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A Grand performance: Sampras defeats Agassi

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - The criticism can stop now. Pete Sampras - who had dropped to the No. 17 seed, who had heard his play criticized, who had heard opposing players say he wasn't the player he used to be and should retire - that Pete Sampras won the U.S. Open yesterday.

That Pete Sampras hit 84 winners.

That Pete Sampras hit 33 aces.

That Pete Sampras, 31, beat age-old foe Andre Agassi, 32, decisively, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

Then, in an uncharacteristic display of emotion, Sampras left the court to climb through the crowd at the USTA National Tennis Center, high-fiving fans, receiving pats on the back and congratulations all along the way, to reach his wife, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, who is pregnant with their first child.

They wrapped their arms around each other and enjoyed a remarkable moment that most people thought they'd never see.

Pete Sampras, champion - again.

"I guess I'm back," he said as he accepted the trophy.

Sampras had not won a title in 33 tournaments. Not since winning Wimbledon in 2000 had he raised a Grand Slam trophy above his head. Yesterday, he celebrated extending his record Grand Slam victory total to 14.

He also became the oldest men's singles winner at the U.S. Open since Australian Ken Rosewall in 1970 at age 35.

"I'm here because of a lot of support from my wife, from my family, my sister [Stella], and working with Paul [Annacone] again," Sampras said. "They really gave me a lot of peace of mind, some stability. And it's all worked out. It wasn't forehands and backhands and serves. It was kind of my head space.

"And now, this might be my biggest achievement," Sampras said almost softly. "This one might take the cake. I never thought anything would surpass Wimbledon, but to come here and play like this, it's awesome.

"To play five matches in seven days. To win 13 slams and then trying to figure out my goals and hearing I should stop. To get through it means a lot, means more than anything to get through the adversity."

It was the kind of night, the kind of match that pulled heartstrings.

It began with another emotional ceremony honoring victims of Sept. 11's terrorist attacks and a haunting rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by native New Yorker Art Garfunkel. It progressed to a match that had even the great Boris Becker leaning forward in his box seat, elbows on knees and hands folded below his chin as if in prayer.

Every point in every game in the final two sets seemed like its own saga.

It took Agassi 16 points in Game 12 of the third set to break Sampras the first time. The only time.

It took Sampras 20 points in the first game of the fourth set to prevent Agassi from breaking him, and it took Sampras another 10 points, which included some incredible ground strokes, to break Agassi for the final, decisive time in the ninth game of the fourth set.

"The first game of that fourth set was the turning point," said Sampras. "The momentum had shifted in the third. The crowd had gotten behind Andre. They were really pumped up. To have that massive game at the start of the fourth, to hold serve was a huge turning point."

Perhaps one of the toughest jobs yesterday was being a fan. Loyalties were hard to maintain. The crowd started by cheering for Sampras, the one considered most in need of its support. But then Agassi fell behind by two sets.

The fans switched their support to Agassi.

In the third set, even Sampras' service faults were cheered, and when Agassi finally came up with the break in the 12th game, they gave him a standing ovation.

But by the time Sampras reached match point and put away a strong backhand volley crosscourt, they were back on their feet cheering him.

"They treated me well the entire two weeks," said Sampras. "And I think having them there cheering, to hear them cheering and knowing the adversity the people of New York have come through this year, made the match even more meaningful."

It was a wonderful exhibition. In the old days, down two sets, Agassi's response might have been to lose interest. But over the years, he has turned into a great champion, with seven Grand Slam titles of his own.

Last night, Sampras called him the "greatest player I've ever played in my entire career."

"He's always brought out the best in me," Sampras said. "I've needed him the way [John] McEnroe needed [Bjorn] Borg."

So Agassi dug down. And, as things tightened up, Sampras dug still deeper.

Both men were weary as they played on for 2 hours, 54 minutes.

"I felt pretty outplayed for two sets," Agassi said. "Even in the third, when I was keeping my nose ahead, I wasn't sure if I was pulling ahead and then, when I thought I was, that's when he stepped it up and played some big shots.

"I said this for years. His game is able to raise itself at the right time. While the discipline and the daily grind of what it takes to be at the best - at the top - has obviously gotten tougher for him, there's still a danger in the way he plays and how good he is. Anyone who says different is really ignorant and doesn't understand the game of tennis."

When it came down to it in the fourth set, when it became obvious that Sampras was going to have to try for that lift at the right time or face a very tough fifth set, he raised his game.

And once he broke Agassi, he found his own big serve once more - his last ace was at 120 mph "and felt awfully good" - while serving out the match.

It almost made you wish the two of them could have been beamed into this final without having to have played the previous two weeks.

"A day off before the final would certainly improve the tennis," said Agassi. "But the fact you have to play the schedule we have here is one of the things that make it difficult to win the title and makes you feel so good when you do win it."

After it was over, Sampras said he realized it was the kind of match a man could hang up a career on.

"I'm going to have to weigh it," Sampras said. "I still want to play. I love to play. But to beat a rival like Andre in a major tournament [like] the U.S. Open is a storybook ending. It might be nice to stop - but, but, I still want to compete, you know? We'll see where my heart is at in a couple months and my mind. I mean, right now, my head is spinning."

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