Sampras, Agassi serve up timeless tennis


NEW YORK - Look what tennis pulled out of its duffel bag: Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, together again.

A showdown between two old friends and rivals that serves up nostalgia and anticipation as well as anything under the bright lights of Broadway.

Maybe better than Broadway, since this two-man revival is playing in Queens, a louder borough where tennis fans live to show love for the old guys, particularly Americans who refuse to go gently into that good night.

Just ask Jimmy Connors.

This is a fact Agassi was all too aware of yesterday the moment he dispatched defending U.S. Open champion Lleyton Hewitt during their semifinal, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (1), 6-2, completing a script that reunites him with his alter ego and greatest rival.

One more time, fellas.

For the good times.

"I couldn't be more thrilled about it," Agassi said. "You always question whether it will happen again, you know. You have a career that you spend playing your best tennis against one of the greats of all time, you're never guaranteed, even with the best of careers, to have that sort of rivalry and that sort of opposite that brings out the best in you over the years."

Now the tough part: Who do you root for in this first Open era U.S. Open final between two thirtysomethings? Andre? The formerly poof-haired, "Image is Everything," junk-food eater out of Las Vegas who, over the past dozen years, has transformed himself into an eloquent spokesman for men's tennis - a gym rat happily married to Steffi Graf and father of a son whose future could also include center court at the U.S. Open? Or do you root for Pete? Good ol' Pete.

Or poor ol' Pete, as has been his role the past two years, when his shoulders slumped, giving the look of a well-worn couch, not the man who has a record 13 Grand Slam titles.

The all-time greatest tennis champion has suffered through a patchy game and faltering confidence, keeping him from winning any title the past two years. That led people - including young punks on the tour - to suggest it might be time for Sampras to retire.

Retire this, Sampras seemed to be warning with every twentysomething he sent to the showers. Yesterday it was Sjeng Schalken, who turns 26 today, going down, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2.

During this fortnight, through the rain and sun and the loud-mouthed crowds of this New York/American Slam, Sampras sloughed off his lingering 31-year-old doldrums and rediscovered his big-time serve.

He reclaimed his attack mode and teasing nuance, like the floating 69-mph serve Sampras threw at his quarterfinals opponent, Andy Roddick, who was exposed as not ready for prime time.

Not like the old man.

Not like the hard-court genius whose stature in the game needs no further cement, but what the heck, why not one more, especially against the one man throughout Sampras' historic career who was always there, giving it back to him? "I've played some of my most memorable matches against him," Agassi said about Sampras.

"We're just opposite. We're opposite in everything we do. Out there on the court, we're two styles that are going against each other. It allows for many aspects of the game to reveal themselves. And it's exciting to play against it because every point, it seems like something special can happen.

"I can definitely say there's been nothing like it in my career that compares to playing against Pete. He is the best I've ever played against. That forces you to get that rush of blood that makes you do a little something special."

It didn't seem possible that this special tennis moment could happen. Not after Wimbledon, when Sampras was sluggish and ineffective and offering little evidence that he could turn back the hands of time.

"It was just such a nightmare playing out there on Court 2," Sampras said of losing at Wimbledon, the place where he has won the most - seven - of his Slams.

"That was the emptiest I've felt in many, many years," he said.

So it's no wonder that during this Open, Sampras has been wearing a sly grin again, uttering sound bites of bravado that have boosted the EKG on his historically flat-line personality.

"I still have the goods," Sampras warned. "Against anybody."

Stick around long enough, even a man like Pete Sampras can become interesting.

He may have finally accomplished that strange feat yesterday when he beat Schalken in straight sets and emerged from the depths of his No. 17 seed to secure his third straight U.S. Open final.

Now comes that question again: Who do you root for? Bouncy Andre, the man who has stuck up for his old friend and rival like a brother? "You always root for somebody that you grew up with. I mean, we've grown up together," Agassi said.

"You hear all this talk about where his game is at, where it's not at. You hear it from peers, who should have a heck of a lot more respect than they've shown. Inside my mind, I've been pulling for him. I think it's only right that somebody that's accomplished what he has deserves to play the game regardless of how the ball seems to bouncing any particular day."

Or do you root for Booming Pete, who senses like everyone this could be the last time the world might see him in this situation - at least against Agassi? "I think we're both aware this could be the last time. I mean, I am. The game is so strong today. It's hard to say if we're going to meet each other again in another Slams final. It could happen, but when we're done, we'll look back at these moments and know they're pretty special," Sampras said.

The suspicion here is that even with all those NFL season openers and all those September baseball divisional and wild-card battles, sports lovers will have those remote control return buttons set firmly on CBS.

The Frazier-Ali of tennis is too tantalizing, and not because Sampras is seeking Grand Slam title No. 14 or because Agassi promises: "I'm going out there and bringing my game, and he's going to have to beat me."

The pair has met here three times, twice in the final. The first time was in the 1990 final, where Sampras won in straight sets. They staged a prime-time battle in '95, where again Sampras prevailed. But this time, it's a match for so much more than one more title shot.

"This is less about what we pull out of each other [in today's final] and more about a nice toast to the past," Agassi said.

"It's going to be a great day." Either way. Either one. You just root for this match.

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