The symbolism was stark. As Andy Roddick left Centre Court here yesterday, crushed 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 by Feliciano Lopez, the 28-year-old American handed his racket to a young boy. Time marches on and, with each passing year Roddick's chances of realising his lifelong aim are receding as quickly as his hairline.
"If I had Wimbledon, I'd have everything I want," Roddick told an interviewer last year. He has come desperately close to climbing the mountain – never closer than two years ago, when he lost to Roger Federer in the final for the third time, losing 16-14 in an unforgettable last set – but this was further evidence that he has trouble getting beyond base camp these days.
One of Wimbledon's great favourites of the last decade admitted after this latest disappointment that the thought that he might not win the title here did sometimes cross his mind. "You're human, of course it does," he said. Nevertheless, it was good to see that the American had not lost his sense of humour. "You may never get your favourite job either," he told his questioner. "No offence to your current employer."
Roddick has now made an early exit on three of his last four appearances here. He admits that he "completely choked" against Janko Tipsarevic in the second round three years ago and gave away "a million opportunities" when losing to Yen-Hsun Lu in the fourth round last year.
The world No 10 did not think he played badly this time and gave Lopez credit for playing "an outstanding match", but the 29-year-old Spaniard, for all his excellence on grass, is not the sort of opponent you should lose to if you have ambitions of winning Grand Slam titles. Lopez had lost his last 11 matches against top 10 opponents and has had only moderate success this year.
Roddick, meanwhile, had won all seven of his previous matches against the world No 44, dropping just three sets in the process, and had beaten him on their most recent meeting a fortnight ago at Queen's Club in their first encounter on grass.
Lopez, however, can be a difficult opponent on this surface. He hits big forehands, volleys well and has a huge and – on this occasion at least – reliable left-handed serve. Like Roddick, he has won more matches here – he has twice reached the quarter-finals – than at any other Grand Slam tournament.
Nevertheless, Roddick normally has little trouble against left-handers: the former world No 1 had lost only six of his previous 45 meetings with lefties, though it was perhaps an omen that five of those defeats had been against Rafael Nadal and one against Fernando Verdasco, both Spaniards.
With two explosive servers on view – Roddick hit 23 aces and served up to 143mph while Lopez hit 26 with a top speed of 135mph – it was inevitable that breaks would be at a premium.
Lopez drew first blood in the ninth game before Roddick replied in kind, but the Spaniard played much the better tie-break, dropping only two points.
Roddick regrouped and there were no breaks of serve in the second set, though Lopez had a chance to win it when the American served at 5-6 and 30-40. As Roddick came forward behind a less than convincing approach, the Spaniard's attempted cross-court pass hit the top of the net.
Nevertheless, a template had been created. Lopez won the ensuing tie-break 7-2, making both his mini-breaks of serve with searing passing shots as Roddick again charged recklessly into the net. At 1-1 in the third set, Lopez broke serve as the pattern was repeated once again, with a helpless Roddick watching as another forehand thunderbolt flashed past him.
When Lopez hit only his second double fault on the first point at 5-4, you wondered whether his nerve might be about to crack, but the Spaniard followed up with three successive unreturned serves to create two match points. An attempted forehand pass down the line ended up in the net on the first, but on the second his deep approach forced Roddick into a backhand error.
"He served about as well as anyone has," Roddick said. "The stuff that's enabled me to beat him seven times – making passing shots under duress, making him play defence on his forehand – he did well today. He mixed up his serve."
The American refused to read too much into his defeat. "I probably played like shit in third rounds and won before," he said. "There's no script. Some days you're going to play well and lose and some days you're going to play like crap and win."
Lopez now plays the winner of yesterday's later meeting between Gaël Monfils and Lukasz Kubot, while he could be facing Roddick again in a fortnight when Spain travel to the American's home city of Austin, Texas, for a Davis Cup World Group quarter-final.
Roddick, who described his year so far as "average", said it was hard to think about that tie now but, when pressed about his longer-term future, said: "What do you do? You keep moving forward until you decide to stop. At this point, I've not decided to stop so I'll keep moving forward."
As for the racket he gave away on his exit from Centre Court, Roddick said: "I figured it was just going to go to waste. I figured a seven-year-old boy would probably get more use out of it."