The sun sets softly over Agassi and rises on Nadal

Classic Centre Court occasion as crowd's favourite American takes emotional final bow after bending the knee to a young Spaniard winning hearts and minds
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The Independent Online

The Andre Agassi Wimbledon Show reached the end of the road on Centre Court yesterday. After 14 years of competition, and a few absences, stretching back in all to 1987, it was not a case of the wheels falling off, more that the tank ran dry.

The 36-year-old Agassi was ushered towards the exit door with compassion as well as conviction by someone 16 years younger - Rafael Nadal, Spain's king of clay and pretender to the grass-court throne on which sits Roger Federer.

Nadal won in straight sets, 7-6 6-2 6-4 in two hours 14 minutes, more than half of which was taken up by a close and tense first set which went to a tiebreak. Cheered for his every winning shot by a crowd that had given him a standing ovation, Agassi led by the comfortable margin of five points to two in that tiebreak, and it was still 5-4 in his favour when he struck an easy forehand into the tramlines.

That shot turned the match, as Nadal produced one of his dazzling running forehand passes to set point and then walloped an ace. Set over, and match nearly over too, with Agassi clearly unable to move as well as he hoped and finding difficulty with the timing of his shots, having played in just four tournaments this year before Wimbledon because of his ailing back.

When Nadal rang down the curtain with his 18th ace the crowd were on their feet again to salute the sport's iconic figure. After kisses had been blown and bows made to all parts of the grand old arena, Agassi told the audience: "No question it has been a lot of incredible years here. I will never be able to repay you for how you have embraced me over the years. Thank you for having me here again. You guys are awesome tennis fans."

With that he scribbled a final few final autographs and was gone as his wife, Steffi Graf, watched impassively from the Royal Box. She had been one of the great Wimbledon women champions introduced before the start, along with Maria Bueno, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova before the officials marched on to court in those newly-introduced blue blazers and cream flannels and skirts which make you wonder where they parked the punt.

Nadal entered a few sensibly respectful paces behind Agassi under a sun so fierce that the American needed to shield his pate with a cap, and when the Spaniard netted a forehand on the opening point it was greeted by a huge cheer, establishing at once whose side the crowd were on. As if there had ever been any doubt.

There were break points for Nadal in the fourth and sixth games, bravely seen off by Agassi, who rarely threatened the Spaniard's delivery. At 5-4 Nadal had three set points, but again Agassi fought off the crisis and it seemed his bravery would pay rich dividends when he moved 5-2 up the tiebreak, only to blow the chance. At an hour and three minutes, the opening set had been longer than many of the week's women's matches.

Agassi's body language indicated he knew the chance of what would have been an unlikely victory for middle age over exuberant youth had slipped away. Even the luck was not going his way, since a dead net cord set up a break point against him, which Nadal converted with a thunderous forehand, sending the baseline chalk spurting to go a break up in the first game of the second set.

The advantage was never thereafter relinquished, though at every sign of an Agassi counter-attack they came to life, once roaring prematurely in praise of what looked like an unreachable winner which would have taken him to break point. Nadal, naturally, reached it, rescued the moment and then moved on to break once more for a 5-2 lead.

Agassi's only sign of frustration as the occasion slipped away was to sit rather pointedly in a linesman's chair as Nadal took is time at the end of changeovers. The Spaniard was warned for slowness at the French Open last month but escaped censure from the umpire, Gerry Armstrong.

After a brace of aces had wrapped up the second set, the outcome was sadly clear for Agassi. When Nadal broke for 4-3 he decided to dispense with his cap and face what lay in store bareheaded. There was not a lot more to come, with Nadal stepping up the pace and power.

Another of his mistimed shots, a backhand which floated wide, saw the American facing two match points. Nadal spared him the first with a backhand error but then thundered down the ace which closed out much more than a match. It wrote finish to an era.

Saying afterwards that his back was "good", and promptly amending that to "good enough", Agassi confirmed that once the first set had got away from him "the prospects got grimmer for me because I wasn't getting a look at too many of his service games". Confirming that he was "hoping for too much" if he was looking for progress into tomorrow's fourth round, Agassi added: "It's been a privilege to be out there again for one last time. I'll look back on this as one of my most memorable experiences. To say goodbye, for me, this means as much as winning."

Rejecting the chance to call the occasion the passing of the baton between old and new generations with the jocular excuse that "I don't really have that poetic side to me", Agassi typically paid full tribute to his conqueror. "I would have been proud to shake the hand of anybody who beat me, maybe a little bit more [Nadal] just because of how I've admired him. I've seen him grow as a player, I've admired his record, the way he's gone after Federer in all their battles. There's a lot to respect about the guy, you can only tip your hat to his game."

Plenty of people, including Nadal, were tipping their hat in Agassi's direction, too.

Well said, Andre: 'My wife has a quiet way of communicating'

SONG OF PRAISE FOR STEFFI:

"My wife has a very quiet way of communicating. She says a lot without saying much at all. They wrote a song about that, didn't they?"

GOOD BREEDING:

"I got a hundred bucks that says my baby beats Pete Sampras's baby. I just think genetics are in my favour."

DIFFERENT BALL GAME I:

"Pete's a way different cat. I think each of our worst nightmares would certainly be to wake up and be the other one."

DIFFERENT BALL GAME II:

"I would probably consider it a great success never to be like Jimmy Connors in any respect whatsoever."

TOUGH APPRENTICESHIP:

"I was never comfortable competing against John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors. They were highly unique characters, to say the least. I had to pay my dues."

FIT FOR PURPOSE:

"A strong body listens. It obeys. A weak body commands."

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

"Being number two sucks."

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT:

"It was not easy for me to drop down to 140. I had to put in a great deal of hard work at the buffet table."

BAD HAIR DAY:

"Whenever I see a picture of myself with long hair I want to burn it."

SLICK RESPONSE:

"I feel old when I see mousse in my opponent's hair."

ROGER AND OUT:

"That makes one of us." (His reply to Federer's remark: "I hope we get to play another great match like that," after the Swiss had beaten him in last year's US Open final)

HARSH ADVICE:

"My feelings are Yevgeny Kafelnikov should take his prize money and go and buy some perspective."

THE FINAL WORD:

"What are we going to do for quotes when you're gone?" (Independent on Sunday tennis correspondent Ronald Atkin voices the view of the media corps at a Wimbledon press conference last week)

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