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Hits keep on coming for Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi

BILL DWYRE

A tense moment during a charity exhibition Friday has been rehashed endlessly and negatively affected the relationship between the two tennis greats. They and the sport will be better off when it’s blown over.

March 16, 2010|Bill Dwyre

This too shall pass, and not a moment too soon for Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

What was supposed to be a Hit for Haiti exhibition last Friday night at the Indian Wells tennis tournament turned into a Rift for Rivalry. The charity got some cash, but the legend got some lumps.

It's the age of the Internet, of YouTube and Twitter. It happens, the world knows in seconds, and the mindless noise and texting begins, even if it isn't the slightest bit interesting.

The tension between Sampras and Agassi was very interesting. Two of the greatest players in history, having a tense exchange in a charity event, created chat-room heaven. No chance that Agassi's over-the-edge teasing of Sampras would end in public shrugs.

Tuesday at Indian Wells, the buzz continued. Agassi, on site for a charity event, came and went before the media knew, feeding media appetite. Former player and current television commentator Justin Gimelstob knew and got an exclusive interview with Agassi.

In it, Agassi said, among other things, "In an attempt to try and be funny, you say things, and you don't hit 100%. I spoke up, it fell flat."

Agassi has taken swings at apologizing in several TV interviews since Friday night. Sampras has appreciated that, but dislikes how it feeds the beast and keeps the story alive. Agassi is outgoing, articulate, likely to go for the one-liner. Sampras is shy, less comfortable in public situations.

Sampras wants this to pass, to let time heal it. Unheard until now, he also has a side in this story.

"Mostly, this just bums me out," he said Tuesday night. "It makes our relationship uncomfortable now.

"It saddens me. Time will tell. I like Andre. I always had great respect for his game. What happened is regrettable. It is a very awkward situation."

The Sampras-Agassi relationship was never one of close friendship, always one of close competition.

They played 34 times and Sampras won 20. They played nine times in Grand Slam events, which mattered the most to both. Sampras won five, four in finals. Agassi beat Sampras in one Slam final. The last match Sampras played was the 2002 U.S. Open final. He had struggled for most of the year, appearing to be past his prime. Then he beat Agassi, one more time.

Sampras officially retired well after that '02 final. He went out with little fanfare. Agassi retired after a loss in the third round of the '06 U.S. Open. Before he left the court, he made a stirring speech of gratitude to tennis and its fans.

Gimelstob said he was in the locker room before Friday night's Hit for Haiti and marveled at the awe current players had for the pair.

"It was like they were past presidents," Gimelstob said.

Agassi will be 40 next month, Sampras 39 in August. Agassi runs a foundation that funds, among other things, an entire school in Las Vegas. He makes many appearances on behalf of that foundation and his annual dinner in Las Vegas, which raises millions, is among the most successful events of its kind.

Sampras has quietly raised a family, invested his money in several things, including the Indian Wells tournament, and given to charity. One charitable contribution was $70,000, to Agassi's foundation. He didn't volunteer that information, nor would he. It was dug up by normal newspaper reporting.

That's why it was so unusual for Agassi, in his recent autobiography, to make fun of Sampras for being cheap and tipping a parking valet just $1, something that happened nearly two decades ago. Also a strange thing to bring up again in the charity event.

"We've done this before, the imitating each other," Sampras said. "He usually just sticks out his tongue at me."

Years ago, the legendary pair teamed with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal at Bob Kramer's L.A. Open. It was a wonderful night, highlighted by Agassi's stopping the action to point out to doubles partner Crystal that he was hitting to the wrong guy.

"That's Pete Sampras," Agassi said. "He's won six Wimbledons."

Time will bring back that sort of mutual respect. Tennis needs that. So do Sampras and Agassi.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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