2 July 2006

When it was over, he walked back into the sunshine to blow kisses and bow to all four corners of the Centre Court, and to let the applause and the love cascade all over him. We would not see Andre Agassi like this again. But this last occasion had given us one final jewel for the memory bank.

It had only been a real contest for the first hour, and for much of that he had been hanging on by his fingernails. But for the whole of that opening set we and he never quite lost our sense of belief. At the other side of the net Rafael Nadal was an awesome sight, with two inches in height, 11lbs in muscle, not to mention those 16 years of youth, to his advantage.

People talk of Nadal as a matador. Forget it; he’s the bull, but one with a speed, power and cleverness that few matadors will ever conquer. Agassi had the same weapons as of old; the lighting returns, that extraordinary close-court forehand and that relentless ringcraft from the baseline. In our hearts we knew they were unlikely to last for a whole match, so there was an extraordinary sense of yearning in the crowd and a crash of relief as well as joy in the moment when the magic returned to his racket.

As ever nowadays he was an immaculate little white-capped figure a world away from the Las Vegas chancer we were so unsure of back in 1992. He was struggling to hold his serve, but his movement was infinitely better than the sad, embattled figure who had so often looked like an old, wounded pigeon as he shuffled up the baseline in that opening match against Boris Pashanski.

Nadal was getting break points but was unable to convert them. He began to lose his certainty, and as the tie-break started it seemed as if he might even lose it. Suddenly, the dream lived on. Only last September Agassi had got through three five-setters to reach the US Open final and Roger Federer. The force that made this man change our whole perception of tennis was back. He even had a chance to clinch it. The Centre Court was wrapped so tight in the drama that you felt the sides would burst as the applause headed skywards.

But it was not to be. And once into that second set, the theatre of tennis slid back into a mood of sympathy. He could stretch Nadal but he could not beat him. Before Agassi embarked on this last Wimbledon adventure his huge brown eyes had looked very direct as he said: “All I want is to be in a position to make people have to really work to beat me.” Nadal was now having to work for one of the most historic pieces of grass-court education ever seen.

There had been moments when you feared that the young Spaniard might blow away Agassi almost as brutally as Jimmy Connors did to Ken Rosewall in that final all those years ago. But, although the second set was a one-sided 6-2, the wheels never looked like coming off the unique machine that Agassi has built down the years. He had come one last time to the Centre Court and he would go out with his honour intact.

Steffi Graf looked down lovingly from the Royal Box as Agassi spoke into the microphone. “I can never repay,” her husband said, “the way in which you have embraced me over the years. I came here not knowing what to expect from myself but I always knew the sort of welcome I would get.

“Saying goodbye,” he closed with those serene tones choking and the eyes reddening with tears, “this has meant as much as winning to me.”

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