Agassi applies willpower to resurrect challenge and keep light burning bright

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The Independent Online

Wimbledon's Centre Court has produced innumerable surges of acclaim in the space of the past 85 years, and yet another washed around it shortly before half-past four yesterday as Andre Agassi, the 25th-seeded player here, overcame Boris Pashanski, an unseeded clay-court specialist making only his fourth competitive appearance on grass 2-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.

This was of those special, sentimental Wimbledon occasions. At 36, and with eight Grand Slam titles to his name, Agassi could easily have been forgiven for choosing to watch the 120th Championships from the comfort of his couch. Not since 2003 had he set foot on the SW19 greensward in earnest, with a hip injury and a back injury putting paid to any thought of contesting the last two events.

Ongoing injury problems had prevented the man who shares the distinction of winning all four Grand Slam titles with just four other men from playing more than eight matches in the lead-up to this year's Wimbledon. And his announcement at the weekend that this would be his last appearance here and that the US Open would be his final competition made it certain that he would receive a special reception.

It is not Agassi's style to rage against the dying of the light. He merely disputes it, genially, with a resistant desire that is all the more compelling for the fact that his physical state as a player is so reduced.

The bandanna-wearing locks of 1992, when he started his career proper with a Wimbledon victory he still regards more fondly than any of his subsequent Grand Slam titles, are long gone. Even on his shorn head, silver hairs now glisten at his neck and temples.

In his big white shirt and baggy white shorts, he cuts an almost comical figure, his slender legs ending in two veritable pods of tennis shoes, his wide red racket appearing just a shade too big to be handled comfortably. While his opponent appeared like a prototype of recent years - husky, powerful and with the obligatory reversed baseball cap - Agassi just looked like a game old guy. And for just over half an hour yesterday, after he had been almightily welcomed to the court, he began to look like a guy whose time had inexorably passed, despite his stated intention to "get his teeth into" these championships.

Pashanski, a capable Serbian player who has risen from 255 to 71 in the rankings within a year, seemed a problematic enough opponent for the itinerant Las Vegan as he exposed his venerable opponent's painful lack of mobility. Agassi looked stiff and stilted as the groundstrokes swept past him, with his wife, Steffi Graf, looking on pensively from the members' seats.

"I was a bit lost out there in the first set," he said. "I think I was a bit too nervous. But then I settled in and managed to find a little bit of rhythm. It can get a lot better than there, and that's what I'm focusing on.

"The reception I got just sort of added to my nerves to be honest. To feel that kind of support meant the world to me. I wanted to do them proud.

"But I tried to do too much too early. I went from nervous to slightly embarrassed to digging in as the match went on."

After his opponent had presented him with the match with successive double-faults, Agassi was able to perform once again that curious, pigeon-toed waddle to the net before acknowledging the cascading noise around him with a wave and a bow to all points north, south, east and west.

The light is still aglow.