NEW YORK -- They played past twilight. Not theirs; New York's.
Dinner time passed and the sun went down, but old favorites Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were still out there, actually gaining momentum in their latest production of high tennis theater.
The sellout crowd of 25,210 in Arthur Ashe Stadium had been warmed up slowly with an overture of two Sampras-dominated sets, then was presented new dramatic possibilities as Agassi's game snapped to attention and the U.S. Open final moved deeper into the fourth set, Sampras trying to close out the match and Agassi trying to extend it.
Increasingly boisterous, talking back to itself with cries of "Pete!" answered by shouts of "Andre!", the crowd expressed simultaneous, divergent desires. It wanted history: a 14th major tournament title for Sampras. It wanted more tennis: a fifth set. It wanted happiness for Sampras, appreciated but not necessarily loved most of his career. But also happiness for Agassi, always a fan magnet.
Before long, everyone would get a 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 Sampras victory, after a final set that recalled why Sampras-Agassi can light up a stadium with its unpredictable tugs-of-war played out with contrasting styles.
For the 31-year-old Sampras, having heard for almost two years that his star has faded, raising his fifth U.S. Open trophy was almost more than he could ask for. "This might take the cake. This might be my biggest achievement so far," he said, "to come through the year I've had and win the U.S. Open, that's pretty sweet."
For the 32-year-old Agassi, it was "disappointing to lose, but I think I've been more disappointed in my career." After all, he had been part of what everyone knew could be the last Grand Slam tournament final between the two leading characters from the Greatest American Tennis Generation.
Never before, in the 34 years of the open era, had this tournament's championship final featured two men over 30 years old. Yet the mood, quite the opposite from recent talk of finding new stars, was not only to savor another Pete repeat or another Andre ecstasy, but beyond that: Why get rid of a good thing?
"We're still out here doing it; it's hard to get around that fact," Agassi said.
Through the early going, the only danger was Sampras' play, so crisp it was strangling potential excitement. His serve -- he would finish with 33 aces -- was either winning points outright or setting him up for his equally keen volleys.
"There were points that reminded me a little bit of Wimbledon," he said, thinking of his seven championships there. "I got in the zone, and everything clicked."
The show was on when Agassi's hot backhand return broke Sampras at the end of a long 12th game to give Agassi the third set, 7-5. "The crowd was so electric," Sampras said. "and there was that huge roar when he broke me to take the third."
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