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.
And a confident Andre Agassi plays extraordinary tennis. This has been true since he burst onto the scene in 1986. Back then, Ivan Lendl called him "a haircut and a forehand." But Lendl, perhaps smarting over his own lack of charisma, was wrong. Unquestionably, from the get-go Agassi was promoting an image. The hype and the hair seemed purposeful, precisely what you'd expect from a Las Vegas-bred phenom. He's made good on the hype. The hair is gone.
Even as a teenager, Agassi backed up his "Image Is Everything" tagline with wonderful strokes and tournament victories. Now, at 30, he has the finest forehand-backhand combination I've ever seen. Agassi reminds me of Tiger Woods. You simply don't want to walk away when he's playing. Like Tiger, Andre is always compelling and frequently brilliant.
Agassi's hand-eye coordination is unequaled. He sees the ball earlier than anyone and hits it sooner and harder. Imagine a boxer pounding away with these assets and you'll get an idea of Agassi's relentless pressure. I think he's got two or three more years of top tennis in him. He could win another four Slams, leaving him with 10--ahead of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and just behind such titans as Bjorn Borg, Laver and Sampras.
THE SECRET OF SAMPRAS
Sampras is a different animal from Agassi. In the spirit of his heroes, Australians Laver and Ken Rosewall, he lets his racket do the talking. To me, that's a bit of a cop-out. In today's big-money, mass-media world, it would be great for tennis if Sampras were more forthcoming.
Yet as an athlete, Sampras has honored his profession. Unlike Agassi, his ambition is unwavering. No one except Sampras has ever finished the year ranked number one for six consecutive seasons. While Agassi continues to pursue greatness, if Sampras quit today he would still be ranked in the highest echelon.
But Sampras wants to achieve a lot more. He's deceptively driven and tenacious. That's hard to detect because his points are often so short. But if you pay attention to Sampras during a match, you'll see someone who moves like a panther and strikes like a cobra. He's the most complete player in tennis history. At 14, Sampras abandoned his two-handed backhand for a versatile one-hander. He's comfortable at the baseline and adroit at the net. And his serve--unquestionably the most important shot in the sport--is textbook, a relaxed, fluid motion delivered with power and pinpoint placement.
Losing to Agassi in Australia motivated the daylights out of Sampras. Like Laver, Sampras strikes back powerfully when wounded. His biggest concerns will be his health and getting enough match play under his belt.
So what can we expect from Agassi-Sampras over the coming months? Even though Agassi is the favorite in Paris, he'll face many challenges. Past champions like Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Gustavo Kuerten and Carlos Moya are hungry. Other talents like Marcelo Rios, Cedric Pioline and Alex Corretja must be considered. Yet most threatening to Agassi are the dozens of faceless grinders who can retrieve enough balls to force him into errors. Grubbing through seven matches like this can frustrate even the greatest of players.
Sampras has only once reached the semis in Paris. It's fascinating to watch an attacker like Pete try to think his way through the slow clay. There's no doubt in my mind that Sampras can win in Paris. I believe he should play more European clay events than he has in the past and learn to feel comfortable attacking on his terms rather than get seduced into hanging back at the baseline.
But the truth is that Agassi has a better chance at Wimbledon than Sampras does at the French. Agassi has won Wimbledon once and reached the final last year. If London's weather is hot, the soft grass will play more like a hard court--Agassi's favorite surface.
That said, Sampras is a much greater favorite to win Wimbledon than Agassi is to win in Paris. Sampras is the king of Wimbledon, having won six of the last seven (46 matches won, 1 lost). If his game suffers a 25 percent penalty at the French, at Wimbledon he gains a 25 percent reward. Besides his tremendous serve, Sampras's high-quality ground game constantly challenges opposing servers. Once he breaks serve, you might as well start another set.
While other attackers like Mark Philippoussis, Greg Rusedski, Richard Krajicek, Todd Martin, Tim Henman, Patrick Rafter or Goran Ivanisevic could make an impact at Wimbledon, their injuries and mental shortcomings keep me from betting on any of them to topple Sampras.
So here's how tennis 2000 shakes out: Agassi and Sampras will fight for the top spot all year long like two dogs wrestling for a bone. No matter where these two meet, no matter what the surface, bullets will fly and the tennis will be brilliant. But not until September's U.S. Open will we truly reach high noon.
Cliff Drysdale is a tennis commentator for ESPN and a former pro. Joel Drucker, a Cigar Aficionado contributor, collaborated on this article.