... And just like that, Andre's finished
NEW YORK -- There was a fleeting, giddy moment when the impossible almost seemed possible.
For the better part of three sets, 35-year-old Andre Agassi played No. 1-ranked Roger Federer just above even. With a Greg Maddux-like approach, Agassi confounded the smooth Swiss player with a wide variety of looks. And the 23,000-plus fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium couldn't have been more thrilled.
And then, just like that, it was over.
Federer, who was down a break at 2-4 and love-30 in the third, rallied to force a third-set tiebreak. He proceeded to win seven of eight points when they mattered most. That is what champions do.
And so, Federer repeated as the U.S. Open champion on Sunday evening 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1. When Agassi's forehand service return screamed long, Federer jumped straight up in the air, screaming, and took an emotional forehand swipe with his racket.
It was the sixth Grand Slam title for the 24-year-old -- in his sixth major final.
"It was the most special one for me to play Andre in the final of the U.S. Open," Federer said. "He's one of the last living legends in tennis."
Agassi reiterated afterward that he is not retiring. Asked about the wiggle room in his on-court farewell speech -- "Thank you, New York for the last 20 years. It's been a great ride" -- Agassi shook his head.
"I'm unsure about what I'm doing in a month," he said, "let alone a year from now. As of now, my intention is to keep working and keep doing what it is I do.
"You know, the only thing better than the last 20 years will be the last 21 years," he said.
Agassi chose instead to dwell on Federer's celestial ability.
"He plays the game in a very special way," Agassi said. "I don't think I've seen it before. He's the best I've ever played against."
Which means that Agassi places Federer above Pete Sampras, who holds the record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles.
"Pete was great," Agassi said. "But there was a place to go with Pete. You knew what you had to do. If you could do it, it could be on your terms. There's no such place like that with Roger."
What about it, Roger? The best ever?
"No," he said. "No. Just look at the records some guys have. I'm a little cookie.
"Him saying I'm better than Sampras -- I'm a little surprised. I appreciate it very much," he said.
The victory confirmed what has becoming increasingly obvious. Men's tennis is experiencing separation anxiety. There's Federer -- and then everybody else.
"I feel," Federer said, "like there's a whole group of guys chasing me."
Federer has been ranked No. 1 for 84 consecutive weeks now, a reign that could go uninterrupted for years. As usual, he left some historic numbers in his wake:
• He joins Boris Becker and Don Budge, among others, as a six-time Grand Slam champion and becomes the first man to win his first six Grand Slam finals since Tony Trabert did it in the 1950s.
• In the broader picture, Federer is the fifth-quickest to six major titles. He has played in 26 Grand Slam tournaments; Bjorn Borg did it in his first 17 Grand Slams.
• He becomes the first man to win the rare double-double -- Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in back-to-back years -- since Budge (1937-38), and only the third man ever.
• It was the 23rd consecutive win for Federer, a total nearly twice the previous Open Era record of 12 belonging to Borg and John McEnroe. The streak began in Vienna, when he defeated Carlos Moya in the 2003 final.
"I amaze myself that I can back it up, tournament after another," Federer said. "I wonder why I play so well, especially on the big occasions. It seems to click for me."
Federer is as close to unbeatable as a human can be. He has lost three of 74 matches this year -- and he held match points in two of them.
All of the numbers seemed to be going against Agassi, the oldest Grand Slam finalist in 31 years, going back to Ken Rosewall's appearance at the 1974 U.S. Open. It was his 20th Open, second only to Jimmy Connors' 22 on the all-time list.
And then there was this one: Federer has now beaten Agassi eight straight times.
How, tactically, do you beat Federer? After his semifinal match, Agassi answered the question candidly.
"You hit it in that corner and that corner and that corner and that corner -- over and over again, and then you beat him," he said. "But you got to do it."
Staying in a rally that long with Federer, a man who can hit winners from anywhere on the court, is problematic. And with Agassi coming off three consecutive five-set matches for the first time in his career, that was not a likely scenario.
His plan: to hit balls to Federer's backhand, his marginally lesser side, and confound him with variety. Off-pace balls to the forehand. Short-angled shots. Surprise rushes to net. The one thing Agassi didn't do was work the crowd -- something he declined to do this fortnight. For while the spectators -- even Lance Armstrong, Jeff Gordon and Dustin Hoffman -- were overwhelmingly behind him, Agassi never really acknowledged their support.
From the beginning, Agassi was in trouble on his serve. In the sixth game, after three deuces, Federer broke through when Agassi sent a weak backhand into the net. For the rest of the set, Agassi furiously treaded water. Down 2-5, he fell in a love-40 hole and saved three set points. With Federer serving at 5-3, he saved four more set points. A forehand winner and a 123-mph ace did the job and Federer seemed on his way.
Agassi may be the ATP's foremost problem-solver. Like a football coach, he makes successful adjustments between sets. After losing the first set to Rafael Nadal in the final last month in Montreal, Agassi tinkered with his approach and managed to steal a set from the No. 2-ranked player in the world before losing in three.
And so it was with Federer. Agassi broke him in the second game with a nasty forehand service return and again with Federer serving to stay in the set at 2-5. Federer's backhand slice service return hit the top of the tape and fell back.
While Agassi was gaining traction, Federer seemed to lose his edge. With the backhand repeatedly misfiring, Agassi broke in the fifth game of the third set. But then Federer won four straight points to break back.
The breaker was anti-climactic. As usual. Federer's backhand service return was a winner and Agassi was done. Going back to the semifinal victory over Lleyton Hewitt, Federer won 14 of 15 points in his last two tiebreaks.
The sting of the loss, Agassi said, was more than mitigated by the support he felt.
"Over the last 20 years, I've come full circle," he said. "It's been an amazing journey. I'll never forget this.
"They can't take away from me ever what I'm leaving here with, and that's the memory of thousands of people pulling for me and showing appreciation for something that I care dearly about," he said.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.