Blast from past: Agassi vs. Sampras

Posted: Sunday, September 08, 2002

NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi smiled as the meaning of the moment became clear. He had just beaten one of tennis' young stars to set up an improbable U.S. Open final with an old one.

He and Pete Sampras, their best days behind them, are the best of the present.

''You would have gotten some great odds on making this bet before the tournament,'' Agassi said Saturday.

He's seeded just sixth. Sampras, who hasn't won a tournament in more than two years, is 17th. But they met in the 1990 and 1995 Open finals with Sampras winning both.

The rematch is set for Sunday.

''It's a great clash,'' Sampras said. ''It will be one to remember.''

After Sampras beat him in the quarterfinals last year, Agassi thought that might be their final meeting at the Open.

''I think it's always easy to wonder that as time moves on,'' said Agassi, who trails his lifetime series with Sampras 19-14.

This time, it was the youngsters who were left behind.

Agassi is 11 years older than the man he beat in the semifinals, 21-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, the top-seeded player and defending champion.

The score was 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (1), 6-2 as Hewitt lost the last four games and 11 of the last 12 points.

''There's no shame for me in losing to Andre Agassi,'' Hewitt said. ''He's one of the greatest players ever to live.''

Sampras, 31, beat Sjeng Schalken, who turns 26 Sunday, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2.

''He comes to the net all the time, puts pressure on me,'' Schalken said. ''He was placing the ball so good with 120 mph serves. I couldn't touch the ball.''

The championship match will be a clash of styles -- Sampras' aggressive serve-and-volley game against Agassi's patient baseline strategy.

Sampras reached a milestone when he won the 2000 Wimbledon tournament to set a record with his 13th Grand Slam title. He hasn't won a tournament since.

Agassi has seven Grand Slam championships, including two Opens, and has done better than Sampras this year with four titles. But emotion should play a big role in Sunday's match as Sampras seeks his fifth Open title.

He lost the championship match the last two years to Marat Safin and Hewitt but insists he has one more Grand Slam title in him.

''If I didn't believe it, I wouldn't attempt to play,'' Sampras said.

He's seeded only 17th here after being the world's top-ranked player from 1993 through 1998 before Agassi ended 1999 at No. 1. Schalken, who lost to Hewitt in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, is seeded 24th.

Sampras flashed his trademark fist pump after several critical points. After match point, he didn't have to walk far to shake Schalken's hand.

That's because Sampras finished Schalken off with another backhand volley a few feet from the net.

Sampras won 62 of 85 points at the net while Schalken tried only nine and won them all. Sampras was just as dominant with his serve, belting 23 aces to five for Schalken.

''My serve is my weapon. I'm going to use it whenever I can,'' Sampras said.

Agassi's serve is less effective but he used it when it was most important. In the final game against Hewitt, he fired two aces on his way to a 40-0 lead. Hewitt won the next two points before Agassi finished with a forehand to the corner that the Australian couldn't reach.

Hewitt couldn't capitalize on earlier chances -- losing the first set after going up 3-0 and the second after serving with a 5-3 lead.

''I feel like I still can improve,'' Agassi said. ''My body feels great.''

The crowd Sunday should be split in its sentiment but, for a change, Agassi won't root for Sampras.

''We've grown up together. You hear all this talk about his game, where he's at, where he's not at,'' Agassi said. ''Inside my own heart and mind, I've been pulling for him.''

Just as Sampras has had a soft spot for Agassi.

''I have a lot of respect for Andre,'' he said.

At least two things are certain: An American will be the champion for the first time since Agassi beat Todd Martin in 1999. And the winner will be the oldest U.S. Open champion since Ken Rosewall, who was 35 when he won in 1970.

''It's going to be a blast,'' Agassi said. ''A toast to the past.''

And the present.

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