Believe the hype
Sampras, Agassi deliver a classic
By Albert Lin, CNNSI.com
NEW YORK -- The only word that fits is epic.
At 12:14 EDT Thursday morning, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi finally concluded their gladiatorial battle, a three-hour, 33-minute match that had the feel of a Grand Slam final. In a quarterfinal that went to four tiebreakers and in which neither player lost serve, Sampras prevailed 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6.
"That's probably about as good as it gets," Sampras said. "Playing the very best in a night match at the U.S. Open, the atmosphere was phenomenal. And it was so close, it really was."
Both players were dominant on serve. Each connected on more than 63 percent of their first serves and won more than 75 percent of those points. Agassi climbed out of 0-40 and 15-40 deficits, each time shutting out Sampras the rest of the game.
Neither Sampras nor Agassi could recall participating in another match in which there were no service breaks. "Both of us taking care of our serve the way we were, I felt like I was playing a match that was a lot more familiar to him than to me," Agassi said. Indeed, Sampras has now won 71 consecutive service games this fortnight.
As the match wore on, it became clear that the outcome would be a case of first-one-to-blink wins. Both Sampras and Agassi were able to play to their strengths, which only added to the drama. Sampras kept attacking, coming to the net 137 times, while Agassi stayed back and blistered lasers off both sides. Whenever one needed a point, he got it -- via ace, service winner or a line-painting groundstroke. As each set reached a tiebreaker, the crowd became more vocal.
"I think we both played at a very high level," said Sampras, who is now 17-0 beneath the lights at the U.S. Open. "You got one of the best serve-and-volleyers in the game against one of the best returners, going toe-to-toe.
"He can't feel too bad about the way he played; I just got the breaks today."
Agassi saved two match points on Sampras' serve in that fourth-set tiebreaker before netting a forehand to close the match. In the news conference afterward, Agassi was subdued but thoughtful, carefully considering each question before answering. Still, he seemed confused about how he failed to advance.
"Every loss is hard and disappointing in its own right," said Agassi, who is now 49-2 at Flushing Meadows when winning the first set (his other loss was to Ivan Lendl in a 1988 semifinal). "At the end of the day you just want to feel like you made somebody really earn it, and that I can feel like I did.
"I don't think it was a question of playing better, it was a question of capitalizing. You're talking about a few points that separate a match like that, possibly one point."
Sampras, given up for dead by many observers and seeded 10th, has now reached the semifinals for the eight time. He will face Marat Safin on Saturday in a rematch of last year's final, in which he was embarrassed.
However, it will be hard to top Wednesday night's extravaganza.
"Hopefully, we'll get a few more opportunities," Agassi said. "It's always a challenge to step on the court against him. A night like this makes me realize why it's special to beat him -- because it's not easy to do."
Added Sampras: "When we clash and we're both playing well, I think it's some of best tennis in the game. And it all lived up to the hype tonight."