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Sports Views

Posted: Monday, September 09, 2002

Rivals chided him, friends gave him advice, and his family tried to console him.

Hardly anyone believed Pete Sampras really could win again.

They thought his legs were gone, his serve had lost its sting, his forehand was shot. They thought that at 31 the game had passed him by, that he was chasing rainbows, deluding himself.

Every time some no-name player beat him in this year of misery on the court, Sampras seemed more and more pathetic. He looked bewildered, admitted he had lost his confidence, yet kept insisting that somehow he would win one more.

Sampras, as it turned out, knew himself better than anyone else did.

His 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 triumph over Andre Agassi on Sunday to win a fifth U.S. Open and capture a 14th Grand Slam title was a tribute to perseverance and resilience in the face of a world of doubt.

Sampras said he wants to play at least one more year. But if he never wins another major, he can walk away satisfied that he defied his critics with the perfect bookend to his career. A dozen years ago at the U.S. Open, he won his first major title by beating Agassi in the final. To close it out with a similar victory would be a fitting symmetry.

Sampras and Agassi have been going at each other for two decades, since they were teenage twigs with championship dreams. They met this time as the oldest pairing in a U.S. Open final, Agassi at 32 and looking for his eighth Grand Slam title.

Yet the message about age in this match is that it didn't matter. Sampras cracked 33 aces, crushed volleys and ran as hard as he always did. Agassi pummeled groundstrokes with all the force of his best years and lost only because Sampras was too good. On this day, with his serve clipping the lines at 130 mph, no one of any age would have beaten Sampras.

''I was having a hard time getting on it and getting off the mark and making any sort of impact at all,'' Agassi said. ''I think he sensed that.''

It took Agassi nearly two hours to find even a crack in Sampras' game, to break him with lunging returns and extend the match to a fourth set. But Sampras kept tattooing the lines, pressuring Agassi, and beat him for the 20th time in their 34 career meetings by coming up, once more, with bigger shots on the big points.

''This one might take the cake,'' Sampras said. ''I never thought anything would surpass what happened at Wimbledon a couple of years ago. But the way I've been going this year, to come through this and play the way I did today was, it was awesome. ''

That 2000 Wimbledon victory, his seventh on Centre Court, was one of the most emotional of his life. He set the men's record for Grand Slam titles and, for the first time, his parents were there to watch. They all shed tears when they hugged at the end.

This time, his pregnant wife -- actress Bridgette Wilson -- was courtside, and he walked into the stands at the end to hug her. Instead of tears, they shared smiles and a long, meaningful look of love and relief after all they had been through. He had hugs, too, for his sister and his coach, Paul Annacone, who came back to prepare him for this tournament after they broke up last year.

''Those people really are the reason I'm here,'' Sampras said. ''I had that support. There were moments where I was struggling to continue to play. My wife really supported me and kept me positive, kept me upbeat. That support was huge for me at this stage of my career.

''So much of what I was going through this year was mental. It wasn't forehands and backhands and serves. It was kind of my head space. I wasn't real positive, kind of got down on myself extremely quick out there.''

The route to the championship couldn't have been much harder for Sampras. Aside from all the problems he had coming in, all the early losses in tournaments this summer, the rain had wrecked the first week of the Open. Sampras had to win five matches in seven days and go through some tough players: Greg Rusedski, Tommy Haas, and the new American hopeful, Andy Roddick.

Sampras beat Rusedski in five sets, only to hear the Brit claim that he wasn't impressed. Sampras was ''a step-and-a-half'' slower than he used to be, Rusedski said, and wouldn't get past anyone else. Sampras shot back that he didn't have to be faster to beat Rusedski, then he went on to take out Haas in four sets and Roddick in three.

''His game is able to raise itself at the right time,'' Agassi said. ''There's still a danger in the way he plays and how good he is. Anybody that says something different is really ignorant. They don't understand the game of tennis. Pete has a lot of weapons out there.''

Sampras knew it all along. He believed in himself and just had to convince everyone else.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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