Sampras wins first title in more than two yearsPosted: Sunday September 08, 2002 7:55 PM
Updated: Monday September 09, 2002 12:08 AM
NEW YORK (AP) -- 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 and fellow American 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, when Australia's Ken Rosewell claimed the title aged 35.
And though he stopped short of saying he'll quit, Sampras did sound like someone who's thinking about retiring on a high.
"To beat a rival like Andre, in a storybook ending, it might be nice to stop," he said. "But I still love to compete. I'll see in a couple of months where my heart is and my mind. My head is spinning."
Sampras' play faded in the third and fourth sets, and it was hard to tell whether Agassi or time was taking the bigger toll. But he managed to hold on.
Sampras hadn't won a title since Wimbledon in July 2000, a drought of 33 tournaments, and he was seeded just 17th at the Open. He's deflected questions about whether he'd keep going for some time now, insisting he still could produce on the big stage. After all, he figured, his 13 major titles were a record.
"This one might take the cake," Sampras said. "The way I've been going this year, to come through this and play the way I did today was awesome. I peaked at the right time."
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 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 and 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).
"It was special. You can't get around that," Agassi said.
If the 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. Yells of "Pete!" from one corner would be echoed by "Andre!" from another.
"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. 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 212 kph (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.
"I played so well today," Sampras said. "Andre brings out the best in me every time I step out with him."
At 4-3 in the first set, Sampras earned the first break point of the match and converted when Agassi's backhand 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 175 kph (109 mph).
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 a break.
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 late innings.
"He's a good pressure-point player," Agassi said. "He senses the important times of the match and puts pressure on you and elevates his game."
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 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 in the 1990 U.S. Open, setting the record for youngest winner, 19.