For 14 months, over 18 tournaments, Sampras has failed to win. He had bombed out of his beloved Wimbledon in the round of 16, beaten badly by a 19-year-old, Roger Federer. His summer season on hard courts had showcased a listless Sampras, one who grumbled at line calls, who was dispatched by Agassi in a straight-set clobbering in the final of a tournament at UCLA, who had given no one a hint that he had in him another championship run.
Then, in a single week, Sampras was Sampras. His volleys were killers, his serve a cruelty to the opponent, his confidence was climbing, his errors falling, his fists were pumping, his heart was thumping.
But at the U.S. Open one week and six days isn't good enough. Sampras spoke barely above a whisper after he had gamely stood with Hewitt and smiled for the cameras.
"I think I've proven this week that I can still win Slams," Sampras said. "There's no question in my mind. There's always going to be younger, stronger, quicker players in all sports. As you get older it gets more difficult. But my game is still there."
Sampras hasn't proven he can win another Slam, though. He proved that he can play great tennis on some occasions. He proved that there is still desire burning, that he has a champion's heart. But Sampras can't make the 19- and 20-year-olds go away.
"I wish I had some of those legs," Sampras had said on the Ashe court, pointing at Hewitt, who was bouncing around, a new champion who ran circles around the old champion. Sampras can't get those legs. He will need luck. He will need a better draw. He will need an all-out, season-long workout plan. He will probably need Wimbledon's forgiving grass.
He can still give us a match for the ages. Giving us a Slam for the ages, as Sampras found, is much tougher.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Pete Sampras' Grand Slam Finals
1990 U.S. Open def. Andre Agassi, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. 1992 U.S. Open lost to Stefan Edberg, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2. 1993 Wimbledon def. Jim Courier, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3. U.S. Open def. Cedric Pioline, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3. 1994 Australian Open def. Todd Martin, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4. Wimbledon def. Goran Ivanisevic, 7-6, 7-6, 6-0. 1995 Australian Open lost to Andre Agassi, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4. Wimbledon def. Boris Becker, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. U.S. Open def. Andre Agassi, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. 1996 U.S. Open def. Michael Chang, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6. 1997 Australian Open def. Carlos Moya, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3. Wimbledon def. Cedric Pioline, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. 1998 Wimbledon def. Goran Ivanisevic, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. 1999 Wimbledon def. Andre Agassi, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5. 2000 Wimbledon def. Patrick Rafter, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2. U.S. Open lost to Marat Safin, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. 2001 U.S. Open lost to Lleyton Hewitt, 7-6 (1), 6-1, 6-1.
Diane Pucin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org