There was a victory for the old 'uns on Wimbledon's Centre Court yesterday when the 33-year-old Andre Agassi, the oldest man in the tournament, defeated Younes El Aynaoui, aged 31, 5-7 6-4 7-6 7-6 to move into the last 16. The two senior citizens of the men's singles survivors toiled just under three and a quarter hours in the hot sunshine before the Moroccan wilted as the indefatigable Agassi raised the pace, and the stakes, another notch in the second tie-break of the match.
It was once more an incredible showing from the world No 1 and second seed, especially since he was some way below his best, particularly in the early stages. Perhaps he was thinking about last January's Australian Open, when El Aynaoui played a 21-19 fifth set in a five-hour quarter-final with Andy Roddick, and decided he might need to pace himself against such a marathon man. Tomorrow, Agassi will face the unseeded Australian, Mark Philippoussis, who beat the Czech, Radek Stepanek, in four sets. Agassi has lost only once to Philippoussis in seven meetings and beat him in three sets at Wimbledon 2000.
The 1992 champion, attempting to establish a record for The Championships by winning a second title 11 years after his first, will be happy to tuck this victory away as an occasion which could have gone horribly wrong for him. El Aynaoui served very well, sometimes brilliantly, and Agassi was forced to do something he rarely opts for, to come in and volley. "I don't know what got into me there," he grinned. "I probably won't do that again until about 2010." However, there was one horrible moment, late in the fourth set, when it seemed certain Agassi's stamina would be tested to the limit in a fifth set. Trailing 5-6, Agassi fell love-40 behind on a ball which El Aynaoui bent around the net post and which failed to bounce. Three set points to the Moroccan. Agassi saved them all, one with an ace, his 12th of the match.
So, instead, Agassi was offered the chance to win another tiebreak, and with it a place in the fourth round. After El Aynaoui had opened the tie-break with his 19th ace the momentum shifted to the other side of the court and when the tiring Moroccan dumped a forehand into the net, he smashed his racket on the ground, escaping official censure.
The error left Agassi needing to win two serves for the match and he did it conclusively with a service winner and then a forehand into the vast area of court the exhausted Moroccan had left him.
The two men embraced long at the end and Agassi said, "I told him it is always a joy playing against him. He is a great professional and a better person. He has always been a class act and it is always a privilege to be out on the court with him." With his wife Steffi Graf watching from the members' box, Agassi settled for alertness on the baseline, abetted by counter- punching tactics. As early as the fourth game of the opening set he had two break points but both escaped him and he was duly punished.
Agassi's range-finder was off and with the energetic El Aynaoui, a latter-day Yannick Noah, bounding around, there was an opening for him to go 4-3 up. Agassi averted this particular crisis but had no answer when he was broken in the 11th game. He had something to say about it afterwards, though, having lost his serve on an overrule by the Portuguese umpire Javier Moreno. "Umpires make as many mistakes as the players out there," he observed tartly.
Having served out safely to go one set up in 45 minutes, El Aynaoui strained sinew and muscle to build on that advantage, but he was up against the best returner in the business, someone John McEnroe considers the best returner in the history of the game. But Agassi was certainly at full stretch, as could be witnessed by the odd noise he started emitting on every stroke, like an old hinge in need of oiling.
Steadily he took the game over, but every time he raised his game El Aynaoui lifted his serve another notch. But he could not deny Agassi a break to love in the tenth game which wrapped up the second set and levelled the match.
A jubilant Agassi kicked off the third set with three consecutive aces, but the danger he faced was demonstrated in his next service game when the Moroccan held, but missed, two break points. With neither man weakening on serve after that, it went to a tiebreak in which it was El Aynaoui's turn to lose his temper with the umpire, criticising him in Spanish when Moreno overruled to call one of his forehands out. From that point Agassi surged into a 4-1 lead and closed it out by seven points to four.
Then came the dramas of the third set. But in the end, the sun shone firmly on the pate of the former champion and it was all too apparent this was a match he was glad to have escaped from intact. "Sometimes you have a day when you have to find a way to pick it up," he said. "Today was a good example of that for me. It was a day when I couldn't afford to be the slightest bit off. And I get the hunch that's going to apply for the rest of the tournament."
Ever gracious these days, Agassi blew kisses and bowed to all corners of the stadium, as is his wont, and then paid tribute to the Centre Court crowd, calling them "really uplifting." He knows he may need their backing again soon.
The last 16
M Mirnyi (Bela) v J Bjorkman (Swe)
12 P Srichipan (Thai) v 5 A Roddick (US)
4 R Federer (Swit) v F Lopez (Sp)
9 R Schüttler (Ger) v S Schalken (Hol)
6 D Nalbandian (Arg) v 10 T Henman (GB)
13 S Grosjean (Fr) v 3 J-C Ferrero (Sp)
O Rochus (Bel) v A Popp (Ger)
M Philippoussis (Aus) v 2 A Agassi (US)
1 S Williams (US) v 15 E Dementieva (Rus)
10 A Myskina (Rus) v 8 J Capriati (US)
3 J Henin (Bel) v M Pierce (Fr)
M Sharapova (Rus) v 33 S Kuznetsova (Rus)
5 L Davenport (US) v S Asagoe (Japan)
16 V Zvonareva (Rus) v 4 V Williams (US)
27 S Farina-Elia (It) v P Suarez (Arg)
13 A Sugiyama (Japan) v 2 K Clijsters