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Insights: Sports—Tale of the Tennis Titans

Agassi and Sampras prepare for Grand Slam showdowns
Cliff Drysdale
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

As tennis season reaches full boil, the biggest story in the men's game is the rivalry between Americans Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Just as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dominated the National Basketball Association in the 1980s, Agassi and Sampras make anyone else a distant third. No others have ever struck the ball as well.  

The rivalry thrives on contrasts. Agassi, armed with the best return of serve ever, loves attention. He treats matches as crusades and energizes crowds. Sampras, owner of the greatest serve in history, has been so consistently first-rate that he can promptly diffuse any threat--to the point where his excellence is almost taken for granted. Off the court, Agassi is visceral, confessional, eager to interact. Sampras is subdued, private, innately remote.    


With two of the sport's four prestigious Grand Slam events pending--the clay-court French Open runs from May 29 to June 11 and Wimbledon, tennis's counterpart to golf's Masters tournament, starts two weeks later on grass--an update of this fascinating rivalry is in order. By winning the French and U.S. Open titles, Agassi finished 1999 ranked number one on the ATP Tour computer. Yet Agassi knew his preeminence was marred by an asterisk: an injury had kept Sampras from squaring off with him at the U.S. Open. Moreover, Sampras had won four of their five matches in 1999, including straight-set victories, in the final of Wimbledon and the season-ending ATP Tour Championships.  

The asterisk inspired Agassi to work furiously over the Christmas holidays. As 2000 began, he wanted desperately to eliminate any doubt that he was the world's best player.  

All eyes were riveted on January's Australian Open and the Agassi-Sampras semifinal. When Sampras took a lead of two sets to one, I wondered if a defeat would trigger an Agassi tailspin similar to the one he'd experienced when Sampras beat him in the finals of the 1995 U.S. Open. In the two years following that match, Agassi plummeted from number one to 141 in the world.  

But after being two points away from losing this year in Australia, Agassi roared back. He showed newfound grit and improved court speed as he has so often over the past year. Two days later, he won his sixth Grand Slam title. Not since Rod Laver won them all in 1969 has a male player equaled Agassi's feat of reaching four straight Grand Slam finals.  

As for Sampras, 1999 was the first year since 1992 that he did not finish ranked number one. Sharing the men's record of 12 Grand Slam singles titles, Sampras remains eager to win big tournaments and regain the top spot. But he'll have to get past Agassi to be number one again. Even when Agassi was out of the top 100, Sampras considered Agassi his biggest rival. This New & Improved Agassi is for real.  

The catalyst for the resurgence of the Sampras-Agassi rivalry is Agassi's maturity. The old Agassi was vulnerable to pressure. His career path resembled a roller coaster ride. But two years ago, at 28, he realized there weren't going to be many more chances to swing back to the top. He and his trainer, Gil Reyes, embarked on a fitness regimen that improved his mobility and stamina.  

While fitness is critical for any athlete, Agassi, a baseliner, needs it more than Sampras, a big server. Agassi's physical strength translates into the single most important factor in tennis: confidence.  

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