For so long he hadn't needed any of it: not the support of fans, not the presence of family, not the on-court histrionics. Pete Sampras did not scream, "That's what I'm talking about!" after winning a set in his prime, half a decade ago, and he didn't take his motivation from words lovingly scribbled on a piece of paper. His was a cool and lonely march to greatness, and if his body sometimes betrayed him with a strange fragility, his talent carried him time and again. He had his hair and his nerve then. Losing it all, bit by humiliating bit, didn't seem possible.
At 7:38 p.m. on Sunday, Sampras glanced across the court at his oldest rival, lifted his left arm and tossed a tennis ball up into the cooling New York night. Ahead 5-4, 30-0 in the fourth set of the most unlikely Grand Slam final of the year, two points away from a victory no one had predicted, about to hit a second serve against the greatest returner in the game, Sampras felt the wind at his back His stomach began to churn. His mind raced: What if I miss? What if it sails? But this time, unlike so many times in the past two years, he didn't falter. He held nothing back. His right arm came slicing down, his racket strings gave off that sweet pock! and the ball flew cleanly down the T at 119 mph. Andre Agassi froze as the ace blew past him. And for the first time in years, the words appeared again in Sampras's mind: I'm going to do it.
Suddenly everyone else knew too. The crowd of 23,157 that had packed Arthur Ashe Stadium and the millions watching on TV leaned in with jaws hanging. None of it made sense. Hadn't Yevgeny Kafelnikov called for Sampras's retirement in April, saying Sampras was staining his legacy with so many losses? Hadn't Greg Rusedski, after losing a five-setter to Sampras just six days earlier, declared, "You're used to seeing Pete Sampras, 13-time Grand Slam champion. It's not the same player"? If only they knew how close the 31-year-old Sampras had come to retiring. Yet here he was, about to wrap up the U.S. Open with a victory over his fitter, higher-ranked opponent and, with his 14th Grand Slam title, confirm once again that he is the greatest man ever to play the game.
"This [title] might mean more than any of them," Sampras says. "I take pride in having the whole package—the talent and the heart and the mind—and if there was a year I needed that heart and mind and support, it's this year. There were moments I felt empty. To get through that, to come back and beat all these young guys and beat Andre in the final, is a fitting way to end it."
After the final was over, after Sampras had won 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, tennis great Tony Trabert announced to the fans, "The king is not dead." For that they can credit his queen. Sampras had been annoyed by all the over-the-hill talk, which had gotten louder as his winless streak grew to 33 tournaments, but nothing enraged him more than speculation that his marriage to actress Bridgette Wilson, which occurred 2� months after his last tournament victory, at Wimbledon in 2000, might be a reason. On the contrary: As the losses piled up, and Sampras shuffled coaches, and tennis became more burden than bonus to him, Bridgette was the only reason he kept going. More than once, notably after his nightmare loss to unknown George Bastl at Wimbledon this year, Sampras considered quitting. Bridgette wouldn't hear of it. "Don't believe this crap that people are saying," she told him. "Stop on your own terms. Just promise me that."
Sampras promised. "When she said that, it gave me some life," he says. "I was like, Screw these people. Just believe." Instead of walking, he rehired coach Paul Annacone and began working on the relentless, go-for-broke approach that made his run through this Open so exhilarating.
The men's tour ought to send Bridgette a thank-you note. Fatigued by the year's overstuffed schedule and the tour's unprecedented depth, a record 10 men quit during matches at this year's Open because of cramps or injuries. Meanwhile, the tour's next generation of stars—defending champ Lleyton Hewitt, No. 2 Marat Safin and much-hyped Americans Andy Roddick and James Blake—buckled in the hard-court vise of Flushing Meadows, the most punishing and the fairest test on the tennis calendar. After a year characterized by colorless Grand Slam champions such as Australian Open titlist Thomas Johansson and French Open winner Albert Costa, the prospect of a U.S. Open final featuring the sixth and 17th seeds might have plunged the ATP staff into clinical depression. But then, nobody expected those seeds to be Agassi and Sampras.
"This is the first Slam in eight years where I didn't even look at the draw to see where those guys were," said ATP trainer Doug Spreen last Saturday evening. "Shows what I know"
Though Agassi, 32, had won four tournaments this year, he hadn't been to a Slam final since winning the 2001 Australian, and he hadn't gotten a big-time crack at Sampras since losing to him in a four-set classic a year ago at Flushing Meadows. But suddenly the two men sniffed one more—and most likely one last—Grand Slam final showdown. As lesser names dropped out and rain drummed the nerves of everyone else, Agassi and Sampras, showing none of their recent vulnerability, tunneled through the draw toward each other, greatness seeking its own level. Only late on Saturday, after the men's semifinals, did it become clear that the fates had been conspiring to unleash the closest thing tennis has to a perfect storm. The only comparable men's rivalry, John McEnroe versus Jimmy Connors, was played out over 34 matches. This would be number 34 for Agassi and Sampras.
"Did you hear that crowd?" Spreen asked Agassi after he took out the top-seeded Hewitt in the second semifinal.