Thursday 10 September 2015


Separated by a year, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras knew about each other's game when they faced they reached the 1990 US Open finals. They were picked by many to lead the American tennis in the 1990's along with Jim Courier and Michael Chang. 

Agassi, the senior of the two had already impressed many with some consistent performances and was playing in his second title clash coming into the finals. Sampras, on the contrary had a career marked with ups and downs - he had played his best tennis to reach his maiden grand slam finals by overcoming the legends like Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe in the quarterfinals and semi-finals respectively.

Two Americans facing each other in New York had been a rarity in men's tennis - in fact since 1953, there had been only one occasion when two American men played in the title clash (1979 finals between John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis) before this finals. In 1990, this was a match between the hopefuls of the American men's tennis and both these players had never won a grand slam before. The winner would win the hearts of many and irrespective of what the stats were.

Agassi was stylish - long hair, a headband and backed up with performances on the court, there was no denying Agassi created quite a stir and had a lot of fan following by the time he faced Sampras in the finals. He was an American youth icon; fashion, glamour, fame and attitude, all these fitted well and it was an instant connect with the masses and the media. Agassi was seen as the 'exciting' guy.

On the other hand, Sampras had his ups and downs since the junior days; he resembled a shy guy who went about his business discreetly. No drama, no overtly display of emotions and surprised many with his presence at the finals.

Growing up, it was pretty hard to imagine, the weak link in Sampras game was his serve. That he was taught to practice his serves day in and out helped him a lot to make the transition to the senior level. The use of the same toss and his ability to disguise the serve all came to play on the day of the finals as Agassi found it hard to return. In straight sets, Sampras finished off the match to win his first title.

It is uncertain how he would have performed against an unknown opponent or another legend of the game. Probably, it was Agassi's presence, the known factor which might have helped to calm his nerves as Sampras knew the opponent and that played a huge role in the mental makeup of his preparations.

"The better guy won the match. When you can hit a serve 120 (miles/hour) on the line, there is not a lot you can do about it" - with these words Agassi summed up the match, after having collected the consolation prize of  $175,000.

For Sampras, all those hours of watching the 16mm tapes of Rod Laver had paid off as he took his first step towards stardom. No matter what he did, he knew, he would always remain a US Open champion as he collected the trophy as the youngest US Open champion from David Markin, the then President of the United States Tennis Association. He couldn't believe his eyes as he stared at the trophy, closely at his name inscribed alongside many champions... it had not sunk in.. he went ahead and held his trophy aloft, probably posing for the first time in front of so many cameramen.

By the time these two athletes met at the 2002 US Open finals, they were at the far end of their careers and since that final twelve years ago, both had went on to achieve great things in tennis. Pete Sampras stood tall among all having won thirteen titles - a feat no one had managed to achieve in the open era, while Agassi was a career grand slam winner and had rejuvenated his tennis career yet again.

While records stayed that way, the personal form of Sampras was dipping rapidly while Agassi was more in control of the game. After years of dominating men's tennis, it all came down to Sampras and how motivated he was to go on playing. Sampras knew, he had it in him to win one more title if not many, but his record stated otherwise. Slowly, the media went after him, and since the triumph at 2000 Wimbledon, Sampras didn't have much to show in spite of reaching the finals at the US Open in 2000 and 2001.

The champions suffer a lot when they fail to live up to their standards; with each loss the glorious past appears to fade away and all that remain are 'memories'. The future looks uncertain - those memories remind us how great those years were, while media and a lot of experts speak about the present and remind constantly, those days are gone, and in some cases long gone.

Sampras at age 31, was branded old, slow and since his marriage to the actress Bridgette Wilson, soft. He was fed up after many people told him to retire, pointing to his game that had lost its edge. The two years leading up to the 2002 US Open final was an emotional ride for Sampras, whatever he did, it didn't work and unless he had his hands on a grand slam trophy, critics wouldn't shut up.

Like in the previous two years in 2000 and 2001, once again Sampras overcame much younger opponents to reach his eighth US Open finals and like in the years 1990 and in 1995, he faced Andre Agassi at the Flushing Meadows. Seventeenth seeded Sampras against the sixth seed Agassi - two American tennis legends competing for the trophy in front of the home crowd. The form didn't matter, the seeds didn't matter as Sampras knew Agassi's game and vice versa.

The crowd in anticipation of this titanic clash came in large numbers, they knew it might be the last time they would get to witness the two American tennis giants fighting it out on the courts of New York; like the first time they met in the 1990 finals to win the second oldest grand slam trophy in tennis. 

Irrespective of what Sampras had achieved (six more titles than Agassi at that point), the winner would take away all the glory. This match was a decider as to who was better and all the stats accumulated by those two players were put aside. It was the 'match'.

Many who had followed the game knew their preferences that night - but what about those newbies who were planting their first steps into watching tennis? How would they remember such a contest?

The great battles on the field remain etched in the memory of the fans for a long time - as those moments alone makes that significant impression when it comes down to determining favourites. As to words and numbers, they  convey the message unlike the images.

Four sets was all it took for the game to go in favour of Sampras; it didn't matter who the crowd was rooting for, as even the proudest of Agassi fans stood up acknowledging the 'true' champion of the day!

The Italian author and journalist Oriana Fallici once quoted - "Glory is a heavy burden, a murdering poison, and to bear it is an art. And to have that art is rare."

Sampras didn't rush into things and it took him over a year to come out in open and tell his fans and to everybody that he was 100% retired. "I'm at peace with it. It's time to call it a career."

When asked in an interview about how he felt winning his 14th and final title, Sampras replied - "I had the last word, and that feels great!

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