Why we root for our aging athletes

WIMBLEDON, England -- In the cruel arena of athletics, size and speed and power are the only means to the end.

Sentimentality is, by definition, a distorted view of reality. It is a wish, a naïve hope that something old can be new again. Or at the very least, slightly less old.

Sometimes, that hope is realized and the impossible happens. Sometimes an athlete defies the gravity of his years. The gap between memory and reality is bridged. It is a brilliant sleight of hand. A sleight of mind.

Red Sox slugger Ted Williams hit a home run in his last at bat in 1960 at the age of 42. Golfer Jack Nicklaus won the Masters in 1986 at the age of 46. Jimmy Connors reached the semifinals of the 1991 U.S. Open at the age of 39. George Foreman, in 1994, knocked out Michael Moore to become oldest heavyweight champion ever, at 45.

On Saturday, 36-year-old Andre Agassi was trying desperately to join them. But 20-year-old Rafael Nadal -- larger, faster and stronger -- would not allow it.

Agassi's career at the All England Club ended quietly on the cathedral that is Centre Court. The Spaniard won with muscular authority, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-4.

"I just wanted to get into a place where I felt like I was playing well and give myself a chance, and I did that," Agassi said. "I mean, I went out there today and he just beat me.

"[I] was hoping for too much."

He wasn't alone.

"On the warm-up, the five minutes, I was thinking I'm going [to] lose easy," Nadal said. "Agassi was touching the ball unbelievable, very low, very tough. I can't return the ball. But in the match, always is different, no?

"Maybe I serve my best day in my career, sure."

Nadal won the French Open three weeks ago in Paris. Agassi's last Grand Slam win came three and one-half years ago at the Australian Open. Nadal was two months old when Agassi played in his first Grand Slam, the 1986 U.S. Open. He was 6 when Agassi won his first Grand Slam, here at Wimbledon in 1992.

Agassi, as you might expect, has amassed towering numbers. He has played in more Grand Slam events -- 60 -- than any other man. His 222 victories in Grand Slam matches leave him tied for second all-time with Ivan Lendl.

Looking at the draw, anticipating this match, who would have dreamed Nadal would have a more difficult time arriving in the third round? Robert Kendrick, a California surfer, nearly took him out in the second round.

After the first rally lasted 12 strokes and Agassi won the point when Nadal's backhand fell into the net, it seemed possible. But as the set progressed, Nadal increased the pressure on Agassi. His heavy forehand kept Agassi pinned to the baseline and Nadal got a number of looks at his serve.

There were six break points -- three of them set points in the 10th game -- and Agassi, hustling, scuffling, saved them all. And so they went to the tiebreaker, where Agassi ran out to a surprising 5-2 lead when Nadal couldn't handle Agassi's service offerings.

And then Nadal, as he so often does, met the moment. He won both his serves, when Agassi missed a forehand wide and then took such a vicious cut at a second serve that Nadal lost his footing -- but it found the net. And then, at 5-4, Agassi's nerves betrayed him. He was floating toward the service line on a rare attack and Nadal threw up a fat shot. Agassi, seeing half an open court, flinched ever so slightly as he struck a topspin forehand and cringed when he saw it go just wide.

It was the critical point in the match and it created an irresistible momentum.

Nadal, almost predictably, followed with the best shot of the match, a running forehand from deep in the corner that crossed in front of Agassi and hit the sideline for a winner. An ace down the middle, his fifth straight point in the tiebreaker, gave Nadal the set.

"I really thought that when I hit my quality shot, I could get him behind," Agassi said, underlining the chief problem Nadal poses. "He still was moving so well that even on grass he wasn't getting behind. Then all he has to do is hit one shot that's a little bit out of my strike zone, he takes over the point and then doesn't let it go.

"This is a great way to play tennis. He makes people have to do something special. You have to play a good match to beat him, or you have to be Roger [Federer]."

Agassi was broken in the first game of the second set and defeat became inevitable.

He has already lived a back-to-the-future moment, at the 2005 U.S. Open. At the age of 35, Agassi reached the final against world No. 1 Roger Federer. There was a moment -- on the threshold of the third-set tiebreaker -- when it seemed possible. But reality intervened; Federer won seven of eight points and, in the fourth set, six of seven games.

The experience seemed to galvanize Agassi. Instead of retiring, he decided to limit his schedule -- to preserve a chronically aching back -- and focus on his favorite tournaments. Playing Wimbledon for the first time in three years, Agassi won his first two matches, but beating Boris Pashanski and Andreas Seppi is one thing. Beating the world's second-best player is quite another.

Why do we root for our aging athletes with such passion? Because it's about us, really. If they succeed, somehow we succeed. Anything is possible. If they are somehow younger, for even a moment, then maybe so are we.

The crowd at Centre Court cheered lustily when Agassi won points. When he lost them, there was sort of a sad collective sigh. At times, it was painful to watch. The final point, Nadal's 18th ace, brought Agassi's Wimbledon run to an end.

"I think this was a place that first taught me to respect the sport, really," Agassi said. "To really appreciate the opportunity and privilege it is to play a game for a living, to play tennis. People work five days a week to play on the weekend. We get to call it a job."

At several points in his 30-minute post-match interview, Agassi grew emotional.

"It's been a privilege to be out there again for one last time," he said, nodding his head. "I'll look back at this as one of my most memorable experiences.

"To say goodbye, for me, this means as much as winning."

There was a prolonged standing ovation and a rare on-court interview. Blinking back the tears, Agassi offered a few gentle waves.

And he was gone.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.