Agassi not ready for fortnight to end

Andre Agassi's career is nearing its end and Rafael Nadal's is just beginning. Whit Sheppard previews the marquee third-round matchup.

Updated: June 29, 2006, 3:04 PM ET
By Whit Sheppard | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- One man, an eight-time Grand Slam winner hoping to follow poet Dylan Thomas' urging to rage against the dying of the light, did his part with some expediency.

The other, a fresh-faced 20-year-old with the developed musculature of a man several years older, dallied for nearly four hours before confirming his place in a marquee matchup Saturday at the All England Club.

Andre Agassi
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Andre Agassi, 36, might be a lion in winter, but showed Thursday that he still possesses a toothsome bite. He set up a third-round match with two-time French Open winner Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon with a 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-4 win over unseeded Andreas Seppi of Italy.

Agassi's win was his 222nd in Grand Slam singles play, tying him with Ivan Lendl for second all-time. Jimmy Connors won 233 Grand Slam singles matches in his remarkable career.

Nadal dropped the first two sets and withstood 28 aces from American qualifier Robert Kendrick, ranked No. 237 in the world, before rallying to win 6-7 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-4 in 3 hours and 41 minutes.

With Agassi announcing on the eve of this tournament that he would retire after this summer's U.S. Open and would be making his final appearance at Wimbledon, Agassi is enjoying a final love-in with the English fandom that was initially slow to warm to him when he was a spiky-haired, rebel-espousing ingrate.

They adore him now, aware that the window is closing simultaneously on both Agassi's career and a generation of top American players including seven-time Wimbledon winner Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang.

"It means the world to me," Agassi said of the reception he's experiencing in his 14th and final Wimbledon. "I missed three years early on and I was sort of overwhelmed with how they received me.

"Then to miss it for the past two years and then come back and they haven't changed. I want to go out there and do something special for them."

Agassi is the last one standing among his peer group, preceded into retirement by three players who forced him to increase his level and eventually find his way to a punishing but effective training regime that was instrumental in landing him the major victories he so coveted.

"I was sort of on to that [strength training] earlier than most in reference to building my strength and the base that was the foundation of my game," Agassi said.

Nadal epitomizes the strength that Agassi was referring to, having ground his last 60 opponents on the most physically demanding surface in the sport -- red clay -- into the dirt and establishing his credentials as the most fearsome physical player in the game -- at once relentless, merciless and pitiless.

Most Grand Slam Titles
Name Titles
Pete Sampras 14
Roy Emerson 12
Bjorn Borg 11
Rod Laver 11
Bill Tilden 10
Andre Agassi 8
Jimmy Connors 8
Ivan Lendl 8
Fred Perry 8
Ken Rosewall 8

"The physicality of the game has changed tremendously," said Agassi. "Compare Nadal at 20 to me when I just turned 20. It's a different game."

What's scarier still is that Nadal might be even stronger mentally, which is an underrated element of his precocious success. Players-turned-broadcasters Mats Wilander and Alex Corretja, among others, have both been quick to mention this.

Agassi and Nadal have played just once previously, with the Majorcan winning a three-set final in Montreal last summer in a U.S. Open tune-up.

Agassi hopes that the low, skidding bounce on Wimbledon's immaculately manicured courts will nullify some of the high-spinning weaponry that the American found so difficult to deal with in their prior meeting.

"It's a whole different set of circumstances here, " said Agassi. "In Montreal, it was a very fast, high-bouncing court and his ball was just ugly [effective]."

"If you weren't stepping forward and timing it well, it was all over for you. It wasn't comfortable at all."

Nadal is the current standard-bearer for a new generation of increasingly fit players and is looking to add win another major to his twin triumphs at Roland Garros. He's spoken of his great desire to one day win here and Thursday's comeback from two sets down is indicative of a hunger that not all players possess.

The days of Agassi's physically outlasting his opponents are largely behind him, with Nadal being a good example of how the game has changed.

Agassi might as well have been speaking of his next opponent when he said, "It used to be where I could just sort of run people into the ground, but guys are just too strong now."

We'll know more about just how true that is Saturday evening in southwest London after these compelling figures of tennis' past and future collide on Centre Court.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.