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Closing time (cont'd)

Posted: Saturday July 1, 2006 9:05PM; Updated: Monday July 3, 2006 5:33PM
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Rafael Nadal, known for his clay-court mastery, is showing he can play on grass, too.
Rafael Nadal, known for his clay-court mastery, is showing he can play on grass, too.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

"I need to move a lot better to compete with that," Agassi said. He was walking slow, up a flight of stairs, then down another dim hall, effort obvious in each step. A man stopped him, held up a ball to sign. "From my match?" Agassi said, and his mouth twisted but he signed, and then someone else held up a ball and he signed that, too. One of the men walked off, but Agassi called out and trotted over to give back the pen. Then he said something about Nadal and the match, and maybe about playing tennis for a living anymore. "It's too hard to live on the edge, with every point," Agassi said.

Strange. Agassi never quite fit in at Wimbledon; he was always the second American behind Pete Sampras. But with Jim Courier and Michael Chang and Sampras gone, he's the last of his generation to play the All England Club, and there's not much coming to fill his place. On Saturday, a few of Agassi's heirs, fellow former No. 1's Andy Roddick and Venus Williams, also lost, leaving the U.S. with only one player, 62nd-ranked woman Shenay Perry, in the Wimbledon Round of 16. No one alive has ever seen a worse U.S. performance at the sport's showcase event.

If this is to be the twilight, then, of American tennis, it's ironic that Agassi would be the one turning out the lights. Dismissive of its traditions in clothing and attitude, he skipped three Wimbledons from 1988 to '90, shortchanging himself and the game. But that punk is dead, and has been for a while, and on Saturday nobody was more eloquent about what it means to play here.

"This was a place that first taught me to respect the sport, to really appreciate the opportunity and privilege it is to play a game for a living, to play tennis," Agassi said in his post-match press conference. "People work five days a week to play on the weekend. We get to call it a job. I think I learned that here. Missing it for a few years, coming back, being embraced, seeing the respect for tennis and the respect for the competitors, the appreciation for it: They're here, come rain or shine. Through the years I've seen them sit through some tough conditions just to see a few minutes of play. Whether they're queuing up on the outside or sitting with their umbrellas in Centre Court, it's quite a love for the sport. That's what separates this from every other event."

Even the scoreboard on Centre Court is a unique instrument. Above the match score are two digital clocks, one measuring real time and one the length of each match, and when the minutes pass the numbers, instead of clicking, appear to vibrate into the next succeeding number. At 3:46 p.m., with the score 40-30, Nadal blasted a 110 mph serve past Agassi. For a split-second only Nadal knew what happened: He turned to his box to celebrate, leaping high in total silence. Then Agassi bowed his head and began moving toward the net, and the crowd understood. It was over. They began to applaud, began to stand and cheer and the noise slowly rose out of shock and sadness and leveled into love. The match clock read 2:14.

The standing ovation lasted about a minute, and then Agassi answered it by walking to the middle of the grass, green and patchy brown, and blowing kisses, four of them, to each side of the court. The real clock shivered to 3:47 p.m. Then came an on-court interview, Nadal's answers and Agassi's answers piped into loudspeakers, and some laughing and more applause. At 3:51, Agassi walked off first, stopping to sign autographs. At 3:52, he stepped off the court for the last time. The time on his 59th Wimbledon match, the last one, remained at 2:14, and always will; the beauty of the matches that they never get old. The other clock kept going, of course. For Agassi, it's the only one that matters now.