Work in Sports
American Agassi advances to 4th straight Grand Slam finals
Posted: Thursday January 27, 2000 12:00 AM
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- When Andre Agassi finished bowing and blowing kisses, and Pete Sampras moped away, 15,000 delirious, utterly drained fans at the Australian Open stared at each other as if sharing a secret treasure.
They knew they had witnessed that rarest of matches when history and greatness converge and two players push each other to the limit with the stakes high on a Grand Slam stage.
Only Sampras could make the best returner in tennis look feeble in a tiebreak shutout.
Only Agassi could absorb 37 aces from Sampras and still find a way to win.
Only the two of them could produce the most exquisite rallies, point after point for five sets over three hours, each taking turns hurling himself horizontally to hit balls that seemed impossibly out of reach.
Together they put on a show for the film archives Thursday night, Agassi winning 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (0-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 to become the first man to reach four straight Grand Slam finals since Rod Laver swept them all in 1969.
The French and U.S. Open champion last year and runner-up to Sampras at Wimbledon, Agassi will go after his sixth major title Sunday against the winner of Friday's semifinal between defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Magnus Norman.
For Sampras, the pursuit of a record 13th major title will have to wait.
"Andre and I have been a part of a lot of epics," Sampras said. "Today was definitely one of them, and he got the best of me."
Sampras said he strained a muscle in his right hip early in the match, but added, "I am not sitting here with an excuse why I lost. He outplayed me." The injury, though, might keep him out of Davis Cup play next week when the U.S. team goes to Zimbabwe.
Just once before in their 29 matches over the past 11 years had Sampras and Agassi, the preeminent tennis puncher and counterpuncher, engaged in a five-setter. That was at Wimbledon in 1993, and the victory by Sampras was only the third of the 17 he would win in their rivalry.
Going into Thursday's match, Sampras had won four of their past five duels, and Agassi desperately wanted to stop that trend.
Agassi didn't let himself get intimidated by Sampras' aces.
"I could go out in the match and make it my goal not to get aced that many times and go into a defense mode on return, stretch, and get my racket around it," Agassi said. "That's not the kind of returner I am. If I get my racket on the ball, I immediately want to have the offense so it means you have to take more chances.
"His acing me wasn't so much of a concern as getting the break points and not converting them. That can get discouraging."
Like all good dramas, this match on a cool, breezy night had everything, even laughter when a flock of seagulls suddenly filled the sky while Agassi was serving early in the third set. Agassi paused, then watched while they bombarded him and the court.
"I don't mind them flying over, it's just when they decided to drop me a few presents," said Agassi, who helped mop up the court with a towel.
If a five-set match can be distilled to one point that changed everything, it came when Sampras began serving with Agassi leading 1-0 in the final set.
Agassi had already saved the match in the fourth-set tiebreaker when Sampras stood two points from victory at 5-4. Two service winners and a forehand pass on Sampras' serve gave Agassi the set. Agassi pumped his fist as if delivering a knockout punch, and Sampras sagged in realization of the blown opportunity.
Now, when he toed the line to serve in the final set, Sampras tried to ace Agassi up the middle. Instead, Agassi leapt and drilled a return to Sampras' feet. Sampras hit a volley crosscourt that Agassi caught reflexively on a short hop. Sampras again tried to put it away with a forehand crosscourt, only to see Agassi dive after it and volley it back for a winner.
Two amazing shots on one point by Agassi. The crowd cheering wildly. Sampras slumping, staring at his shoes. Everyone feeling that the definitive moment had come.
Sampras, broken in spirit if not yet on the scoreboard, netted an easy approach shot on the next point. At 15-30, Sampras uncharacteristically shouted his annoyance at Agassi's loudly cheering coach, Brad Gilbert, who sat next to Agassi's girlfriend, Steffi Graf, at courtside. Photographers turned their cameras toward Gilbert, and Graf sank in her seat.
Rattled or not by Gilbert, Sampras was sinking fast. A sharp forehand by Agassi led to a long volley by Sampras for 15-40, and a lunging forehand down the line by Agassi produced the only break he would need in the set.
"That's a huge momentum change because a few minutes ago the match was close to being over and all of a sudden there is a break in the fifth," Agassi said. "A good position for me to be in and difficult for him."
"In the span of five minutes," Sampras said, "the whole match changed. It was a downhill spiral for me from that point on. I got a little down on myself and he took advantage of it."
It was a stunning capitulation by Sampras, who had one of the best five-set records in history -- 28-10 coming in -- and had won all eight of his Australian Open five-setters.
By the time Agassi broke again for a 5-1 lead, the victory was a foregone conclusion, and he finished out the match with the help of his 12th and 13th aces.
"The best feeling is when somebody pushes you to your limit and you dig down a little extra," Agassi said. "That can happen with any player. Somehow it seems to be asked of you more when you play Pete, like today."