NEW YORK -- Pete Sampras was right all along: He did have a 14th Grand Slam title in him. And just like the first, all those years ago, it came in a U.S. Open final against his old rival Andre Agassi.
His serve clicking, his volleys on target, his forehand as fluid as ever, Sampras beat Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 Sunday to win America's major for the fifth time. At 31, Sampras is the Open's oldest champion since 1970.
''I guess I'm back,'' Sampras said. ''I played so well today. Andre brings out the best in me every time I step out with him.''
Sampras' play faded in the third set and the fourth, and it was hard to tell whether Agassi or time was taking the bigger toll. But Sampras managed to hold on, the rebuke to his doubters as loud as the sound made by his 33 aces as they slapped the walls behind the baselines: Pop!
''I kind of got in the zone there a little bit,'' Sampras said. ''It felt good.''
When the 32-year-old Agassi put a backhand into the net to give Sampras the last break he would need, making it 5-4 in the fourth set, Sampras was so drained he barely lifted a fist, slowly pumping it once as he trudged to the changeover.
He then served it out, with an ace to match point, and a volley winner to end it. And he had enough energy to climb the stairs in the stands to kiss and hug his pregnant wife, actress Bridgette Wilson.
Sampras hadn't won a title since July 2000, a drought of 33 tournaments, and his record this year was barely above .500 before the Open, resulting in a seeding of 17th. He's deflected questions about retirement for some time now, insisting he still could produce on the big stage. After all, he figured, his 13 major titles were a record.
Indeed, Sampras played his best tennis at the U.S. Open the past two years, making it to the championship match before losing in straight sets to a pair of 20-year-old first-time Grand Slam finalists: Lleyton Hewitt in 2001, Marat Safin in 2000.
On Sunday, Sampras got to pick on someone his own age: Agassi, winner of seven Grand Slam titles. They've played each other since the junior ranks, before they were 10, and now have met 34 times as pros (Sampras holds a 20-14 edge, including 4-1 in major finals).
If Sunday's match signaled the end of an era, they produced a gorgeous goodbye.
The crowd of more than 23,000 in Arthur Ashe Stadium split its rooting evenly, throwing more vocal support to whichever player trailed. Still, any time a yell of ''Pete!'' came from one corner, an ''Andre!'' would follow.
''Pete just played a little too good for me today,'' Agassi said. ''It's great to hear New York cheer again. It was beautiful being here.''
What a study in contrasts. Agassi is the baseline slugger, the greatest returner of his generation, and a true showman (he is from Las Vegas, after all). Sampras is a volleyer always looking to get to the net, the greatest server of his generation, and almost always staid on court.
Each played the assigned role to perfection, Sampras smacking his serves at up to 132 mph, and winning the point on 69 of 105 trips to the net. Agassi ventured to the net just 13 times, but conjured up 19 groundstroke winners to Sampras' 16.
Yet, as though a mirror were at the net, each also showed he can do what the other built a career on. Sampras whipped a backhand return to a corner to set up a service break in the second set; Agassi slammed a service winner at 117 mph to save a break point at 3-3 in the fourth set.
The first four games of the match ended at love, Sampras finding the lines with first and second serves, and Agassi cracking ground strokes right where he wanted them.
Agassi already was walking to the changeover chair when Sampras ended the seventh game with an ace at 117 mph. Pop!
In the next game, Sampras earned the first break point of the match and converted when Agassi's backhand pass flew wide. Then, serving for the set at 5-3, Sampras faced his first break point. How did he handle it? A second-serve ace at 109 mph. Pop!
The second set was similar, Agassi not quite handling the speed and movement of Sampras' serving -- he held at love four times -- and Sampras getting the break he needed.
Agassi finally was able to measure Sampras' serve with some regularity in the third set, like a hitter who catches up to a tiring pitcher's fastball in the late innings.
With the crowd cheering Sampras' faults -- hey, they wanted to see more than three sets -- he obliged with a double to give Agassi set point. And Agassi took advantage, stretching for a sharp backhand return that Sampras volleyed into the net.
Showing a bit of gamesmanship, Sampras took a bathroom break. Then, into the grind of a fourth set, nearly three hours into the match, Sampras faced a break point with Agassi ahead 4-3 in the fourth set. How did he erase it? An ace, of course. Pop!
They had walked out as shadows started to creep across the court, and neither looked much like they did in their 1990 U.S. Open final, where Sampras started his collection of majors.
Back then, Sampras was bushy haired and his arms were as thin as a ball boy's. Agassi was Mr. Image is Everything, with long blond hair and denim shorts. And on Sunday, there was Sampras, his hair thin on top, his bulging right forearm three times thicker than his left. There was Agassi, his head shaved, his outfit downright conventional. Both of their wives were in the crowd -- Agassi's, Steffi Graf, watched with their baby son.
Based on recent play, the showdown seemed improbable. At July's Wimbledon, both lost in the second round to players ranked outside the top 50.
But they are in great shape. Agassi was out under the midday sun, swatting shots on a practice court in a black T-shirt. Sampras, headphones on, jogged in the hallway outside the locker room shortly before taking the court.
The last time they played on the Grand Slam stage was in last year's U.S. Open quarterfinals, a match Sampras won in four tiebreakers, with neither player breaking serve. It was presumed by many to be their last meeting at a major.
After, Agassi leaned over the net, offering wishes of good luck the rest of the way in that tournament by whispering, ''Win this thing.''
One year later, Sampras did.
Yes, the same Sampras who beat Agassi so long ago in the U.S. Open, setting the record for youngest winner, 19.
Nice career bookends, huh?
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