Posted: Saturday July 1, 2006 9:05PM; Updated: Monday July 3, 2006 5:33PM
Andre Agassi received about a minute-long ovation from the classy crowd at Wimbledon.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
WIMBLEDON, England -- It's easy to dismiss the grass of Wimbledon as an anachronism, but in a sense it reveals the essence of tennis, of sports -- of life, really -- better than anything in the game. The clay courts of Paris are crushed brick, the hard courts of Melbourne and New York cold concrete. But Wimbledon's courts are literally alive, an organism growing and dying before your eyes. Seeds to sprouts, sprouts to blades, blades rising until the mower comes: This is the tour. Each generation has its time in the sun, each gets cut down, and each new one begins its green moment thinking of little beyond today.
"Especially the way I was as a kid, I never would've guessed I'd play very long," Andre Agassi said late Saturday, walking a dim hallway at the All England Club. "I was like, 'Win a few tournaments, then do something else.' But then you grow up and start seeing the world through different eyes and the next thing you know 21 years goes by...." He passed a cluster of men with their hands extended; one congratulated him and another blessed him and another thanked him again and again. Agassi took their hands, still moving, and then finished the thought. "... And I'm still trying."
Not for long. On Saturday, Agassi began his long goodbye. A week after announcing his plan to retire after the 2006 U.S. Open, the 36-year-old son of a boxer and winner of eight Grand Slam titles played his final match at Wimbledon, a 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 loss to Spaniard Rafael Nadal that offered little drama but plenty of symbolism. Cracking winners, pumping his fist, playing with an authority few expected him to wield on this surface, the 20-year-old clay-court master rolled the 1992 Wimbledon champ with punishing efficiency on Centre Court, announcing in the process that he's a force to be reckoned with, on grass, now.
It was a classic collision between old and new greats, the same dynamic Agassi once saw from the other side -- as a teenager in the 1980s taking on John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, head uncluttered by history or children or worries about his own decline.
"The first time I played Connors, I couldn't believe he hit every ball into my strike zone," Agassi said of their match at the 1988 U.S. Open when he, just like Nadal, won in straight sets. "He hit this perfect shot where I went, 'I like that.' I felt like I owned the situation. I was too naive to understand it."
There were only a few moments Saturday when Nadal didn't own it. The first came in warmups.
"I thought I was going to lose easy," said Nadal, who was two months old when Agassi made his Grand Slam debut at the 1986 U.S. Open. "Agassi was touching the ball unbelievable, very low, very tough. I can't return the ball."
The next time came late in the first set, the English crowd urging the old man on. Agassi would be limping after the match ended, but now, receiving at five-all, he threw up this falling backhand pass, one of those unlikely screamers from out of his prime, from behind the baseline, and the crowd bellowed its surprise.
Then, a point later, Agassi won a rally with a deep forehand that dropped like a stone into the ad-court pocket, the pock! of it making a sound unlike any you heard all match. Nadal won the next three points to take the game. Agassi again took control in the tiebreak, sailing to a 5-2 lead, but Nadal was having none of it: There's something impregnable about his psyche, no matter the surface; Nadal doesn't concede a point, ever, and he's so fast, so adept at converting defense to offense, that a player like Agassi, playing only his fourth match in nearly four months, isn't equipped to hold him off. Nadal won the next five points to take the first set.