Long Live the King

WIMBLEDON, England -- The United Kingdom, as the name implies, is very much attached to its royalty.

On many days you will find the Duke of Kent in the Royal Box at Centre Court, not to mention Sir Thomas and Lady Dunne, the Duchess of Grafton and Lady Rose Monson. On Tuesday, the reigning tennis monarch actually was playing on Centre Court.

Andre Agassi began his 14th and final tournament at the All England Club with an initially shaky (but ultimately successful) outing against Boris Pashanski. Agassi dropped the first set, but rallied for a 2-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 victory.

"It just sort of added to my nerves, to be quite honest," he said. "You expect to be overwhelmed with the whole situation anyhow, regardless of just how warmly you're embraced out there. But then to feel that kind of support, it just meant the world to me.

"I wanted to do them proud. So I got a little nervous about trying too hard early, over-hit a lot. Took me awhile to settle down."

Agassi won the first of his eight Grand Slam titles here in 1992, defeating Goran Ivanisevic in five sets. Great Britain fell in love with the long-haired, charismatic showman and, over the years, Agassi has come to feel the same way.

It is instructive that his retirement announcement -- after Wimbledon he is scheduled to play a handful of U.S. tournaments and conclude his career with the U.S. Open -- came not in America, but at the All England Club.

"It's something that's meant a lot to me over the years, being here, to compete," Agassi said. "This is where it all started for me, my dreams. It really started here.

"I've been embraced so warmly from my early years, and that has meant the world to me. This championship has allowed me to grow into the player and the person that I am today, and I have so many people to thank for that."

Agassi, as analytical as anyone in tennis, always has had a terrific sense of himself. When he made an improbable run to the final of the 2005 U.S. Open, losing gallantly to Roger Federer, many believed Agassi would choose the moment to leave the game. Instead, he was energized. The problem? There isn't enough energy in the world to fuel an aging, chronically aching body in a young man's game.

And so, understanding the restrictions, Agassi elected to play on. The results have been less than stellar. Coming into Wimbledon, Agassi had played in four tournaments and produced a middling record of 4-4.

He was beaten by qualifier Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the quarterfinals in Delray Beach and a month later by Bjorn Phau in Dubai. Because his ATP ranking has fallen, all the way to the present No. 20, Agassi runs into formidable players earlier than ever before. After a three-month sabbatical induced by a chronic back injury, Tommy Haas took him out in the third round at Indian Wells and two weeks ago, Agassi lost a first-round match at Queen's Club to Tim Henman.

"I promised you a long time ago in this sport that I was going to try to do this as long and hard as possible with a realistic hope of being out there and the hope of winning and the hope of beating the person I'm competing against," Agassi told the assembled media last Saturday. "And when I felt like I couldn't, whether it was my mind or my body, that I would let you know."

So, which has failed him more, the mind or body?

"Some days it's one, some days it's the other," Agassi said. "It's been 21 great years leading into two good days followed by three difficult ones. It's two steps forward and one step back. That gets harder and harder, and it gets more difficult to be at your best."

Against Pashanski, a 23-year-old Serbian who is ranked No. 71 in the world, Agassi was not close to his best. It was a good matchup for Agassi, because Pashanski is a clay specialist who rarely strays from the baseline; he tried his first serve-and-volley in the last game of the match.

Visibly playing himself into the match, Agassi was flogged in the first set. His wife, Steffi Graf, who won Wimbledon seven times and was watching from the stands, had a permanently fixed scowl on her face. His too-short shorts -- a good three inches above his knees -- underlined his shuffling, old-school approach as he dumped the first set.

"You feel like there's this critical point where if you don't do something, it's going to become sort of desperation," Agassi said. "To be down a set, to be facing a break point at love-one in the second, the match is really quickly going to get away from you. I was a bit uptight. I went from nervous to slightly embarrassed to digging in and getting more comfortable as I went on."

Yes. Slowly, spurred by the crowd, Agassi warmed to the task.

And when it was over, after Pashanski committed two double-faults, Agassi finally broke into a grin. Beaming at full wattage, he executed his classic post-match bows and kisses.

"I'm not out there trying to extract more from this tournament," Agassi said. "I'm out here giving it everything I've got. That's my mentality. I'm just going to do it until the end.

"I don't know if the end will be the day after tomorrow, or much later. I need to see that through."

For Agassi, the numbers continue to pile up. He has played in more Grand Slam tournaments -- 60 -- than any man in the Open era and now needs only two victories to pass Ivan Lendl's total of 222 Grand Slam match wins, into second place all-time.

Agassi missed the last two years with hip and back injuries, respectively. Clearly, he is savoring his final run here at the All England Club.

"That first look when you come out, you can only see part of the crowd, only part of the crowd can see you," he said. "As you walk out, more of the crowd can see you. You sort of feel the support or the cheer sort of roll across the audience, across the crowd.

"That was something I took a little extra notice to today."

And that is why, against most logic, Andre Agassi came back for a farewell tour.

The king is not dead, not yet. Long live the king.