- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"Becker had a bad game plan," said Sampras. "He tried to outslug Andre. He should have come to the net as soon as possible."
Only five years ago Sampras was just another counterpunching junior with a two-fisted backhand. After he did poorly in the 1985 Easter Bowl junior tournament, his coach at the time, Dr. Peter Fischer, prevailed upon him to change his game. Sampras went to a one-handed backhand, improved his serve by studying tapes of Rod Laver and began rushing the net. Over the short term the switch seemed rash; he lost to players he had beaten easily, and his ranking plummeted. But the trade-off was meant to pay dividends later on. As Sampras grew into his body, the tumblers of his serve-and-volley game began falling into place. It was Agassi's misfortune to get whacked in the face as the safe door swung open. After reaching the finals of the only two Grand Slam events he played this year, drawing one guy (Andrés Gómez) who seemed too old to beat him and another (Sampras) who appeared to be too young, Andre was oh-fer.
Image may be everything, as Agassi says in a just-released camera commercial, but in the hurly-burly of real life it sometimes gets stripped away. In a second-round meeting with Petr Korda of Czechoslovakia, Agassi took issue with a line call and let forth a single-syllable Anglo-Saxon word within earshot of chair umpire Wayne McKewen, who assessed him a warning. Agassi's image, back in 1987 when he was still a newcomer on the circuit, was that of a Christian of the born-again persuasion. But before anyone could find the page of the New Testament that Brother Andre was citing to McKewen, Agassi turned away from the chair and unleashed another vulgarity. Then, during the ensuing changeover, he let fly a glob of spit in McKewen's direction.
Grand Slam supervisor Ken Farrar and tournament referee Keith Johnson were summoned to discuss whether Agassi should have been assessed the point penalty for spitting, which would have left him one misstep from a default. Agassi suddenly seemed to sense how dangerously he was living. "It was an accident," he pleaded, offering McKewen a towel.
Agassi was lucky. Farrar and Johnson, believing Agassi's protestations, decided, in Farrar's words, to "give the player the benefit of the doubt" and forgo the point penalty. The next day, after having reviewed a tape of the incident, Farrar realized he had been snookered and fined Agassi $3,000. By then, though, Agassi was safely through to the third round, and a chair ump had been left out to hang.
No disciplinary report would be complete without a reference to McEnroe. Upon hearing a woman in the front row talk during his serve in a third-round win over 10th-seeded Andrei Chesnokov, McEnroe lambasted her with a stream of vulgarities. After the woman retaliated with an obscenity of her own, abject Mac flack and USA Network commentator Vitas Gerulaitis urged us not to "make a martyr out of her."
Notwithstanding this one ugly incident, the 31-year-old McEnroe did enjoy a sublime run. In the fourth round he outlasted seventh-seeded Emilio Sánchez, six years his junior, in five sets. Then, in the quarters against a hard-serving young American, David Wheaton, he turned tennis pointillist. With the briefest of brush strokes, McEnroe won countless points by squeezing off drop volleys, while Wheaton, a lumbering 6'3", was pinned on the baseline, going down 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.
Eight weeks ago in Washington, D.C., Mac had played so poorly in losing to 113th-ranked Derrick Rostagno that he pronounced it "unrealistic" that he would do anything at Flushing Meadow, where he would be unseeded. Nevertheless, he rejoined Tony Palafox, his old coach, who persuaded him to stop trying to outslug his foes and instead attack the net at every opportunity like the McEnroe of old. The strategy worked until he met Sampras in the semis.
Mac lost the first set without so much as a whimper, and he lost the second when he failed to mount a challenge to Sampras's serve. McEnroe won the third set. The fourth, if Mac had somehow broken through, would have delivered him the crowd and perhaps an inexorable surge that could have carried him to victory. But Sampras, whose serve return was nearly as devastating as his serve, stood fast. He ended matters with an ace, his 17th of the match, a 117-mph fastball with a shimmy.
After his elimination, McEnroe, for the first time in a long time, didn't talk in the dour tones of someone reading an epitaph. "Hope springs eternal," he said, adding that Jimmy Connors won the U.S. Open at 31, and that Ken Rosewall reached the Wimbledon final at 39. "Next time, guys like Sampras and Agassi will be favored. They'll feel a different kind of pressure. I've just got to keep on pushing."