ANDRE Agassi was tearful after his emotional farewell to Wimbledon today.
Minutes after waving a last goodbye to the Centre Court crowd, the former champion, who retires after the US Open, was in reflective mood.
Sitting in the press interview room, he talked about what he would miss most about SW19. “The people. All my friends, all the relationships I’ve developed here, the familiar faces, the love they have for the sport. It’s that one ball kid that looked at you a certain way – people working here,” he said in a soft voice.
“It’s been a privilege to be out there again for one last time. I’ll look back at this as one of my most memorable experiences. This means as much as winning…saying goodbye.”
It was also a privilege to sit on court for Agassi’s last match here, almost 20 years after he made his Wimbledon debut. Spanish No 2 seed Rafael Nadal won in straight sets on a sun-drenched afternoon. But he knew the script. “Is not my day for have a good celebration,” he said afterwards in his broken English. “Is his day. He’s a legend player. He has unbelievable career, no?”
Centre Court on Middle Saturday was a fitting stage for a legend’s final bow. It felt like a special occasion from the start, beginning with the presentation of engraved crystal bowls to five former ladies’ singles champions: Maria Bueno, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Agassi’s wife Steffi Graf.
She watched her husband’s last two hours and 14 minutes on the court he loves from a seat in the royal box, alongside Olympians Steve Redgrave, Jonathan Edwards and Dame Kelly Holmes. They were among the 13,798 fans who gave the bald guy a standing ovation as he stepped out on to the grass.
Also in the posh seats were the likes of Bruce Forsyth, Rolf Harris, Michael Parkinson, Alan Titchmarsh, Des Lynam and Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit Oscar creator Nick Park.
In his knee-length shorts, Nadal, 20, always looks like he’s got the wrong trousers. At 36, Agassi’s choice of attire was a little more old fashioned. One of only five men to win all four grand slam titles, he walked around like an ageing gunslinger who knew his time was almost up.
If it was searingly hot in the stands, it must have been like a furnace either side of the net. At the change of ends, both players were shaded by umbrellas, held by ball boys and girls.
Returning to his place in the sun, Agassi could still hit shots which made the crowd gasp in surprise. But, more often than not, Nadal was good enough to get them back. Increasingly forced into errors, the man from Las Vegas let out a cry of despair when he sent a third set forehand wildly long.
As Nadal served for the match, his opponent waited to receive and looked around one last time. When the end came, he embraced the Spaniard, shook the umpire’s hand and made his way back to the centre of the court.
We’ve seen him do it many times before, but this was the final set of kisses and bows to all four sides of Centre Court. “I’ll never be able to repay you for how you’ve embraced me over the years,” he told the crowd in a tradition breaking mid-Championships on court interview with Sue Barker. ”Thanks for having me out here again.”
There was one last turn and wave, a handful of autographs to sign and then he was gone. It was an emotional moment both on and off court.
Did he shed a tear, we asked him later at his final press conference here. “Yeah, I have – I have on more than this occasion.” Nadal said the tears had begun as Andre made his way back to the locker room.
Agassi, his eyes still moist, spoke for almost half an hour. At the end, he was given another standing ovation, this time by the journalists in the room. He also left with one last Wimbledon trophy – an engraved glass jug from the SW19 tennis writers.
The inscription said it all: “Thanks for the memories.”