For so long he hadn't needed any of it: not the support of fans,
not the presence of family, not the on-court histrionics. Pete
Sampras did not scream, "That's what I'm talking about!" after
winning a set in his prime, half a decade ago, and he didn't take
his motivation from words lovingly scribbled on a piece of paper.
His was a cool and lonely march to greatness, and if his body
sometimes betrayed him with a strange fragility, his talent
carried him time and again. He had his hair and his nerve then.
Losing it all, bit by humiliating bit, didn't seem possible.
At 7:38 p.m. on Sunday, Sampras glanced across the court at his
oldest rival, lifted his left arm and tossed a tennis ball up
into the cooling New York night. Ahead 5-4, 30-0 in the fourth
set of the most unlikely Grand Slam final of the year, two points
away from a victory no one had predicted, about to hit a second
serve against the greatest returner in the game, Sampras felt the
wind at his back. His stomach began to churn. His mind raced:
What if I miss? What if it sails? But this time, unlike so many
times in the past two years, he didn't falter. He held nothing
back. His right arm came slicing down, his racket strings gave
off that sweet pock! and the ball flew cleanly down the T at 119
mph. Andre Agassi froze as the ace blew past him. And for the
first time in years, the words appeared again in Sampras's mind:
I'm going to do it.
Suddenly everyone else knew too. The crowd of 23,157 that had
packed Arthur Ashe Stadium and the millions watching on TV leaned
in with jaws hanging. None of it made sense. Hadn't Yevgeny
Kafelnikov called for Sampras's retirement in April, saying
Sampras was staining his legacy with so many losses? Hadn't Greg
Rusedski, after losing a five-setter to Sampras just six days
earlier, declared, "You're used to seeing Pete Sampras, 13-time
Grand Slam champion. It's not the same player"? If only they knew
how close the 31-year-old Sampras had come to retiring. Yet here
he was, about to wrap up the U.S. Open with a victory over his
fitter, higher-ranked opponent and, with his 14th Grand Slam
title, confirm once again that he is the greatest man ever to
play the game.
"This [title] might mean more than any of them," Sampras says. "I
take pride in having the whole package--the talent and the heart
and the mind--and if there was a year I needed that heart and mind
and support, it's this year. There were moments I felt empty. To
get through that, to come back and beat all these young guys and
beat Andre in the final, is a fitting way to end it."
After the final was over, after Sampras had won 6-3, 6-4, 5-7,
6-4, tennis great Tony Trabert announced to the fans, "The king
is not dead." For that they can credit his queen. Sampras had
been annoyed by all the over-the-hill talk, which had gotten
louder as his winless streak grew to 33 tournaments, but nothing
enraged him more than speculation that his marriage to actress
Bridgette Wilson, which occurred 2 1/2 months after his last
tournament victory, at Wimbledon in 2000, might be a reason. On
the contrary: As the losses piled up, and Sampras shuffled
coaches, and tennis became more burden than bonus to him,
Bridgette was the only reason he kept going. More than once,
notably after his nightmare loss to unknown George Bastl at
Wimbledon this year, Sampras considered quitting. Bridgette
wouldn't hear of it. "Don't believe this crap that people are
saying," she told him. "Stop on your own terms. Just promise me
Sampras promised. "When she said that, it gave me some life," he
says. "I was like, Screw these people. Just believe." Instead of
walking, he rehired coach Paul Annacone and began working on the
relentless, go-for-broke approach that made his run through this
Open so exhilarating.
The men's tour ought to send Bridgette a thank-you note. Fatigued
by the year's overstuffed schedule and the tour's unprecedented
depth, a record 10 men quit during matches at this year's Open
because of cramps or injuries. Meanwhile, the tour's next
generation of stars--defending champ Lleyton Hewitt, No. 2 Marat
Safin and much-hyped Americans Andy Roddick and James
Blake--buckled in the hard-court vise of Flushing Meadows, the
most punishing and the fairest test on the tennis calendar. After
a year characterized by colorless Grand Slam champions such as
Australian Open titlist Thomas Johansson and French Open winner
Albert Costa, the prospect of a U.S. Open final featuring the
sixth and 17th seeds might have plunged the ATP staff into
clinical depression. But then, nobody expected those seeds to be
Agassi and Sampras.
"This is the first Slam in eight years where I didn't even look
at the draw to see where those guys were," said ATP trainer Doug
Spreen last Saturday evening. "Shows what I know."
Though Agassi, 32, had won four tournaments this year, he hadn't
been to a Slam final since winning the 2001 Australian, and he
hadn't gotten a big-time crack at Sampras since losing to him in
a four-set classic a year ago at Flushing Meadows. But suddenly
the two men sniffed one more--and most likely one last--Grand Slam
final showdown. As lesser names dropped out and rain drummed the
nerves of everyone else, Agassi and Sampras, showing none of
their recent vulnerability, tunneled through the draw toward each
other, greatness seeking its own level. Only late on Saturday,
after the men's semifinals, did it become clear that the fates
had been conspiring to unleash the closest thing tennis has to a
perfect storm. The only comparable men's rivalry, John McEnroe
versus Jimmy Connors, was played out over 34 matches. This would
be number 34 for Agassi and Sampras.
"Did you hear that crowd?" Spreen asked Agassi after he took out
the top-seeded Hewitt in the second semifinal.
"Wait till tomorrow," Agassi said.
Agassi had the tougher road in, wrestling Hewitt for just under
three hours in the unseasonable heat before pinning him 6-4, 7-6,
6-7, 6-2. Sampras disposed of an outclassed Sjeng Schalken 7-6,
7-6, 6-2, but before that he had to get by one of the summer's
hottest players, Rusedski; the third seed, Tommy Haas; and the
20-year-old Roddick. "It's what he's been saying all along,"
Roddick said after being crushed by Sampras in straight sets.
"I'm not done yet."
Once again Roddick failed to make much of a dent at a Slam. Aside
from one astonishing point in his fourth-round match against Juan
Ignacio Chela, Roddick's most endearing moment in New York was
the news flash that when he and Serena Williams were preteens at
the Rick Macci Tennis Academy in Florida, Williams beat him in
the one match they played. "Ask him," Williams said last week.
"Indirectly, I've beaten a lot of people on the men's tour."
Hey, she's earned the right to brag. A year after losing to her
older sister Venus in a historic U.S. Open final, Serena
decisively won Saturday night's rematch, 6-4, 6-3, taking her
third straight Slam final--each over Venus--and forcing another
shift in the women's game. Just a week ago common wisdom had the
two Williamses ruling this world, jointly pushing the game to a
level never imagined by Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. "I
think both Serena and Venus are even better," said Monica Seles
after losing to Venus in the quarterfinals 6-2, 6-3. "I don't
think Martina or Steffi could serve as hard as Serena and Venus
But now Serena reigns alone. A sprained ankle knocked her out of
the Australian Open, but since then she has lost only three of 46
matches, all by the slimmest of margins. Clad in a skintight
black cat suit, flaunting curves and muscles that could be
dreamed up only by the brains at Marvel Comics, undistracted by a
stalker's arrest or by her sister's feelings, the 20-year-old
Serena plowed through the Open without losing a set. She fired
serves so hard and deceptive that her one true challenger in
Queens, Lindsay Davenport, compared her to Sampras. In the final
Serena dictated with ease, overpowering the player who had taught
"Little sister's gotten a little better over the last year,
hasn't she?" Trabert asked Venus on court after the drubbing.
Venus stood there speechless, grinning weakly.
That the two sisters failed to replicate their stirring Wimbledon
final revived worries that they can't muster the competitive fury
required for great matches. But more troubling is the fact that
Venus, 22, left the Open a joyless shadow of her former self. She
had won three tournaments heading into the Open and would have
claimed the No. 1 ranking had she won it. But she showed little
vitality at Flushing Meadows. She spoke of feeling exhausted. "I
just had to tune out everything--people just wear you to death and
talk so much," Venus said. "I just wanted to get away from the
hype. I think Serena likes the attention."
She has liked it all year. Ever since Venus waxed her in last
year's Open final, Serena has been a changed player--taking fewer
chances on her backhand, placing her serve better, using her
practice sessions with Venus to learn how to win again. "It's not
that I thought I could win all three [Slam titles]," Serena said
on Saturday night. "I just said, 'I'm tired of losing. I'm not
going to lose anymore.' Life was passing me by."
No one in tennis knows that urgency better than Agassi and
Sampras. The two men--who first faced each other at Flushing
Meadows in 1990, when the 19-year-old Sampras drilled the
20-year-old Agassi in straight sets to win the first of his five
Open titles--have always been opposites in every category:
personality, playing style, approach to celebrity. They are not
friends, but time has made them allies as much as rivals.
Together they've produced some of the finest tennis matches in
history. Forever paired in the public mind, they've watched each
other go bald, fall in and out of love, win big and lose plenty.
Everything has changed since '90: Agassi's wife, Steffi Graf,
watches his matches and minds their 10-month-old son. Bridgette
Wilson Sampras is expecting a child. When the two men saw each
other in the locker room on Sunday afternoon, there was no
gamesmanship, just two neighbors grinning tightly and saying a
quick "How ya doin'?" as they passed each other on the way to
In his bag Pete carried a note from Bridgette. "I'm so proud of
you," she wrote. "Go out there and enjoy today and enjoy
yourself, attacking him from the first point on. Continue to do
what you've been doing, playing your game.... Stay strong. Find
your zone. This is your house."
Sampras followed the instructions to the letter. In the first
2 1/2 sets he played as well as a great player can, bombing in
serves, attacking the net, even outhitting Agassi from the
baseline. But fatigue and the ever-shifting wind wore Sampras
down in the third, and Agassi, with the crowd screaming
encouragement, began pounding the ball. He broke Sampras in the
12th game to take the set. In the fourth Sampras barely survived
a bruising, seven-deuce service game to tie things 2-2, and he
seemed completely back on his heels when, at 4-4, he unexpectedly
unleashed an all-court flurry of strokes that broke Agassi. Now,
suddenly, he was serving for the match. Now he was hitting that
second-serve ace to make it 40-0. Agassi held off one match
point, but at 40-15 Sampras served and volleyed like few players
do anymore, cutting the classic figure at net as he smacked a
backhand volley to finish the most amazing run of his career.
"Kind of an eerie feeling," he said later. "It all happened so
quickly at the end."
Time moves like that when you're older, and when summer comes to
a close. Sampras threw up his arms, then dropped a hand on his
head in disbelief. He went to the net and hugged Agassi, and for
the first time on a tennis court Sampras told him, "You're the
best I ever played." Then Sampras tossed his racket aside and
climbed the stairs to where his wife stood. He grabbed her and
hugged her and whispered, "I love you. Thank you. You kept me
Sampras doesn't know if he'll be back at the Open again. He
grinned as the cheers rolled down from the stands. Agassi stood
blank-faced. Young in any world but this one, the two old men
stood together, faces out of a decade past. Sooner than anyone
hopes, they will be gone.
women's tennis. But now Serena reigns alone.
friends, but time has made them allies as much as rivals.