a buck-forty-five and standing 5-foot-8. Somebody in my position today would have been approached by agents, shoe companies, and the pressure to turn pro would have been much greater. But from the time I first started playing tennis, I had played at every level without ever skipping a step, and I always figured college was one of the steps for me. And, really, nothing ever came along to change that thinking. If I’d have won a round or two at the U.S. Open, maybe things would have been different. But Nike or Adidas wasn’t offering me six-figure contracts.”

As a pro, Goldstein hasn’t yet reached the heights he did as an amateur. Not even close. He has earned more than $1.5 million in prize money but has no ATP tournament wins, and his highest ATP world ranking came just last year, when he hit No. 58. He’s currently ranked 97th in the world.

Yet, even without any big wins, throughout his career, Goldstein has been the highest-ranked player on the tour with four years of college.

Goldstein’s best finish at the Legg Mason came with a quarterfinals appearance in 1999. But he’s provided the locals with plenty of highlights during his homecomings. In 2001, he topped defending champion Alex Corretja, at the time a Top 10 player, as the entire stadium—save a few Spanish expats—roared their approval. The crowd’s allegiance was torn during two Goldstein losses to Agassi on the main court.

“Paul has grown up with this event, literally,” says tournament director Jeff Newman, who has worked the event since 1995. “People always like to root for the underdog, and then you throw in that he’s a local player, and Paul is one of the most popular players we’ve ever had. He’s so easy to root for. So we’re hopeful he’ll continue to play, but there’s no doubt we’ll miss him significantly once he decides to hang ’em up.”

And, in return, the tournament has provided Goldstein with the sort of thrills only available to local products.

“For me, going to that tournament as a fan all those years, I always heard [local PA announcer and PR legend] Charlie Brotman introduce players for matches at the stadium court, all the big names,” he says. “So the first time I got to play on that court, and hearing Charlie introduce me just like I’d heard him introduce all those other players over the years—that was incredible, my welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment. And just being able to play in front of friends and family, and to get so much support from the people there, year after year, it’s been great. I’m lucky.”