Sampras-Agassi: journey to legend

ROHIT BRIJNATH

THEY began this year's US Open final under the sun and they finished under the lights, and if anything it represented the long journey they had taken to this point.

Agassi had lost his hair, Pete was losing his. One had a baby, the other on the cusp of fatherhood. Agassi initially was flat, Pete eventually fighting fatigue. Old masters producing a flawed masterpiece, coloured more by emotion than skill, their lines less surer but still beautiful, their tennis an echo of greatness than pure greatness itself.

It didn't matter. They were owed this moment, they deserved it. You almost expected a bugler to rise in the stands and play the last post.

It was, perhaps, one last reminder to the generations whose hopes they had stilled by winning 21 Grand Slams together, and one last benchmark to challenge the future with.

It was, maybe, one last reminder of tennis' singular stroke of genius, the Sampras serve, a shot of simplicity designed for havoc. A serve whose signature was a pockmark, a speed-gun number, and the glazed look of an opponent who looked like he'd walked alive from a minefield.

And it was, possibly, one last reminder of a rivalry that began when Pete was 9 and Agassi 10, when both played from the baseline, and Agassi won easily, a duel, or was it a duet, that was in fact an expression of the complete art of tennis.

The seamless Sampras serve matched only by the Agassi return, which brought Newton's Third Law of an "equal and opposite reaction" to mind. Pete's hissing cross court forehand on the run equalled only in elegance and effect by Agassi's rifled backhand down the line. Agassi's curled lob of impeccable deceit, countered only by Sampras's gravity-defying overhead. Sampras bent at the net fashioning volleys of cotton-wool softness and spring-loaded power, Agassi at the baseline, manufacturing passing shots on full pigeon-toed run, his racket flashing so fast by his hip that Wyatt Earp would never have had a chance

Of course, they brought out the best in each other. They were made for each other.

But these distinctive but embracing styles extended beyond mere strokes, for when you threw their personalities into the brew, it only enriched the flavour.

The ever-changing Agassi, moving from multi-coloured-haired, denim-shorted punk to shaven-chested aerodynamic wonder at Wimbledon one year to bald-nappy-changing father, and through it all Pete, never-changing, an elegant study in tongue-extended silence, always wrapped in white clothes as if to signify the purity of his purpose.

Agassi rebelling, always, with his Canon camera ads that said "Image is everything", and leaving purists aghast when he once caught an embarrassed opponent's serve in his hand because he wanted to give him a free point, and then there was Pete, conspicuously noting his role model was not bad-boys McEnroe and Connors but Laver, becoming a poster boy for traditionalists.

Agassi, the dater of Hollywood actresses, the born-again Christian who spat on umpires, who once said at the French he was "as happy as a faggot in a submarine", yet whose charitable work earned him humanitarian awards; while Saint Pete of Sampras, possessor of a true Christian discipline, who ensured his relationships never affected his focus, the altar boy who reportedly had a mouth like an overflowing sewer.

Mostly Agassi, now 32, would look up to Pete, now 31, for the younger man was more sure of his place in the world (the best), more certain of his destination (history), more convinced of his superiority. Lately, as Agassi blossomed in tennis' middle-age and the natural athlete in Sampras wound down, the younger man would envy the older man's resilience, his new fitness and perhaps, ironically, would be pushed by Agassi as he once pushed him.

By sorting out his head and his game and winning seven Grand Slam titles, Agassi had found redemption; now Sampras, forget 33 tournaments without a win, think 68 months since he won a Slam (Australian Open, 1997) outside grass, knew his last chance had come. And he collected not just all his will, but wisdom, for one improbable dance with glory.

Greg Rusedski lacked grace. It did not mean he was completely wrong. Sampras was slower. By the time some of Agassi's returns arrived in the final, he was not even in the service box. But he had also rediscovered his serve, the very engine of his game.

His serve was a triumph of engineering, the greatest shot in the game's history. He did not have Becker's stutter and rock, McEnroe's impossible parallel-to-the-baseline stance, Edberg's vicious back bend, Roddick's straight-up-no-backswing-delivery. It was one-ball-toss, bend, arch, rotate, thrusting him towards the net, as graceful as a crouching leopard exploding into full run.

Speed, on first, but more so on second serve, was allied with depth and angle and disguise. Pete Fishcer, the pediatrician who coached him as a boy, would apparently wait for Sampras to throw the ball up, and only then demand "down the middle" or "wide".

Sampras has rarely played the percentages on his serve, and relied on cheap, quick points. But, at this year's Open, given the present standard of returning, and his increased physical need for abrupt exchanges, he would have to risk everything: serve full bore, and hope the winners outweighed the errors. It worked: he served 61 double faults in seven matches, but 144 aces.

His second serve tells its own story. His first serve, at an average through the tournament was 116 mph, as opposed to his opponent's average of 100.5. But his second serve average through seven matches was 108mph, while his opponents average together was 87.8 (20mph slower).

If anything, even in general play in the final, Sampras flirted heavily with risk, substituting rallies with low-percentage shots for winners, which also disallowed Agassi any stroke rhythm. It just worked; for him a fifth set may well have been fatal.

But these Sampras numbers tell an inadequate tale of nerve, confidence, unending self-belief, and an almost arrogant mastery of the big point. There has never been surely a player like him. And that Agassi, alone, could for so long both lift him and subdue him through the years, is a measure of his own gifts.

They played first in Rome on clay in 1989 and Agassi won, and then 33 more times; at present Sampras leads their meetings 20-14. Boris Becker-Stefan-Edberg (25-10) played more times, so did Ivan Lendl-John McEnroe (21-15), and McEnroe-Jimmy Connors (20-13) came close.

If Agassi had been steadier they might have played more, but still their rivalry was special; it was the only true contest of their generation. Perhaps only Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe 7-7 was a superior showdown, because Borg managed to beat McEnroe on grass. Agassi never could do that to Pete.

It is unlikely (who dares say impossible any more) these two men, their gifts held together by a glue that is slowly melting with time, will ever meet again in a Grand Slam final.

It does not matter. Our memory is full. Their journey into legend is done.