NEW YORK -- Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi will play tennis against each other for the 32nd time Wednesday night. It is a rivalry Martina Navratilova calls "right up there with Borg-Connors." As Navratilova says, Arthur Ashe Stadium "will be rocking, yeah!"
It is a rivalry forged out of contrasting styles from contrasting men. Sampras, the stoic, classic serve-and-volley player eager to emulate his hero, Rod Laver, in both comportment (classy) and record (as many Grand Slam titles as possible), versus Agassi, a charismatic, flashy, spectacular baseline player.
It has been Sampras' grand and cunning serves, the best combination of placement and power ever, against Agassi's bombastic returns, the best in history, probably, rivaled only by Jimmy Connors. It has been the nifty, crafty volleys of Sampras against the barrage of powerful passing shots from Agassi. It has been the steel of Sampras' will against the volatility of Agassi's spirit.
It is the kind of rivalry that may never happen again. In Los Angeles earlier this summer, Sampras said he was a little sad. With the end of his career in sight, with the plans of Pat Rafter to take time off, with the declining skills of Tim Henman apparent, Sampras noted something. "When I'm gone, when Tim is gone and Pat is gone, there are no more true serve-and-volley players around," Sampras said. "There aren't any coming up. What's made my battles with Andre so special was the fact that we were opposites. That makes for compelling tennis. Now all the guys are big hitters who stay back. I think the game will miss a little." But not yet.
Sampras leads the series, 17-14, but Agassi is closing fast, having won the last three matches between the two. Six weeks ago at UCLA, Agassi made Sampras seem positively average, beating his 30-year-old rival, 6-4, 6-2. Agassi is older (31) but seemed much fresher, more enthusiastic about the game, about himself, about the future. What followed was some criticism of Sampras, some musings about the possibility of retirement, some whispers from other players about how they looked forward to playing Sampras in Grand Slams now. "Annoying and disrespectful," is how Sampras' coach, Paul Annacone, termed all this talk but it was also inevitable given the way Sampras has slouched around courts all over the world, shoulders hunched, eyes cast down.
Then Sampras arrived at his fourth-round match here against Rafter and was a fist-pumping, dive-bombing, invincible, incredible 19-year-old again. Rafter was sent away, dismissed from the premises in the face of Sampras's sweet volleys, crafty serves, precise backhand. He made us remember another time, 11 years ago. It's 1990 again. The images should be in black and white, so ancient do the pictures seem, the ones of the gangly, wide-eyed 19-year-old Sampras playing against Agassi, with his long hair and tie-dyed clothes.
The old Louis Armstrong Stadium court seems quaint in those 11-year-old snapshots a mind can take. This moment was precious. Two young Americans, Sampras and Agassi, were meeting for the first time in a Grand Slam tournament. It was the beginning of a decade which was clearly pointing to American dominance. Michael Chang had already won a French Open title. Jim Courier, David Wheaton, Todd Martin, were all standing ready to crack the top 20, the top 10, to win Grand Slam titles and make fans forget Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.
But the future seemed rosiest for Sampras and Agassi, the two players who were the exact opposites in personality, in style of clothes and most of all in the way they played tennis. Sampras revered the classic style. He eagerly embraced the idea of learning the one-handed backhand most of his peers had abandoned, for fear of losing their place at the baseline. Sampras appreciated the positives of the volley, accepted the play as both dangerous and advantageous. Always Sampras was aware of his place in history. Sampras wanted his place to be at the top. He was never arrogant about his wishes. Sampras always was reverential about the great men who came before him.
Agassi reveled in the flamboyance of power, flourished in the spotlight, dallied with Barbra Streisand, introduced a spectacular, bashing style of hitting balls as hard as possible from way behind the baseline. His hair would fly, he'd be a bright streak of day-glo color-his shirt, his shorts, his shoes-and the crowd loved him. The crowd respected Sampras but the crowd loved Agassi. Sampras won that match 11 years ago. It was a straight-set demolition, a "good, old-fashioned street mugging," Agassi called it. The final score was 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, a tidy progression of continual improvement, which was the way Sampras's career moved. Forward, always forward, piling up 13 Grand Slam titles, and six years of being ranked No. 1, having a numbing decade of excellence which left lots of people bored and unappreciative of the exquisite way Sampras played tennis.
Agassi's career was spectacular too, in a totally different way. He would nonchalantly throw away two French Open titles, losing poorly-played matches to Andres Gomez and Jim Courier in the finals and seemingly wasting his talent until, on the grass surface he'd disdained, at the place he once refused to play, Agassi won his first Slam at Wimbledon in 1992. There would follow six more major titles. He didn't pick up that French until 1999. Some years Agassi would just go away. His ranking would plummet and he would leave the stage to Sampras. But always Agassi would come back.
And because Agassi won that French Open, giving him at least one of each of the four majors and because Sampras has never conquered the red clay at Roland Garros, there is a lively debate over whose record will stand taller in history. Sampras, with his seven Wimbledon wins, his record-setting 13 majors? Or Agassi, with fewer big titles but with at least one of each? What happens tonight won't settle any debate about which player is better. A Sampras win won't change the minds of Agassi backers. And vice versa.
But there is promise that what happens might be very special. "It will be a great night for tennis," Agassi says. "I think (Sampras) feels he has something to prove whether he says it or not," U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. "I've said it before, but I think if Pete plays his best and Andre plays his best, Pete's the winner. But Andre's middle level is better than Pete's middle level." Any level is more than we would have expected, sitting here 11 years ago. We've gotten so much more than we expected 11 years ago-20 Grand Slam titles and an era of U.S. dominance. Whatever happens in this 32nd meeting, it will be worth another photograph to store away in the mind.
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