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Sampras and Agassi Are Thirtysomething Else

September 08, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — There were so many unexpected lessons, so many myths shattered in one sun-baked afternoon at the U.S. Open. But, first and foremost, so much for the supposed expiration date of a once-great rivalry.

The shelf life of the always-evolving rivalry between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi was extended Saturday, much to the delight of network executives and to the genuine surprise of the sport. If men's tennis needed a life raft in 2002, better late than not at all.

Finally, a final will feel like a final. Major figures will play for a major title when Sampras and Agassi meet in the U.S. Open final today. Sampras, seeded 17th, has often been one step ahead of Agassi in their careers, and he was again, reaching the final first, beating Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2, in 2 hours 24 minutes. He had 23 aces and never lost his serve.

Agassi, seeded sixth, had the more difficult assignment, facing defending champion and No. 1-ranked Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, who had beaten him the last three times they'd met. Hitting cleanly and powerfully, Agassi upset Hewitt, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (1), 6-2, in the 2-hour 59-minute second semifinal and looked like a giddy teenager afterward, not a 32-year-old with a wife and child.

"This is New York, baby," Agassi said. "Where else would you rather be? This is it. I've worked all year thinking about this. And Pete. We're both here again. It's going to be a blast."

Together again, naturally.

Agassi blew kisses to the camera. Sampras smiled and shook his fist in jubilation and frequently nodded after hitting a service winner or volley on a big point. He kept the faith in his game, even when many did not after his drought had reached 33 tournaments without a title.

Famous wives, fatherhood, career moves, coaching changes and, well, hair loss have served as more of a link lately between Sampras and Agassi since their last meeting here last year in the quarterfinals, which Sampras won in four sets. This was seen as an outgrowth of aging--Agassi turned 32 in April; Sampras became 31 last month.

When they exited on the same day at Wimbledon in June, in the second round, the thought of Sampras and Agassi meeting in the U.S. Open final would have been inconceivable.

This will be the first U.S. Open final between two thirtysomething men since the open era started in 1968, and the first at any Grand Slam since the 1972 Australian Open when Ken Rosewall, 37, beat 36-year-old Mal Anderson.

"You would have gotten some great odds on making this bet before the tournament," Agassi said.

Said Sampras, who reached his third consecutive Open final: "It would be just a huge moment for both of us, for the game. Two older players, two rivals over the years. He brings out the best in me. To walk out there with him would be pretty unique, very special."

Memories were settling in the corners of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Brett Stephens, the longtime trainer of Sampras, had been hearing the critics long before Greg Rusedski and Yevgeny Kafelnikov took pointed aim this year.

"Every year, everyone writes Pete off," Stephens said. "Every single year and he proves them wrong all the time. It's unbelievable for Pete too. You have everyone saying, 'This is wrong with Pete. That's wrong with Pete.' I get it everywhere. He gets it everywhere."

When Sampras was going out against George Bastl in the second round at Wimbledon, he was spotted reading a letter of inspiration from his wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, during a changeover. In the locker room Saturday, after his semifinal win, Sampras was asked if the letter made its way to New York. "Yes, it's here," he said.

This is the first time Sampras and Agassi will have met in a Grand Slam final since Wimbledon in 1999--Sampras won in straight sets--and the first final at the U.S. Open since 1995. Sampras leads their overall series, 19-14.

"It's different now," said Perry Rogers, Agassi's close friend and manager. "Andre has won all the Slams. Pete has won more Slams than anybody. In '95 that wasn't the case. They're not playing for a piece of history anymore. They both have history. Now they're playing as a tribute to the game, as a tribute to their rivalry and as a tribute to their endurance."

Said Agassi's trainer, Gil Reyes: "As a tennis fan I think I'm going to really, really relish this one. Because there's no guarantee we'll see this again. I have almost a melancholy feeling, somewhat emotional feeling, what these two have had. You start thinking of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird."

Even Hewitt, pulling himself out of the equation, understood the greater meaning for the sport. The 21-year-old, suffering through a miserable serving day--11 double faults and a first-serve percentage of 40%--fought admirably, rallying from a 4-1 third-set deficit.

"If I'm not allowed to be in the final, then I'd love to see these guys go for a final," Hewitt said. "I think everyone would. I think it's great for men's tennis.

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