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Tennis to Get the Real Deal

Australian Open: Sampras wins his way into a semifinal meeting with Agassi.

January 26, 2000|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

MELBOURNE, Australia — There will be a lot less hype and a lot less money wagered, and all the macho hits will be on fuzzy little yellow balls. But there will be a Super Bowl feel in the Australian Open here Thursday night, a moment, unlike most in sport, when the situation can live up to the superlatives.

Sampras versus Agassi. Two names, three words and lots of goose bumps for tennis fans.

It is not the first individual rivalry of note in sport, not even the first in this sport, which has had its Borg-McEnroe, McEnroe-Connors and Laver-Rosewall, to name a few.

But it is the rivalry of the present, and it is one based as much on history as on hype.

Pete Sampras, the loose and limber free-swinger from the hardcourts of Southern California, has played 28 pro tour matches against Andre Agassi, the intense and focused baseline banger from the heat and glitter and hardcourts of Las Vegas.

Sampras has won 17 times, Agassi 11. Sampras has won four of the last five, including the ATP Championship final in November in Hanover, Germany, the final of last summer's Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles and the final at Wimbledon.

Among Agassi's 11 victories, there is a quarterfinal win on the clay at the French in 1992, a classic in the quarterfinals of the Paris Indoor in 1994, the final of the '95 Australian, and a 6-2, 6-2 crusher in that ATP round-robin event in Hanover, just days before Sampras returned to slap him around in the final, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4.

But then, comparisons bring no conclusions.

Agassi, not Sampras, is No. 1 in the world. And Agassi, not Sampras, is the No. 1-seeded player here.

Sampras, not Agassi, is one title away in a Grand Slam event from breaking the all-time record of 12 that he now shares with Australian Roy Emerson. But Agassi, not Sampras, is one of only five men who have won each of the four Grand Slam events at least once. Sampras has never won the French Open.

Indeed, it is the kind of matchup that brings no consensus on the likely outcome. All anybody knows is that it should be fun to watch the two top guns in the sport pull the trigger simultaneously.

Shortly after getting past the final obstacle standing between him and Agassi with a 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 victory over American Chris Woodruff late Tuesday night, Sampras eyed the Agassi semifinal match and cut through the chitchat.

"It should be good stuff," he said.

Even during Super Bowl week, when every grunt and belch from every third-string defensive tackle is treated like utterances from Socrates, this tennis match, many time zones and thousands of miles away, is making a nice blip on the sports radar screen. ESPN has decided to carry the match live, meaning that, in Los Angeles, for those who have ESPN2 on their cable systems, the telecast will begin midnight Wednesday. For those who think that midnight is bedtime, no matter who is playing tennis, ESPN will rebroadcast it Thursday at 10 a.m.

Both players used their respective quarterfinal matches Tuesday as sort of a dress rehearsal for the big show. Agassi played first, in the afternoon, and got good preparation from a hard-hitting, flashy player from Morocco, named Hicham Arazi, who decided he would attempt to outhit Agassi from the baseline. That's like a pitcher going with the fastball at the knees against Mark McGwire.

Agassi slugged while Arazi chased--and then the Moroccan clowned when he was made to look silly. Agassi refused to be drawn into the antics. He was a businessman, getting his briefcase organized for the big meeting the next day.

Afterward, Agassi, at that point not certain that Sampras would beat Woodruff, but also unable to contain himself at what was likely to come, said, "When Pete is in the draw, whether it is one side or the other, my general take on it is that I have to beat him to win."

Any question about whether Sampras would get there was answered quickly Tuesday night. The first time he stepped to the service line against Woodruff, he hit his serve 216 kilometers per hour, or 135 mph.

"When he pumped that first one in at 216," Woodruff said, "when he plays like that, I don't really have a chance."

Nor does the rest of captivity.

Woodruff, No. 56 in the world and the former NCAA champion from Tennessee, also said that playing Sampras is "like playing one-on-one with Michael Jordan." Woodruff also committed tennis tour heresy by admitting that, when he plays Sampras, there is a sense of awe.

"I'd be lying to you if I said there weren't," he said.

Yet, while there is certainly respect, there is little awe on the part of Agassi when he faces Sampras. And Sampras knows that, and has seen it clearly when he toes the line to serve to Agassi, perhaps the greatest returner in the history of the game.

"He pretty much stands on the baseline," Sampras said, "and is basically looking you in the eye and saying, 'ace me.' "

So, a couple of days before the real mano a mano in Atlanta, they'll have some big hitting and crucial plays on the other side of the world.

It should be Super stuff.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Advantage, Sampras

Pete Sampras holds a 17-11 edge in head-to-head meetings with Andre Agassi. The two have never met in a Grand Slam semifinal. A look at their matchups in Grand Slam events, four of them in finals:

1990: U.S. Open final

Sampras wins, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2

1992: French Open quarterfinal

Agassi wins, 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-1

1993: Wimbledon quarterfinal

Sampras wins, 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4

1995: Australian Open final

Agassi wins, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (6), 6-4

1995: U.S. Open final

Sampras wins, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5

1999: Wimbledon final

Sampras wins, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5

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