NEW YORK – Andre Agassi walked off the court the way he wanted, to a champion's ovation.
In the end, despite all the tears, it hardly made a difference to him or his fans that he didn't win.
A career for the ages came to a close Sunday with Agassi worn down and wincing, losing to 112th-ranked Benjamin Becker 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 in the third round at the U.S. Open.
Betrayed by a creaky body that needed four injections this week, his spirit never waned. And that is something Agassi and his fans will always remember.
"For me, it was never about winning and stopping," he said. "It was about getting the most out of myself for as long as possible," he said.
Agassi announced this summer that the Open would be his final event. It seemed unimaginable that he could win seven matches to take the title, but after two inspiring victories, fans began to hope and wonder.
Instead, the end came with Agassi looking like what he'd become — a 36-year-old man with a bad back, ready for retirement.
"I just credit the doctors that I was able to play out there today," he said. "I didn't expect a whole lot physically. And sure enough, it was real early when I wasn't feeling so good."
The 25-year-old Becker started strong, showing few nerves. He won all three of his instant-replay challenges and closed out the match with a 133 mph ace.
Moments later, Agassi teared up on the blue court as he addressed a crowd that showed up early at Arthur Ashe Stadium and tried to spur him all afternoon.
"The scoreboard said I lost today," he said. "But what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I've found."
Becker, who had to win three qualifying matches merely to make it into the Open, applauded as Agassi spoke. Agassi's wife, Steffi Graf, and their two young children looked on.
"He was my idol growing up," Becker said.
He joined the crowd for a four-minute, loud standing ovation saluting Agassi, who stared out at the crowd from his chair, wiping tears from his eyes.
"I think I've prepared for that speech for 21 years," Agassi said.
He was greeted by another big cheer from fellow players when he walked into the locker room. Toward the end of that tribute, Becker entered.
"It was awkward, me walking in," he said. "You feel bad, too. I couldn't really be happy."
Becker next plays No. 9 Andy Roddick, who defeated Fernando Verdasco 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-2.
While most were focused on the Agassi-Becker match, Marat Safin — the 2000 U.S. Open champion who's unseeded this year — knocked off fourth-seeded David Nalbandian 6-3, 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 7-6 (6) in a second-round match originally scheduled for Friday but pushed back by rain.
In third-round action, 1998 Open champion Lindsay Davenport erased two match points and came back to defeat Katarina Srebotnik of Slovenia 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5).
"It was so tough today. It was just one of those days where I didn't feel like I was hitting the ball all that cleanly," Davenport said. "Being down the match points, coming back and finding a way to win, playing a pretty good tiebreak, was exciting."
Other women's winners included Russia's Anna Chakvetadze and Dinara Safina, France's Virginie Razzano and Tatiana Golovin, and Switzerland's Patty Schnyder.
On the men's side, second-seeded Rafael Nadal advanced, as did 2001 Open champion Lleyton Hewitt, Belgium's Olivier Rochus, Russia's Mikhail Youzhny, Spain's Tommy Robredo, Czech Republic's Jiri Novak and France's Richard Gasquet.
Agassi needed cortisone and anti-inflammatory shots to keep playing this week. Although he pushed himself to the limit, he was just plain shot.
Hobbling, grimacing and breathing hard, he frequently stood, watching to see whether Becker's shots landed good. Reduced to hoping rather than hitting, Agassi showed just flashes of the brilliant returns and pinpoint backhands that made him an eight-time Grand Slam winner.
"I don't take pride in my accomplishments," he said. "I take pride in the striving."
The crowd clearly felt his pain, booing when his German opponent hit drop shots that made Agassi run.
"You could tell his back was hurting," Becker said. "It was hard to be tough, to go for your shots. I didn't say, 'I have to hit a drop shot because he is hurting."'
Becker said he tried to focus on the match, rather than what it might mean.
"I never really thought about it that way, that this is the last time he could play," he said.
Agassi's first Grand Slam match came at the 1986 U.S. Open when he lost to Jeremy Bates.
Before his agonizing, five-set win over Marcos Baghdatis that started Thursday night and finished Friday morning, Agassi envisioned the ending. Or, instead, how he did not want his career to finish.
"I just don't want to go off the court limping," he said at the time. "It's not what I want to do."
After three matches and more than 10 draining hours on the court where he loved to play, he still was standing.
More than 20 minutes after the match, Agassi was still crying as he limped through the hallways. He finished with a competitive career match record of 870-274 and a lifetime of memories — for him and his legion of fans.
Across the newly renamed USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, there was a collective moan and cries of "Oh, no!" at Louis Armstrong Stadium when the scoreboard posted the final result. Outside the big bowls, crowds wandering the grounds fell silent.
The daytime start took away much of the buzz that usually follows Agassi. He came out to a big cheer, but fans quickly saw he was in trouble and shouts of "Let's go, Andre!" were replaced by groans when his shots missed.
Becker, the 2004 NCAA champ from Baylor, came out with his hat backward and full of energy. No relation to Boris — never even met him — Benjamin certainly made a name for himself.
After beginning the match with a double-fault, Becker began rocketing aces at 140 mph, and that's when he looked like Boris. He won 13 straight points on serve and, perhaps most important, kept his composure as planned.
"Try to see it as another match," he said before taking the court.
Even in his final match, Agassi had his moments.
He outlasted Becker to take a 22-point game early in the second set, then pumped his fist when he won the tiebreaker. His 4-year-old son, Jaden, joined the celebration, raising both arms and shouting "Hey!" as music blared during the changeover.
But it was obvious this Agassi was not the same one who ruled the courts with such verve for so long. Not that he was about to walk away.
"I didn't come here to quit," he said.