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Lawn Tennis: CHANGE IN THE HEIR; Tearful Agassi passes baton on to Nadal.

Byline: George CHEYNE

TENNIS legend Andre Agassi brought the curtain down on his Wimbledon career with a tear in his eye and hope in his heart.

Agassi waved an emotional farewell to Centre Court as he succumbed 7-6 6-2 6-4 to Rafael Nadal.

And it was somehow fitting that the 36-year-old's final game came against the swashbuckling young Spaniard.

If Agassi is the hero of the past then 20-year-old Nadal is the hero of the future.

And as the two players hugged each other at the end of their thrilling battle you sensed Agassi has handed the baton over to his young opponent.

It's a baton Nadal will find heavy to carry. Twenty years of hard graft, 20 years of sublime skill, 20 years of adulation ... 20 years of wonderful memories.

And Agassi has loved every minute of it - just as the Wimbledon crowd has loved every minute of him.

He was magnanimous in defeat as he walked out into the middle of Centre Court to take a final bow, blowing kisses to every corner of the ground.

Agassi - whose wife Steffi Graf watched from the royal box - was choking with emotion as he thanked the crowd for their support.

He said: "This has been incredible. It's a dream and privilege for any tennis player to be here. The fans have shown me so much love and have always been there for me."

Unfortunately they couldn't do anything to help their hero make it into the fourth round.

Agassi struggled to find a chink in Nadal's fearsome armoury during the two hours 14 minutes they were on court.

There were no cheap points to be had anywhere.

And that's why the American will regret not taking the one genuine chance he had during the first set tie-break.

He was leading 5-3 and facing Nadal's serve when the Spaniard slipped and fell. But Agassi's return found the net when anywhere on the other side would have put him 6-3 up and serving.

Agassi still had two serves at 54 to win the set. However, a misplaced forehand topspin gave Nadal the merest glimmer of hope of taking control.

That was all he needed as he clinched the set with a brilliant pass from the baseline that was followed up with a scorching ace. It put Agassi on the back foot and he was broken in the first game of the second as Nadal continually pressurised him into making mistakes.

The match went with serve until the seventh game when Nadal broke again with some searing cross-court shots that had Agassi running all over the place.

That made it 5-2 and Nadal wasn't going to let Agassi back in.

He closed the set with an astute service game that had the lot - power, panache and penetration. Looking more than a little weary Agassi battled hard to stay in it as the third set unfolded.

He managed to hold his serve early on with a succession of accurate missiles although he couldn't get anywhere near Nadal when it was his turn.

Agassi changed his racket at 2-2 but couldn't change his luck.

Two games later he was broken again and was left staring into the abyss. Nadal, 4-3 up and serving, sensed victory.

He moved Agassi around the court in the next game until he had him where he wanted him.

The American could offer nothing but token resistance.

Agassi seemed determined to hang on just a little longer and took the next game with some powerful serves which were too hot for Nadal.

That made it 5-4 and the Spanish matador was poised for the kill. When the end came it was filled with drama

and excitement as befits a legend.

First Agassi failed to return a heavily sliced serve then rallied briefly with a power drive after a backhand from Nadal fell short.

That got the crowd to their feet again and they urged their hero to make one more superhuman effort.

But he could do nothing as Nadal fired down a freak ace that kicked up after hitting the line and left Agassi having a fresh-air shot.

Agassi then overcooked a cross-court backhand into the tram lines to be staring two match points in the face.

But he's nothing if not a fighter and battered in some ground strokes from both sides of the court until Nadal was forced to return into the net.

One life saved - but there was to be no reprieve.

Nadal played his part in the drama by delaying his final serve for what seemed like an eternity and then bang - it was all over in a flash.

The long, loping serve flew down Agassi's backhand side and he couldn't get near it.

An ace finish to an ace career.

CAPTION(S):

Master and apprentice: Rising star Rafael Nadal bids farewell to Agassi after his straight sets third-round win on Centre Court
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 2, 2006
Words:816
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