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Men's 'final' lives up to hype

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Posted: Thursday January 27, 2000 09:38 AM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

MELBOURNE -- The Australian Open decided to try something different this year and play the men's championships on a Thursday night (local time). In fading sunlight, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras took the court for what Fred Stolle called "the popcorn match" of the tournament. The principals in tennis' best rivalry knew deep down that the winner of their match, barring an epic letdown on Sunday, would walk away with the year's first Grand Slam title. Dozens of other players on tour knew it, too. Having been eliminated days ago, at least two dozen other pros congregated in the stands to watch, live and in person. More than 15,000 fans knew it, too, imbuing the match with an atmosphere that was at once rowdy and reverential.

Sampras and Agassi first crossed paths nearly two decades ago, two upstarts in the juniors battling it out on the public courts of Southern California. Even then they had contrasting styles, contrasting personalities, contrasting lifestyles. The differences only intensified as they worked their ways up the ladder, setting the stage for the best one-two punch men's tennis has seen since John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Sampras unabashedly admits, "Andre brings out the best in my game and he's the guy I get most up to play." Likewise, Agassi says, "Playing against Pete, you can't help not get pumped."

Though Sampras and Agassi have now played 29 times, the stakes for Thursday's contest were particularly high. For Sampras, a win would have put him in the final match for his long-avowed quest of breaking the alltime record for Grand Slam titles, which he shares with Australia's own Roy Emerson. For Agassi, it was a chance to make a fourth straight Slam final and edge closer to celebrating his 30th birthday as the world's best player. (Besides, his fraülein schlepped all the way down here, so he wanted to look good for her.)

In the end, the match simply outstripped the hype and anticipation. On the day of Don Budge's passing, two players who will join him in the legends' pantheon put on a patently exhilarating display of five-set tennis. The match had something for everyone: tremendous serving, deft volleying, tense tiebreakers, pinpoint returns, absurd angles and grace under pressure. If ever a match resembled a momentous heavyweight fight, this was it. Agassi drew first blood, winning the opening set 6-4. Sampras won the middle rounds with overpowering blows, winning the next two sets. Wobbly and on the ropes, Agassi got a second wind to win a fourth-set tiebreaker. Finally, he had more fuel in the tank and was simply the last man standing in the end, withstanding 37 aces.

"I played well at the right times," Agassi said afterwards. "I couldn't have asked for a better situation." Neither could the fans, who responded to the 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-1 epic with a protracted standing O. Now if only the folks at future Grand Slams have the good sense to put these two gladiators in different brackets.

Quick volleys

Down 5-0 to Martina Hingis and Mary Pierce, Lindsay Davenport and partner Corina Morariu pulled out of the doubles when Davenport's stomach muscle injury was acting up. She expects to be fine for Saturday's singles final after a day of rest. ... Todd Martin has pulled out of the first Davis Cup tie in Zimbabwe with an undisclosed ailment. The candidates to take his place include doubles specialists Jared Palmer and Alex O'Brien. ... The avaricious USTA could stand to take a cue from the Australian Open's food prices: A sandwich goes for $2.50, a personal pizza is $3, Cokes are $1.20 and a bowl of Singapore noodles will set you back $4.50.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will file daily from the Australian Open. Don't forget to submit a question to his Tennis Mailbag.

Related information
Agassi subdues Sampras, moves on to Aussie finals
Wednesday's On the Court: Norman is showing plenty of heart
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