All in all, it was an appalling showing by everyone involved except Alexandra. Fortunately, by then Agassi and Sampras had begun dismantling Rafter and Hen-man, respectively, in a pair of hugely anticipated semifinals, priming the pump for the biggest match in men's tennis since Sampras took Agassi apart at the '95 U.S. Open final. The rivalry between the game's greatest server and its greatest returner, which reaches back to junior tournaments on the California hard courts, has always demanded much and exacted a toll: That loss in Flushing Meadow sent Agassi's career into a tailspin that left him ranked 141st in late 1997 and Sampras without a measuring stick for his extraordinary talent. "Andre brings out the best in me," Sampras said after Sunday's final. "He elevates my game to a level that is phenomenal."
Since winning last year's Wimbledon, Sampras, at 27, had stumbled into what he calls "a crossroads" in his career. He skipped the '99 Australian Open, lost early at the French and even called Agassi to congratulate him for his stunning win in Paris, something he had never done after an Agassi victory. Sampras insists he was being guileless, but it isn't hard to imagine that the wheels began spinning in both men's minds. For two weeks at Wimbledon, they dressed side-by-side in the locker room, not talking about the confrontation that loomed closer with each win. But when Sampras walked into the training room for a massage after his four-set victory over Henman on Saturday evening, he found Agassi, who had been brilliant in dismantling Rafter in three sets with the No. 1 ranking at stake. The two looked at each other and couldn't help grinning. "When I was 141 in the world, you didn't think you would ever have to go to sleep at night thinking about me, huh?" Agassi said.
"No," Sampras said. "I never thought that. I've played you too many times."
The next morning, Sampras woke up early and scared. "Just an unbelievable fear of losing," he said after the final. "How am I going to feel if I lose this match? But once I get out in the warmup and start playing, I just feel some sort of calmness. I know it's one-on-one, he's feeling the same pressure I'm feeling, and I've been in this position. Something takes over."
Agassi had no chance. Going into the final, he had been far sharper than Sampras, rightly confident that he was playing the best tennis of his career; Sampras had gotten lucky in the quarterfinals when Aussie boomer Mark Philippoussis, up a set and reading Sampras perfectly, pulled up lame with torn cartilage in his left knee. But Sampras on grass is like gasoline on fire: nearly impossible to stop once he gets going. Drilling Agassi with 17 aces—and never allowing Agassi one winner off his first serve—Sampras outhit the game's best baseliner from the baseline and savaged Agassi's serve with pinpoint returns. Twice he went fully horizontal and bloodied his forearm with Beckeresque lunges for volleys. The effort was well spent. In less than two hours, Sampras surpassed his idol, Laver, and Borg, both of whom won 11 Grand Slam singles titles, and left the world's new No. 1 player broken—if only for one day.
"I want another shot at him," Agassi said. "It's the story of my career. He's established himself as one of the greatest players of all time—if not the best—but I want to play him on hard courts again, and I want to play him on clay. I want it, and more. I want this all to happen again for another few years: That's how good it feels. And we'll start with the U.S. Open."
Coming from two Americans on the Fourth of July, such intensity would seem more than enough to bring the recently dormant U.S. tennis scene to life. Davenport certainly gave it new life on the women's side. Growing up, she and Sampras played out of the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Palos Verdes, Calif., where there must be something in the water. Since beating then No. 1 Hingis for the U.S. Open title last September, the once toweringly insecure Davenport has grown more confident, more hungry. By the second week of Wimbledon, Graf had become the sentimental and smart-money favorite to win the title; she had never lost to a baseliner at Wimbledon. But when Davenport, having already secured a place in the final, saw Graf struggling to beat Lucie in the semis, she found herself rooting hard for the former champion.
"I told my coach, T want to play Steffi,' " Davenport said late on Sunday. "In past years, I would've said, 'Oh, Lucie, please win!' But I wanted to play Graf: You lose, you lose to a legend, and if you win, it's more special."
In truth, though, Graf was finished. Davenport drilled her with winner after winner from the baseline and hammered perhaps the greatest player in the game's history into submission. "I'm a little disappointed I could not play better today," Graf said. "I just wish I could've shown more."
She played like someone already gone. Her left thigh was wrapped because of a strained muscle, and all the years of injuries seemed finally to have caught up with her. Nothing, not even the prospect of winning one last Wimbledon, seemed to interest her anymore. Graf had always moved fast, on court and off, and when the trophy presentation ended, she strode away, not bothering to wave good-bye.