A tournament promoter's delight

THE United States Tennis Association could not have hoped for a better finale to this year's Championship. While in the women's side, the Williams sisters' road show was on display for the third consecutive time in the past three Slams, the men's final was a tournament promoter's delight - Pete Sampras vs Andre Agassi.

It has been 26 months since Pete has won a tournament, and by that I mean a regular tournament and not a Grand Slam. So, the odds of his winning a Slam has been steadily lenghtening. So much so that even die-hard Sampras fans were beginning to write him off.

Sampras entered the tournament a lowly ranked 17, something that has not happened since the 1980s. In fact, if we were still following the old system of seeding only 16 players, he would not have made it. But all along, he had been maintaining that he still had another Grand Slam in him. People thought he was just saying it. The question of retirement was very much in the air and Sampras said that he might possibly play one more season.

While there is a feeling that he performs his best on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, where he has won seven titles, let it not be forgotten that his U.S. Open record is not too far behind. Prior to this Championship, he had won the title four times, apart from being a losing finalist the past two years. He burst on to the scene in 1990 as a rank outsider defeating who else but the favourite Andre Agassi for the title.

It is indeed remarkable that these two champions repeated this feat at the same venue a dozen years after that meeting. It is the first time in the Open era (starting from 1968) that two players past their thirtieth birthday have played in the final here. In the last few years, we have been witnessing such a turn over of champions but Lleyton Hewitt's ascent to the No. 1 ranking plus Sampras /Agassi playing in the U.S. Open final has brought forth some sanity to the game.

The duo took contrasting routes to the final. After a sedate start, Sampras had to work overtime during the Labour Day weekend - the middle week of the fortnight. First was a battle with Greg Rusedski, a player who has, apart from giving him tough matches has also beaten him in the past. Sampras wore him down in five sets and still nobody took him too seriously. When Rusedski belittled Sampras' ability in the post match press conference, every one got the feeling that he was only speaking the truth. But this managed to touch a raw nerve in Sampras.

Next up was Germany's Tommy Haas. Haas had the better of Sampras in the past few meetings. Moreover, one felt that the lengthy duel with Rusedski would have drained the American of his reserves both physical and emotional. But Sampras bounced back and went through in four sets. All this while, his game was slowly getting back on track.

And by the time he faced Andy Roddick in the quarters, Sampras was on song. This was a Thursday night feature match in front of a sell-out crowd and Sampras was primed for it. (Sampras has not lost a night match in this tournament in all the years!). This was billed as a battle between the past and the present. Sampras won comfortably in straight sets, partly because he played well and partly because Roddick was simply not ready to face that kind of pressure.

Meanwhile, Andre Agassi was progressing through his side at record speed. It looked like he had received a course from his wife Steffi Graf on 'How to win matches spending the least time on court'. In his second round match, he lost two games in three sets. Something unheard of in men's tennis. The only resistance Andre faced was in the quarterfinal when he dropped the first set to Max Mirinyi only to recover to win the next three.

Joining Sampras and Agassi in the semifinal were the defending champion and world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and the Dutchman, Sjeng Schalken. First a word about Schalken.

He had extended Lleyton Hewitt to five sets in this year's Wimbledon quarterfinal (he was the only one to take sets off Hewitt) and came quite close to upsetting him. To do so well in two Grand Slams in a row is remarkable. But right after he earned a spot in the semifinal, Schalken declared that he was privileged to be in the semis along with the awesome trio of Hewitt, Agassi and Sampras. Right away, you knew he had no chance in the semis.

He did play well extending Sampras to tie breakers in the first two sets but all that he achieved was to fine tune the American's game even further. Sampras was already serving up a 'storm' but now he was following them up with crisp volleys (I feel the volleying is one area of the Sampras game which crumbles when he is not playing well) and on the rare occasion that his opponent managed to get the ball at his feet, deft half volleys. In his post match interview, while he acknowledged that 'Hewitt is the world No.1, it would be special to face Andre'.

Agassi's four-set semifinal win over Lleyton Hewitt must rank as one of the finest in his career. When Hewitt started like a house on fire with a quick break of the American's serve, there was every indication that it could be a one sided match. It did turn out to be one as Andre fought back with some heavy hitting to take a two set and a commanding lead in the third set. That close to victory, he got the 'jitters' and Hewitt clawed his way back into the match. Andre regrouped and romped home in the fourth set to set up the dream final.

As far as viewers in India are concerned, this match comes on at the unearthly hour of 2 a.m. Having seen their first US Open final and several of their other duels, I dutifully set my alarm clock to witnes something special. While the match might not be the best one that they have played, it was certainly worthy of the occasion.

In the past couple of years, Pete Sampras had come through the semifinal a bit jaded to face a young opponent in the final the next day. The result being he lost in straight sets to Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt. This time, he had well recovered from the exertions of the previous weekend and had the easier semifinal match. While Andre looked quite fresh in the final, the match against Hewitt must have taken its toll.

Sampras has an immense amount of respect for Agassi's ability and what happens is that he is in absolute top form. And when Sampras is in that kind of a mood, he is unstoppable. He was as he swept through to a set and 5-2 lead and he faltered for the first time to serve out for a two set to nil lead. He did do so two games later but by then, Agassi had got his foot into the door.

Agassi scrambled through the third set and slowly seemed to be getting on top in the fourth at which time a fifth set looked a probability. But just in the nick of time, Sampras raised his game to win the last three games for his 14th Grand Slam and fifth US Open title. Those of us who saw the match were privy to something special. While we salute the King Sampras, let us not forget that Andre Agassi was a valiant rival who was able to bring out the best in his foe. It was a night when everybody won.

P.S. The Sampras-Agassi meeting was such an outstanding event that everything else has to be a foot note. Serena Williams beat her sister Venus in a Grand Slam final for the third successive time. Mahesh Bhupathi added the U.S. Open doubles title to go with his Wimbledon and French Open titles. Only the Australian Open is missing! Leander Paes partnering Martina Navratilova defeated the No. 1 seeds, Todd Woodbridge and Rennae Stubbs in the first round of the mixed doubles in a remarkable match.