Agassi bows out on tide of affection

Andre Agassi has never exactly been a behemoth of the courts. But as he made what turned out to be his last appearance at Wimbledon - 19 years after his first venture on to the SW19 greensward - he looked an even slighter figure than usual in comparison to the strapping young opponent who prowled the baseline opposite him, Rafael Nadal.

Back in the All England Championships after two years of enforced absence through injury, the 36-year-old Las Vegan had announced that this would be his last roll of the dice in an arena where he earned the first of his eight grand slam titles in 1992.

Thus the garlands of praise were already prepared as he took to the court for a third-round match against the young Spaniard who has already earned two French titles, breaking the record for unbeaten matches on clay en route. And after his 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 third round defeat by a 19-year-old who looks like the only player capable of seriously concerning the defending champion Roger Federer during this fortnight, Agassi earned a distinction usually reserved for Wimbledon finalists - a court-side interview with the BBC's Sue Barker.

Through that means, this eloquent ambassador for his sport was able to express his gratitude to a crowd whose outpouring of affection towards him had been consistent. "I'll never be able to repay you for how you have embraced me over the years," he said, his face working to contain his emotion. "To say goodbye like this means as much as winning."

Like Dick Diver in Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night, so very nearly reviving his crowd-pleasing water-skiing stunt, this American hero came within touching distance of his old panache as he arrowed the ball away on angles not even the super-stretching Spaniard could cover.

With Agassi 5-2 up in the first set tie-break, a sweltering Centre Court crowd was beginning to sense an epic match in the making.

Although Nadal reduced the gap to 5-4 through two service points, the former champion had the chance to close the set on his own serve, and manoeuvred his opponent to the point where he needed only to guide away one of his trademark running forehands. He directed the ball an inch to the wrong side of the tramline.

Next point, Nadal summoned another of his stupendous cross-court passes from the back of the court, unfeasible, unanswerable, and the match had tipped, irrevocably. The ace with which the young Spaniard secured the set was the coup de grâce.

"Once that first set was gone, the prospects got grimmer for me," Agassi reflected afterwards. "I wasn't getting a look at too many of his service games."

The statistics confirmed his perception. The man who has made his name with outrageous service returns never even managed to get to deuce on the newcomer's serve.

"You never know when to come in because you're never sure when you're in position to," Agassi added. "You hit a good shot and you think 'I should be coming in', but you know he's going to be there so you hesitate for that split second and you're glad you didn't come in because he was there in plenty of time. His movement is out of this world."

Agassi's obvious admiration for the Spaniard, however, stopped short of a prediction that he would take the Wimbledon title. "You leave a lot for a champion's heart and mind, and Rafa can certainly be here with high expectations," he said.

Nadal, who showed real grace in keeping his victory celebrations muted on what he acknowledged was not his day, can afford to give his expectations some altitude given that his next opponent is the 166th-ranked Irakli Labadze of Georgia.

As for Agassi, who shares with Don Budge, Fred Perry, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson the distinction of having won all four grand slam titles, he is now one grand slam away from retirement - at Flushing Meadow.

His day ended with a characteristic burst of levity. Presented with a crystal decanter by the tennis writers' association, he remarked: "Somebody told me I was going to have a new trophy after Wimbledon." It may not have been the one he had been dreaming of. But he didn't remotely need that anyway.