Two for the ages

Published : Aug 23, 2003 00:00 IST

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi are as different as two players — and two people — could be. That's what made their rivalry so compelling, and why their individual legacies will be forever entwined. By SALLY JENKINS.

THE relationship between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi is that of two men so different that, in a way, each serves as a looking glass for the other. Andre and Pete; Pete and Andre. Never mind that their on-court rivalry has been less exciting at times than their off-courts struggle for the loyalty and affection of tennis fans, that their personal exchanges are merely cordial — they are not great friends or, for that matter, great enemies. The intriguing thing is that in the eyes of the public they are nearly inseparable, each of them the measure of the other.

For some 15 years, theirs has been a fabulous game of trump: Sampras' nonpareil serve against Agassi's stunning returns; Sampras with the running rope of a forehand, Agassi with the steam-press stroke that is his backhand; Agassi with flair, Sampras with discipline; Sampras all feel, Agassi all fight. Finally, they've attained a like stature. If Sampras' legacy is 14 Grand Slam titles, Agassi's testament is having won all four major trophies. And each can boast a unique claim to the No. 1 spot: Sampras finished the season on top for an unprecedented six consecutive years, while Agassi, at 33, is the oldest man in the modern era to be ranked the highest.

They are opposite, these two titans, even in mannerisms: Sampras, long and tensile in a white shirt buttoned to his neck, his ancient Wilson racquet black and dull as an iron skillet; Agassi a darty-eyed, pigeon-toed pirate in denim or black, his untucked V-neck shirt billowing around his waist as he waves a bright ceramic racquet. Sampras was always by the book, more self-willed and accomplished. Agassi was ever the hooky player, or maybe the actor searching for motivation, evading responsibility; and breaking rules. They are similar in two ways: They both wear white socks, and they both want to win everything, including a conversation.

Agassi's early brassiness, the dyed blond mane and exhibitionism, disguised a more stubbornly substantial nature than anyone could have predicted. His knee-jerk honesty and a surprisingly searching mind have not permitted him to give up on a career that, despite long hiatuses, has been one long self-exploration. Sampras' rebelliousness was buried beneath a cropped, introverted neatness, his equanimity concealing an ulcerous hypersensitivity. He's far more profane and driven than most would suspect. Sampras liked to celebrate wins at the U.S. Open by going to the Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn and eating so much he made himself sick. His favourite book remains The Catcher in the Rye, the story of a desperate, smart-alecky loner who says, "Don't ever tell anybody anything."

Perhaps this dissimilarity accounts for the peculiar fact that Pete and Andre have rarely played their best against each other on the right occasions. When Sampras was great, Agassi was absent. When Agassi was finally fully present, Sampras was already tired. Or so it seemed. Their overall record is 20-14, advantage Sampras, and of their 34 matches only five were Grand Slam finals. But in the last three years they finally made the rivalry a material thing — both of them ready to live up to the moments they shared in the spotlight. And in the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinals they created an epic, just when we thought they had begun the long, slow fade into retirement. It was as though they made a private accord to play for a final prize.

The scoreboard on that September day in New York read 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-5) Sampras. They may have been the best four sets of either player's life, and even announcer John McEnroe was nearly struck speechless. "I am lucky to be a commentator," he said humbly. "I am lucky to be here." Then they went two rounds better in 2002, meeting in the final. Again Sampras won in four, but it hardly mattered, both were victors over time and over a field that was growing ever younger. As Agassi said, "We're still out here and there's no getting around it."

Curiously, though, the only other period in which both players were at their best at the same time was in a short but splendid span in 1995 when their match record was square at eight wins apiece and they were at a youthful peak. In late March of that year, they also agreed to a brief d�tente in their rivalry to play a Davis Cup tie in Italy. It was an obscure but telling episode, this uncharacteristic decision to take a buddy trip together to play for their country.

The Italians had chosen a slow red-clay court in Palermo, and the Americans knew that without a strong team they could easily lose. So Agassi and Sampras struck a deal with the USTA: Each would abandon his Grand Slam preparation to play only if the other agreed to as well, and if they could take the Concorde to London and a private plane from there to Palermo. The USTA acceded to their demands and booked the flights.

But first, a day before they were scheduled to leave, Agassi and Sampras met in the final of the Lipton Championships (now the Nasdaq-100) at Key Biscayne, Florida. Agassi won a three-setter and two weeks later attained the No. 1 ranking. After the match, he offered Sampras a lift to New York on his private jet so they could get a decent night's sleep before travelling to Europe.

The two of them took so little time to shower and change that when they jumped into Agassi's rented car, traffic leaving Key Biscayne was still backed up. Agassi casually veered onto the breakdown lane and bypassed the traffic, waving at the other drivers and the occasional bemused cop.

While Agassi drove, he and Sampras made awkward small talk, trying to find something they had in common.

"Do you like Neil Diamond?" Sampras hazarded.

"You know, I do," Agassi said. "I do like Neil Diamond."

They moved on to talk shows. "Do you watch Sally Jessie?" Agassi asked.

"I watch her," Sampras said. "But I like Montel better. Do you like Montel?"

"I like Montel."

Soon they arrived on the tarmac at Miami International Airport where Agassi's Citation 10, a burning tennis ball emblazoned on the tail, was waiting. They climbed aboard and a flight attendant greeted them with food and drink. Sampras was awed. He unwrapped a turkey sandwich and bit into it.

"You travel like this all the time?"

"It's the only way to do it," Agassi said. "It's going to add years to my career."

Sampras' habitual austerity gave way. He rocked back in his deep leather seat and swivelled it. "Oh man," he said. "I like the way you travel. What does this cost?" They lapsed into a discussion of chartered hours versus time in airports. Gradually, they relaxed and spent the rest of the flight trading ATP tour gossip, and their strategies against players such as Michael Chang, Boris Becker, and David Wheaton.

The next morning they met at Kennedy Airport and boarded the Concorde. As they sat together they evaluated each other's and their own games. Sampras wondered about Agassi's reliance on his coach of the time, Brad Gilbert. "What does he do for you?" Sampras wanted to know. Agassi said that Gilbert gave his game structure; previously, he had been a belter with no idea of shot selection — he just "wracked it." Now, he had a blueprint to build points and matches.

Sampras shrugged; all he wanted a coach to do was check his toss.

They were met in London by a VIP escort who gave them expedited forms to get them through immigration quickly. Agassi, typically, figured that meant they got to skip the paperwork. But Sampras paused at a counter to fill out his entry card. Agassi waved him on, impatient. "Come on, we don't have to do that."

"Yeah, we do," Sampras replied, correctly.

Outside, a limo waited to take them to a private terminal for the flight to Palermo. But Agassi was hungry. He said, "Let's go to McDonald's."

"I don't think they have one here."

"Sure they do," he said. "It's on the outskirts of the airport."

Agassi directed the driver to McDonald's. Sampras and Agassi placed their order at the drive-through window: Agassi wanted a couple of burgers. Sampras ordered the same, and they both added Chicken McNuggets as an afterthought, along with large fries and apple pies.

They spent four days in Palermo sitting side by side in identical USA sweatshirts. Pete and Andre; Andre and Pete. But in the end the difference between them showed, as it always did. After the USA won 3-0, the question of dead rubbers arose. For Sampras it was a question of responsibility: having decided to do this thing, he was going to do it right. For Agassi it was a matter of love; he could only play if he cared, and he didn't care about an exhibition.

Agassi came down with a case of the tweaks and a doctor's note. Sampras played.


"How old do you have to be before people forgive you for your past?" Agassi wanted to know.

This was a couple of years ago, after he had finished an exhaustive interview in Las Vegas in which ESPN's Roy Firestone had brought up all the old bad-boy episodes, the blurted insults and the tantrums and the tanks and the weird haircuts. Agassi answered the questions, but afterwards, as he left the studio and climbed into his SUV to drive home, the conversation still bothered him. "At what point do people let you move past your childhood?" he wondered. "Is that ever going to happen?"

Agassi drove through Vegas at a sedate speed. Against all odds, he had made a man out of himself and he took pride in that. He wanted a little credit for that. He pointed to the left while passing the Andre Agassi Boys & Girls Club, established to benefit at-risk kids. His foundation also had funded a shelter for abused children and a charter school, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. Agassi liked to say of the school, "It's not the first two words that matter, it's the last three."

Agassi, himself, did not grow up as a normal kid taking college-prep classes. His childhood had been surrendered to the obsessive desire of his father, Mike, to make a tennis champion. Andre was a certified prodigy — on the junior circuit at 7, shipped off to Florida to train with Nick Bollettieri at 13, and by the time he was 18 the No. 3 player the world. In that taxing process, he also had become his own biggest opponent.

Later that afternoon in Vegas the question of the past came up again, in a meeting with Nike over the design of new sneakers. Andre wasn't pleased with the cartoon-like shape and colours of the shoes. He was stripped down now, to a basic and unpretentious adult. "Look what they're trying to take me back to," he lamented mockingly. He wanted a design that reflected the lean, clean lines of his adulthood, not the thrashings and yowlings of his adolescence.

Still, Andre knew that much had been given as well as taken by the singular way Mike Agassi taught tennis. Other kids had the schooled strokes grooved by country-club teachers, $25-an-hour backhands with proper mechanics and racquet-back preparation. Not Agassi. He stood at mid-court while his father stood at the net and fired balls at him as hard and fast as possible. Shot after, the boy would whip his racquet around more tightly, shortening his swing and picking the ball up earlier and earlier, until he was almost volleying his ground strokes. Then Mike would order his son, "Faster!"

As Rita Agassi, Andre's older sister, once said of the way Mike taught tennis, of the kind of man he was, "My father was a sober drunk."

But if Mike was drunk on tennis, he was also inspired. His methods were based on his intuitive grasp of velocity and speed-to-power ratios. Several years ago, Mike privately expounded on the theory underlying Andre's strokes. Standing in his Vegas living room, with a tennis court and desert dunes visible beyond the picture window, he held up a gauzy cotton handkerchief and waved it around. "See," he said, "is that going to hurt anyone?"

Then he twirled the handkerchief around and around until it formed a tightly wound whip. He snapped it in the air and said, "Now that will hurt someone."

Mike stared out the window, at the court with the ball machine at the far end. It mostly went unused now that Andre was grown, had a home of his own, and rarely played at his father's.

"I wish there were some little ones to teach," Mike said sadly.

But maybe it's just as well Mike didn't put his mark on any more children. Agassi remembers being paraded around on a tennis court at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, his father advertising his prodigy to visiting pros. Once, when Agassi lost a junior tournament, Mike took the runner-up trophy and hurled it into a nearby garbage can.

In that moment, a lifelong mutineer was born. "You know what?" Agassi has grown fond of saying. "I'd rather feel I missed out on some good tennis than some good living."


He always has been a great killer of momentum, all but his own.

He abbreviated so many points, squelched so many hopes, with that great blast of a serve. He lulled opponents and audiences alike with the trancelike rhythm of his game and the monotony with which he acquired titles and records. But Sampras played complete and deeply realised tennis, too; he never bored the connoisseurs or those who understood that beneath the seeming indifference lay a craving for the game so powerful that he twice vomited on the court and once even wept on it. As his former coach Paul Annacone said, "Pete makes it look too easy. People watch him win and think, `That doesn't look too hard.'"

The ease of his game did Sampras a disservice: It obscured his supreme professionalism, no common commodity these days. We thought Sampras would always be there. He's been more than just great; he's been dependably, reliably great. For more than a decade, we could count on him: 64 singles titles, while the lurkers and bangers and transients came and went. He never really changed.

Sampras won the U.S. Open as a 19-year-old in 1990 with a thoroughly unaffected manner and a quirky sense of humour. When told the President might call him, he smiled, grimaced shyly, and said, "The phone's off the hook."

Asked to describe himself at the time, he said, "I'm a normal 19-year-old with a very unusual job, doing very unusual things."

But that was only partly right. He was a fragile, touchy creature, too. Before he became an invincible champion, he was all lethargy and sensitivity, not a good player in the heat, or in the mornings, and not yet insensitive to pressure, either. Two years would pass before he won his second major, and of them he says, "I had to learn how to play tennis. I was the greenhorn, the kid who had to do it all by himself, learn it all by himself. Nobody told him anything."

Sampras has always felt this curious sense of isolation, almost as if he were orphaned on the court. And if Pete and Andre seem different, what about Mike Agassi and Sam Sampras? What of the way Sam would drop little Pete off at junior tournaments and then simply turn and leave? Pete remembers being abandoned, the sight of Sam's back, moving away. Sam was too nervous to watch, sure. But he also wasn't certain he approved of this whole costly and troublesome junior circuit. Sampras would stand on the court, watching his father retreat, and years later he said, "I still remember feeling alone."

Sam made a self-sufficient player of him, and a self-effacing one, too. On the afternoon Sampras had a big win and was interviewed by the press for the first time, his father cautioned him: "just tell them you were lucky."

The next day Sampras lost. As he sat there, brooding, his father tapped him on the shoulder, pointing to the winner — and new darling of the press.

"See that?" he said. "That's what happens."PETE and ANDRE; ANDRE and PETE

They are what tennis needs more of: grown men. Over the years, the public has developed a relationship with them, a continuous connection that it doesn't have with any other players. Maybe one day we'll know Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick this well, but for now they are superficial characters, rude bashers with sticky hair.

Agassi and Sampras have known each other for two-thirds of their lives. We have known them for half.

They start as two small boys, Sampras 8 years old, Agassi 9 or 10, and they are on a court in Northridge, California, about to play each other for the first time. Agassi, if you can believe it, is the bigger of the two, recalling years later that Sampras "comes up to about my chin." But Agassi has no real ground strokes yet, and Sampras remembers saying of him, "He's all trick shots." Then again, Sampras has no serve, and with his two-handed backhand he's a tiny baseline grinder.

They could not be more different, and the same will be said of the way they will go about things from this point on. Sampras will worship tradition and study the greats and attain a pure classicism. Agassi will become a work of junk fiction and then mature into an artist.

Neither can remember who won that first match.

We cannot remember, or imagine, the game without them.

From Tennis Magazine @ 2003 By Miller Sports Group LLC. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.

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