A 90's Kind of Rivalry
August 27, 1995
Early on the morning of March 27, Pete Sampras, then the no. 1 ranked tennis player in the world, and Andre Agassi, No. 2 with a bullet, boarded a Concorde jet in New York City to fly to London and then on to Sicily to represent the United States in a Davis Cup match against Italy. Not since 1984, when Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe seemed to own the sport, had two Americans been locked in such a furious competition for the top rung. Sampras and Agassi had each meticulously planned their schedules, therefore, to give them the ideal proportion of action and rest needed to peak at the year's four Grand Slam tournaments. The Davis Cup was a huge disruption, and each had agreed to participate only if the other would. Even then, they had to be cajoled into playing and promised the use of a private plane from London to Sicily.
Unlike Connors and McEnroe, however, Sampras and Agassi didn't need a straw-hatted emissary from the United States Tennis Association, beseeching them to place love of country over contempt for each other. Despite the one-on-one nature of tennis, a conflict of such focused and intimate emotional violence that a single exchange can leave a permanent ridge of psychic scar tissue, Sampras and Agassi have always got along just fine.
It is true that Agassi once said of Sampras, whose long arms make him
play several inches taller than his 6-foot-1 height, that he looks as if
he had swung onto the court from a tree. And last year, at a Nike shareholder
Agassi suggested that company engineers come up with something to keep Sampras's tongue in his mouth. But in each case, Sampras accepted Agassi's hastily faxed apology. On the credit side of Agassi's ledger, after all, is the time that he graciously agreed to delay a match so that Sampras could recover from food poisoning. Even Agassi's girlfriend, the actress Brooke Shields, and Sampras's girlfriend, a law student named Delaina Mulcahy, are friendly: during Wimbledon this year, they shopped together at Harrods.
And so less than 18 hours after Agassi had beaten Sampras in the finals of the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., a victory that would help propel Agassi to the No. 1 ranking two weeks later, they sat side by side on the Concorde, Agassi by the window and Sampras on the aisle. Relishing the rare opportunity to talk to each other's only true peer rather than the coaches and surrogate friends on their payrolls, they dissected their respective games and psyches like a pair of friendly hackers.
Recalling the conversation several weeks later in separate interviews, both were still struck by the starkness of their differences. And while Agassi confessed an appreciation for Sampras that borders on awe, Sampras was less generous, bringing up only the parts of the conversation that reflected better on him. "Andre mentioned a point in the first set at the Lipton, where I dove for a volley," Sampras remembers. "He told me that if he ever dove for a ball, he'd look like a fool."
Sitting with Agassi in a hotel restaurant in Washington as he picks at a bowl of sliced fruit, I ask him about Sampras's recollection. "Pete's the kind of guy who can just decide you're not going to hit a lob over his head, even if he has to jump four feet into the air to get it," he says. "Me, I'll probably let it drop, and then wrack it." Besides, Agassi adds, "If a ball is about to go by me, I figure I've already done something seriously wrong."
What most impressed Agassi was how little Sampras leans on his coaches. (Agassi is now coached by Brad Gilbert, who helped him climb from No. 32 to No. 1 in a little more than a year; Sampras's coach is Paul Annacone, who replaced Tim Gullikson seven months ago when Gullikson withdrew to battle brain cancer, for which he is now undergoing chemotherapy.) "Pete said, 'Regardless of what Brad's done for you, you're the one who has to go out there and do it,' " Agassi told me in the restaurant. "I said, 'I totally agree with you, but he's given me a lot of important insights." He said, 'Like what?' And I was like, 'Well, he's directed me here and directed me there, and given me a game plan.' And Pete was shocked to think that's what a coach does. All he knows is someone who makes sure his toss is on line and helps with the fundamentals on some very basic level. But nobody tells Pete how to play. Me, it's the opposite. I have all the shots, but what the hell do I do with them?"
Agassi, whose need to get naked is at the heart of his enduring charisma, continued: "The one thing that Pete has over me, or I shouldn't say over me, but that I wish I had, is such a simple approach and raw belief that he is just better than everybody. With me, it's different. Even at the level of being No. 1 now for a while and winning tournaments and winning Slams, I still could convince myself that, Geez, maybe I'm just not as good as I think I am."
Between them, Sampras and Agassi have won the last four Wimbledons, three of the last five U.S. Opens and the last two Australian Opens, not to mention about $20 million in official cash (and unknowable millions more in endorsements, much of it from Nike). They represent opposite routes to the topof the tennis ladder. Agassi, programmed since birth to be a champion, only started to fulfill his talent after finally conquering his resentment over the lack of say in his own fate. Sampras, a "natural," suddenly bloomed at 19 with a straight-set thrashing of Agassi at the 1990 U.S. Open, becoming its youngest-ever champion, and has suffered nary a misstep since. Their rivalry, which has come to a boil this year, hasn't just rekindled interest in a dying game -- it's the whole show. Every major tournament begins with a fervent collective prayer that Sampras and Agassi will meet in the finals. If they do, it's Aeschylus; if not, it's "Waterworld."
So far, unfortunately, it's been a pretty sodden summer. After three memorable encounters at the start of the year, including Agassi's dramatic win over Sampras in the finals of the Australian, the year's first Grand Slam event, Sampras and Agassi missed their date in both Paris and London. In a fitting end to his disastrous clay-court season, Sampras lost in the first round of the French Open while Agassi was beaten in the quarterfinals by Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a big, blond Russian who is No. 6 in the world. (Agassi then blamed the loss, rather unconvincingly, on a strained hipflexor.) At Wimbledon, the two seemed certain to meet in the finals after Sampras struggled past Goran Ivanisevic in one semifinal, with Agassi set to play Boris Becker, whom he'd beaten eight straight times, in the other. But after shooting out to an early lead, Agassi crumbled, losing to Becker in four sets. In the final, Sampras, showing his best form in a year, dominated Becker and became the first American man ever to win three straight Wimbledons.
With the late-summer return to the hard courts, the rivalry has slipped back into gear. On July 30, Sampras and Agassi played for the title in the du Maurier Ltd. Open in Montreal, their first meeting in more than four months. Agassi pulled out a three-set victory, squaring the pair's pro records at eight wins each. Still, it is only fitting that their battle for supremacy, at least for 1995, should be settled on an American hard court, at the U.S. Open, the year's final Grand Slam event. "On a medium hard court, you can win from the back court and you can play serve and volley," Agassi says, "so it's the perfect surface on which to test our two different games." Starting tomorrow, they will each try to slog their way through the 128-man draw while contending not only with the August humidity but also with the singular stress of playing for all the marbles in New York City, where the late-night crowds bay at the moon and howl for blood. The Open is by far tennis's most gladiatorial spectacle, where two men enter and only one can leave. If it were staged by Aeschylus, of course, the two men would be Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
YOU MIGHT THINK THAT, THE MORE TIME ONE spent observing and talking to a pair of extremely wealthy young athletes, both of whom left high school in their midteens and stand without rivals at the top of their sport -- as well as the marketing pyramid that props it up -- the more you would find they had in common. But under such scrutiny, Sampras, 24, and Agassi, 25, emerge as mirror opposites. Their games and heads match up strength for strength, weakness for weakness, with perfect interlocking symmetry: Sampras has the best serve in tennis, Agassi the best service return. Agassi has the nastiest down-the-line backhand, Sampras the best running forehand. Agassi has the most effective and best-concealed topspin lob, and Sampras, who is the sport's best leaper, the most explosive overhead.
Agassi's skills are oddball, eccentric and not even inherently athletic, based on an ability to see and react to a tennis ball with uncanny speed and accuracy. In a rally from the back court, Agassi uses his hands and eyes to make the type of adjustments to the ball that most players make with their feet. For a long time, Agassi, who has a barrel chest and no-account legs, was criticized for his obsession with weight lifting, and in fact for a couple of years, he did appear more interested in bench-pressing twice his weight than in winning tennis matches. But watching Agassi swing at the ball with his short arms, you notice that he hits every ball just out in front of him and no more than a couple inches on either side of his spinal column -- in effect, each stroke is like a small bench press.
Everything about Agassi's game is tight and compressed. Agassi reaching for a ball as little as a foot away is a crime against nature. He is the only player on the pro tour who never stretches; the only time he got a rubdown at Wimbledon was before the semifinal match that he lost to Becker. Even Agassi's smile is tight.
Sampras, meanwhile, is the sweetest, most fluid big cat in the jungle, with tremendous power in the thighs and calves. When he is playing well, everything is loose, flowing, silent and deadly, and Sampras seems to simply kick back and delight in what his body can do. For Sampras, tennis is a sensual experience. After a four-day layoff following his Wimbledon victory, he sorely missed moving around a court and hitting balls. "I like the feel of the ball coming off the strings," he says. "I like the sounds. I just like to get out there and groove a little bit." Whereas Agassi's every second of court time is grunt labor -- with his sweaty bandanna and pigeon-toed strut, he'd look right at home on a construction site -- Sampras is a pure athlete. He plays.
The greatest difference between the two, though, may be that Sampras operates from an unshakable belief that he has not yet laid eyes on the man who can take him down when he is playing well, while Agassi seems to be motivated just as effectively by ineradicable feelings of insecurity. That's why Agassi plays with such instant ferocity, trying to strip his opponent bare within the first few games of a match. Sampras, meanwhile, starts more slowly, is less impressive in the early rounds of a tournament and plays with leonine languor until he gets in a bit of trouble. It's why every time Agassi steps on the court, it's personal, while Sampras believes that whoever is across the net is irrelevant as long as he plays his game. As Brad Gilbert notes, Agassi remembers practically every point of every match, but Sampras often forgets he has even played someone.
Perhaps the reason why Sampras plays with so much more equanimity is that, while tennis has deeply hurt Agassi, and at several times all but broken him, Sampras's career has been a stroll in the park. Agassi has had to clear one psychic obstacle after another, but for Sampras, Agassi is his first real challenge, the first opponent who he knows can beat him even if he plays well. "Pete needs someone who can give him a mental test," says Mats Wilander, a former No. 1 player now finishing up his career. "Pete needs Andre more than Andre needs him."
In many ways, their well-marketed public personas run exactly counter to the way they play. Agassi may seem daring when he screws in his earrings or laces up his black sneakers or shaves off all his body hair, but on the court, he is the far more conservative and repetitive player of the two. He is also the harder worker, the more compulsively prepared, and as some o Sampras's recent matches have shown, the better-conditioned. And while Sampras may look like the boy that every father wants his daughter to bring home, he is all but uncoachable and plays with almost reckless abandon. "Sampras is the more artistic player," says Todd Martin, the No. 17 playerin the world, "Agassi the more solid."
It is Agassi, the putative bad boy whom Nike pitches as the creator of
rock-and-roll tennis, who is the born-again Christian and, if you can take
his old pal Barbra Streisand's word for it, a "Zen master." A
therapy graduate and a
voracious reader of pop-psych authors like Marianne Williamson and Tony Robbins (whom Agassi has called "one of the most evolved people I've met"), Agassi is constantly seeking reassurances that he has changed, that he is getting better. Sampras, whose favorite line from literature is "Don't ever tell anybody anything," from "The Catcher in the Rye," sees little need to change and seems perfectly content with who he is.
Five days after Wimbledon, Sampras is dripping onto the cement beside
the East Hampton pool of his coach, Paul Annacone, talking about the subdued
reaction to his third straight Wimbledon title. But he might just as well
referring to the uninformed reaction to himself in general. On the court, Sampras turns himself into a conduit for his tennis, his personality all but erased. You could watch every pro match he has ever played and not know a thing about him. Off the court, however, Sampras has no lack of personality. Muscular, hirsute, his kinky jet black hair swept back, he's juiced up, bristling with opinion and cynical wit, the very picture of brutal youth. Sampras "couldn't believe" that his Wimbledon victory didn't rate the cover of Sports Illustrated, which instead ran a story about the return of Monica Seles, who two years ago was attacked by a crazed,knife-wielding tennis fan. "I mean, she's playing a freaking exo," says Sampras, referring to her comeback exhibition match against Martina Navratilova.
And Sampras offers an explanation for his scant postmatch praise of Greg Rusedski, whom he beat in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. (In a brazen act of self-promotion, Rusedski, a Canadian player whose mother is British, became a British subject just before the start of Wimbledon. After three early-round victories, he all but declared himself the savior of British tennis.) "Ninety-nine percent of the time," says Sampras, "even if I think a guy is worth [expletive], I would say he's got some talent, and has some time to improve. But I was so tired of hearing about Rusedski and listening to the British media that I decided, if I kick his [expletive], I'm going to be a little more opinionated."
One of the many revelations of the time I spent with Sampras is his foul mouth. Obscenities are such a weight-bearing element in his terse syntax that with the expletives deleted, often all that's left is the name of the guilty. "[expletive] Rusedski!" he blurts out, for the sheer joy of it; later, when I remind him how frequently Brad Gilbert, Agassi's notoriously gregarious coach, brings up the fact that Gilbert is four and four in the eight times he met Sampras as a player, he says, "[expletive] Brad!" He tries to point out the meaninglessness of the statistic. "I mean, this [expletive] guy here is 1-0 against me," Sampras says, pointing to Annacone, who is wading in the shallow end with a silly grin, not quite sure whether to look proud or insulted. "You want to humble Brad, just ask him about the Slams," says Sampras, who is well aware that, despite the $5 million in prize money that Gilbert has earned in a long career as a sort of overachieving bottom-feeder, he never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in any of the four major tournaments. "Just ask him about the Slams."
I pass along something that Pete Fischer, Sampras's first and most influential coach, recently told me: Gilbert, Fischer believes, has the greatest mind in tennis and he was always Fischer's first choice to coach Sampras if he couldn't do it himself. Sampras rolls his eyes. "Brad's got a good heart, but I couldn't take all that talking, discussing every angle, every shot," he says. "Whenever we used to practice together, I'd say, 'Brad, would you just shut the [expletive] up for 30 minutes.' "
"Brad's got a lot to offer," Annacone throws in graciously.
"Yeah, too much," says Sampras.
Sampras has gone out of his way to give credit to Tim Gullikson for helping get him from No. 5 in the world to No. 1, and his feelings were painfully obvious when, after learning that Gullikson had cancer, Sampras broke down and cried on the court during his semifinal match in the Australian Open. But since splitting with Fischer when he was 18, Sampras has seemed to value his coaches more for their company than their wisdom. When Annacone, still wading nearby, starts expounding tennis theory, saying that a player is always plotting to take away the amount of time his opponent has to return a shot, either by hitting the ball hard or hitting it early, Sampras, without taking his eye off the little poolside basketball hoop he's shooting at, just says, "Nonsense."
"Nonsense," in fact, may be Sampras's favorite word, a blanket assessment that covers just about everything his eye takes in. Not without reason, he has come to see himself as tennis's one truly sane man, trying to navigate a sea of posturing lunatics; for all its perquisites, the job is starting to try his patience. Sampras refers to his time in Sicily with Agassi as "the whole Davis Cup nonsense," pointing out that although players like to milk the international competition for all the patriotic P.R. they can, "no one in America really cares about the Davis Cup. Do you even know how the how the systems of ties and everything works?"
The more Sampras reveals of himself, the more it seems that his admiration for Agassi does not extend much beyond his ability to hit a tennis ball. When I ask what he specifically likes about Agassi, intending him to cite some attractive human quality, he draws a blank, then says, "I like the way he travels," referring to Agassi's private jet.
Just as all the tennis talk is getting laborious, Delaina Mulcahy, Sampras's girlfriend, wanders out toward the pool. She's got a towel wrapped around her thin waist like a sarong, and she's waving her arms in the air. "The best thing about Pete and Andre," she announces, "are the girls." She sits down next to Sampras. "Pete, it's beautiful here. We should get a place here."
"We hardly spend any time in our one house and you want to get a second place," says Sampras. "Nonsense."
Sampras and Mulcahy, 30, who is entering her final year of law school, live in Tampa in a huge house beside a golf course. She is Sampras's first girlfriend, and they have been together five years.
"Darling," she says, "tell him how we met."
"After I won the Open, she saw me holding the check, and said, 'I'm going to get me some of that.' "
"No, seriously," says Mulcahy.
"Seriously?" says Sampras. "I was doing this exhibition and we went out one night, and she fell totally in love with me."
"He always get it backwards," says Mulcahy, examining her manicure.
The real version seems to be that Sampras, who was 19 and had never been on a date before he turned pro, called Mulcahy the day after they met and asked her to spend a week with him in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "Our first date lasted a week," says Mulcahy. (Agassi, by contrast, exchanged faxes with Brooke Shields every day for three months before risking the exchange of anything more intimate. Perhaps because they have so much in common -- former childhood stars who both survived an overzealous stage parent -- they have since locked into what they each describe as a solid and happy relationship.) Sampras and Mulcahy start to goof around by the edge of the pool. He throws her in, twice, the second time eliciting a warning: "I'll remember this when it's time to get horizontal." At this moment, at least, Pete Sampras seems like an exceedingly normal 24-year-old.
In fact, his only eccentricity may be the sacredness with which he regards his sleep. Under the right circumstances, he can go for 12 hours at a stretch. He turns the air-conditioning on full blast, snaps the sheets as tight as a drum and insists that Mulcahy not so much as touch him until he wakes up. It's as if Sampras doesn't let anyone, even his girlfriend, near his subconscious.
ANDRE AGASSI, ON THE OTHER HAND, tends to run his psyche like an open house, particularly if a visitor can help him play better tennis. On an early Friday afternoon in the middle of this year's Wimbledon tournament, Agassi and Gilbert were working out on the grass practice courts at Aorangi Park. In his first two overpowering wins, against Andrew Painter and Patrick McEnroe, Agassi had hit two or three stone-cold service return winners each game, often sending the ball back 20 miles per hour faster than it had arrived. But for Agassi's third-round opponent, David Wheaton, Gilbert was preaching the rewards of moderation, and Agassi was listening intently.
"If you rip it, he just keeps charging in, where all he has to do is react," Gilbert explains. "Slow him down, make him hesitate, and he's got to think about it. That's when he gets nervous." Instead of whaling on the ball, Gilbert says, Agassi should hit low, dipping topspin returns that will freeze Wheaton. Gilbert serves a half-dozen balls and Agassi responds as instructed.
Agassi's first tennis coach was his Armenian-born father, Mike Agassi, who had immigrated to the States after competing in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics for the Iranian boxing team. On the day that Andre first opened his eyes, Mike Agassi tied a tennis ball to a string and dangled it over his crib -- "to get him to follow the ball." When Andre was old enough to sit in a high chair, Mike taped half a Ping-Pong paddle to his hand and tossed balloons at him, "to teach him timing." And a few years later, Mike put Andre on the cement court he had built in the backyard of the family's Las Vegas home and began bombarding him with hundreds of balls a day, spat out by 11 machines capable of manufacturing every kind of spin or angle.
Mike Agassi had long harbored the goal that one of his children would be a champion. After the first three Agassis burned out early, Andre was his last, best hope. He was a pure prodigy, a toddler who hit with topspin, moving into the junior-tournament circuit at 7 and, before heturned 13, rallying with at least half a dozen pros who came through Vegas.
Through the lens of psychotherapy, Agassi now sees the earliest stages of his tennis education as a mild form of child abuse. In an interview with Tennis magazine, Jim Courier recalled a junior tournament at which Mike Agassi took Andre's runner-up trophy and threw it in the trash. These days, communication between father and son is cordial but sparse. When I ask Mike Agassi what advice he might offer if his son were to meet Sampras in the finals of the U.S. Open, he says: "Why should I tell him anything? He hasn't listened to a thing I've said for three years."
At 13, Andre was shipped off to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the notorious Florida tennis factory. Two days after his 16th birthday, Agassi turned professional, with Bollettieri, a law-school dropout who had never played competitive tennis, as his coach. In one early stretch as a pro, Agassi lost in the first round of nine straight tournaments, an experience that left him bawling on a Washington park bench, where he was comforted by a minister who traveled with the pro tour -- the same minister who not long before had helped Agassi become a born-again Christian. By the time Agassi was 18, he was No. 3 in the world, having made the semifinals of two Grand Slams and won several smaller tournaments. Still, except for his victory at Wimbledon in 1992, he spent the next six years going either sideways or down, losing three Grand Slam finals in which he was heavily favored. And yet, his celebrity grew ever higher, even when he was losing and showing up overweight for tournaments. The media began to think of him more as marketing phenomenon than tennis champion.
Bollettieri, expressing disgust with Agassi's lack of commitment, very publicly severed their relationship, although Mike Agassi insists that his son's "firing" was a pre-emptive strike -- that Andre had offered to keep Bollettieri on contract, but had told him he needed to work with someone who knew what it was like to deal with on-court pressures.
That someone was Brad Gilbert, whose own career was in its late stages. In jumping from Bollettieri to Gilbert (after experimenting briefly with a handful of other ex-pros), Agassi went from a coach with zero competitive experience to one of the most astute strategists ever. And because Gilbert was still playing, he had a current book on every player on tour.
Gilbert immediately went to work on Agassi's head, addressing the Grand
Slam opportunities that Agassi had blown. "First of all," recalls
Gilbert, "I told him those suckers are gone. There's nothing you can
do to get them back." Then he convinced Agassi that all his failures
were essentially due to lousy coaching. "When he came to me, he was
a diamond that was uncut," says Gilbert. "He could play some great
tennis, but there were flaws all over the place." Perhaps the most
central flaw was Agassi's apparent lack of grit, evidenced by his history
of giving up once he got behind in a match. Gilbert, a ferocious competitor
who as an apprentice pro won 28 straight matches in qualifying events, has
no tolerance for quitters. But instead of delivering his message as an ultimatum,
as Mike Agassi might have, Gilbert reminded Agassi how interminably painful
it would be to look back on his career with regret. When Gilbert took over,
Agassi was floundering badly and seemed destined to go down as one of the
game's most underachieving great
talents. Within a year, he won the U.S. Open and the Australian Open; so far this year, he hasn't lost a single match short of the quarterfinals, nor to anyone outside the top 20. "If Brad had been my coach earlier, I think I would have been No. 1 in the world when I was 18," Agassi says, with more regret than hubris.
One of the most fascinating aspects of their collaboration is the way that Gilbert has built the new Andre without extirpating the old one. Gilbert isn't denying that Agassi got tight at the end of his Wimbledon match with Becker ("Hey, everybody chokes sometimes -- everybody," he says) or even that Agassi got that old spooked look in his eyes; but he makes the valid point that Agassi never stopped fighting. "There was no point in that match where I thought Andre was going to lose until they said, 'Game, set, match: Becker.' If I ever thought Andre wasn't trying in a single match, I'd have a real problem with that."
Because of Agassi's fragile feelings about himself, Gilbert is just as concerned with keeping him from getting too pumped up too early in a tournament as he is with him going down -- particularly because his toughest competitor, Sampras, often looks sluggish in the early rounds."I tell Andre that it don't matter that you're crushing everybody and Pete's struggling," Gilbert told me at Wimbledon, "because second place don't mean nothing to either one of you. Pete's like a pitcher who wins 7-6 because that's all he needs to pitch that day, and then the next day, when he has to, goes out and throws a 1-0 gem. I keep telling Andre to beware of the wounded bear."
Now, as Gilbert and Agassi are nearing the end of their workout at Aorangi Park, still plotting how to knock off David Wheaton, Agassi asks, "What percentage should I serve to his forehand?" as if he'll be toting a calculator in his shorts. They keep hitting as Gilbert spews out a steady stream of exhortation and non sequitur. "When the bell goes off, you got to come strong!" he shouts across the net. And: "Steffi's looking thin, she's looking razor-thin."
And: "I swear, I couldn't get that broccoli soup out of my mind last night," to which Agassi responds, "Yeah, that can give you a foot cramp." The talk always returns to strategy, though, and Agassi can't get enough. Despite the nearly miraculous results, there is something about Gilbert's nonstop coaching and Agassi's rapt attention that is just a little much, suggesting that the whole exercise serves more as an emotional balm than a point-for-point battle plan. This seems especially true when, a few minutes later, Gilbert and Agassi are replaced on the same court by Paul Annacone and Pete Sampras, who, in their own practice session, casually hit for 45 minutes without exchanging a single word.
According to Sampras family lore, Pete taught himself to play by hitting against a wall with a racquet he had found in the basement. One weekend morning when Pete was 9, his father, an engineer for NASA, took him to the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Manhattan Beach, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Pete Fischer, a pediatrician who grew up in Yonkers, was just getting off the court, and Sam Sampras asked him to hit with his son. When they were through, Sam asked how much Fischer would charge to do it regularly. "Nothing," said Fischer. Thus began one of the least likely coach-athlete pairings in the history of sports. "You have to see him," says Sampras of Fischer. "He's bald with glasses, about 6 foot 2, has a bad back, is kind of hunched over and a little overweight. He's like a mad scientist. He tried to put his brain in my body."
Fischer, 53, still lives near Los Angeles, and works about 80 hours a week caring for critically premature infants at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital. He recalls that before he met Sampras, he had speculated with a friend what might happen "if a pure athlete, somebody like Willie Mays, had taken up tennis." And now here he was, rallying with a silent little kid whom Fischer sensed with frightening surety might indeed be tennis's Willie Mays. "He hit every ball square center, where he wanted to hit it," Fischer says. "You can't conceive of how good he was unless you were there." (In fact, until Sampras won the U.S. Open, Fischer often feared that he had disastrously tampered with history by encouraging him to play tennis instead of baseball.)
Fischer's own tennis education was limited to six lessons he got one summer,
courtesy of his father, a toy salesman. Still, he was immediately aware
of the responsibility with which he had been entrusted, andapplied himself
Sampras's development with the dispassionate objectivity of a scientist and the unshakable confidence of a New Yorker. "Pete doesn't sugarcoat it," Sampras says. "He tells the truth."
With his parents' blessing, Sampras started spending all his free time with Fischer. They played on the hospital's courts three or four days a week after school, and at the club on weekends. Fischer's first step was to establish appropriate goals. "From the very beginning," he says, "the competition was always Laver, and it still is." (Rod Laver holds the record for the most major singles crowns, 11, and he is the only player ever to win the Grand Slam -- all four major tournaments in the same year -- twice.) "Pete is still five majors and two Grand Slams behind Laver," Fischer says, "and he knows it as well as I do."
Fischer was blunt in his criticism, but his emphasis was always on the long term; to discourage Sampras from obsessing about junior trophies, he had him play a bracket or two above his age. "That might have been the difference between him and Mike Agassi," Sampras says. "Andre's father was more concerned with winning."
Sampras was 9 when he first ran into Andre Agassi, who was 10, at a tournament
in Northridge, Calif. They were both tiny for their age, and Sampras recalls
that Agassi beat him easily, hitting almost nothing but trick shots. "He
toyed with me for about two hours,"Sampras says. By the time Sampras
was 13, Fischer was showing him tapes of Laver, and talking very specifically
about winning Wimbledon. Until he was 14, his best shot was a two-handed
backhand, but after Fischer concluded that a serve-and-volley game was necessary
to dominate the majors, and that no player with a two-handed backhand had
ever been a great volleyer, Sampras was obliged to drop it. "I was
losing matches and losing confidence," Sampras says, "but Pete
insisted that this was something that hopefully was going to help me win
the U.S. Open and Wimbledon one day, and I trusted him." Sampras's game changed so dramatically that his psyche had to adjust. "When I was 14, I was such an intense little kid," he says. I played just like Chang, grinding from the baseline. When I started serving and volleying, I became much more laid-back." Sampras discovered that that there is an entirely different psychology between being a serve-and-volleyer and a base-liner, puncher andcounterpuncher. And he found that being the puncher was a whole lot more pleasant. At the same time, Fischer began banging home the message that Sampras's only opponents were himself and history. "He's Pete Sampras, " says Fischer. "He shouldn't care who is on the other side of the net."
The transformation of Sampras's game would ultimately account for his
stunning success, but it was probably also responsible for the collapse
of his relationship with Fischer. "Until I was 16," Sampras says,
"I did everything Pete said. But then I started to rebel." The
biggest struggle was over Sampras's serve. Fischer never intended for it
to become as huge as it has, and believes that its dominance has fouled
the harmony of Sampras's serve-and-volley game. Fischer still thinks thatSampras
should take some speed off his first serve, get a higher percentage in and
win more points with
his first volley. As it is now, he thinks Sampras is too dependent on how well his serve happens to be working on any given day:"Pete should realize he doesn't need free points to win," Fischer says.
"Nothing is more demoralizing than getting aced a lot," counters Sampras. "We have this discussion every time I go to Los Angeles and we go out to dinner. He knows how I feel, I know how he feels. I just think he's wrong." Fischer's reply: "I've always said that Pete is like my Doberman, Hitler. You've got to hit him with a two-by-four to get his attention."
Since Fischer, Sampras's coaching has consisted of little more than tweaking and polishing. Joe Brandi, who was coaching Sampras when he came out of nowhere in 1990 to beat Agassi and win the U.S. Open, was a quiet caretaker of Sampras's game. Even Gullikson, whom Sampras hired in 1992 and who helped him make the jump to No. 1, instituted very few significant changes. Like Fischer, Gullikson wanted Sampras to play more serve-and-volley, but it was hard to argue with Sampras's success. Last year, until a foot injury essentially wiped out his summer, he was having one of the most dominating years in tennis history, winning at Australia and Wimbledon and six other tournaments. Even Gullikson's illness, while it plainly affected Sampras, hardly distracted from his tennis. In fact, in the five years since he won his first Open, he has been almost numbingly excellent. The result is a confidence that is as genuine as it is low-key. "The guy has just never said an arrogant thing, even in private," says Annacone, who is still considered Sampras's interim coach in anticipation of Gullikson's eventual return. "When he won Wimbledon this year, all he said was, 'I feel really good.' "
One way that the soul of professional tennis reveals itself these days is in the parceling out of seats in the players' boxes at Wimbledon and the three other majors. One seat goes to your coach, one to your trainer, one to your agent, one to the person you're most publicly havingsex with and one to the administrator of your sneaker contract. For both Sampras and Agassi, that is Ian Hamilton, Nike's director of sports marketing, tennis division. Nike has so insinuated itself into the Sampras -Agassi rivalry that one occasionally wonders if it is really just some elaborate plan to hawk sneakers. (At Wimbledon, Nike plastered its oversize images on a double-decker bus that shuttled between the tournament site and the train station, and throughout the summer, Nike has broadcast a television commercial called "Guerilla Tennis," in which Sampras and Agassi jump out of a cab, string up a net and start going at it in the middle of a city street.) For all the prize money that each player earns, about $2 million a year, it's only a fraction of what Nike pays them. So beyond being competitors, Sampras and Agassi are fellow employees competing for the affection of Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike -- who, after Sampras's Wimbledon victory this year, gave Sampras and Delaina Mulcahy a lift home in his private plane.
Each year, Nike rents an exquisite stone manse in Wimbledon, which, for the duration of the tournament, is known as Nike House. One morning during this year's tournament, Ian Hamilton ushered me past a security guard, a burly Brit with tattooed knuckles, and into the huge Nike House living room. In very broad strokes, he declared just how important Sampras and Agassi are to his company. While Sampras didn't sign on until just before the 1994 Wimbledon tournament, Agassi has been with Nike since the beginning. In fact, Hamilton was one of the first people Agassi called from the Bollettieri Tennis Academy when he was about to turn pro, and Hamilton immediately dipped into a pile of discretionary money he calls "my gut-feeling fund." Two years later, a marketing juggernaut was born when Agassi made the semifinals of the French Open in a pair of denim Nike shorts that John McEnroe had refused to wear. Agassi, relentlessly colorful and highly quotable, recently signed a10-year contract with Nike, reported to be worth between $100 million and $150 million. One reason why Hamilton won't name the exact figure is probably because Sampras is paid so much less -- although Jeff Schwartz, Sampras's agent, says that each player's Nike compensation is tied to various performance clauses, making it impossible to predict exactly how much Sampras -- or Agassi -- will actually earn.
Hamilton invites me out back to the garden and opens a toolshed. Neatly stacked are hundreds of pairs of grass-court sneakers, which Nike supplies to its players at Wimbledon and Queen's Club, the Wimbledon tuneup. The surplus sneakers, says Hamilton, will be airlifted to Africa when the tournament is over. Arranged by size, they are available in just two models: the Andre Agassi and the Pete Sampras. The Agassi is a three-quarter-height model covered with odd little weltlike bumps; the Sampras is a more traditional low model. "Andre appeals to the young and the young at heart," Hamilton recites, "while Pete is the perfect ambassador for our new Swoosh collection."
There is an intriguing footnote, as it were, to Nike's role in the Sampras -Agassi rivalry, having to do with the sneakers that the company hastily prepared for Sampras last year when he jumped to Nike. According to sources close to Sampras, the new sneakers didn't fit him quite right and were the start of the foot problems that sidelined him last summer. Which may be why Sampras resorted to the sort of trick that has long been practiced by tennis pros who are cynical or reluctant endorsers: until Nike came up with a shoe that truly fit, Sampras briefly went back to his old sneakers -- with a Nike swoosh painted on.
Even without Nike's boosterism, the Sampras -Agassi rivalry would have become a riveting one, all the more so for the inevitability with which it has unfolded. As far back as the junior circuit, astute tennis observers -- Pete Fischer among them -- saw Sampras and Agassi as the two best talents of their generation; even then, Fischer had no trouble picturing them 15 years down the road, No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, settling the score on the hard courts of the U.S. Open.
For Agassi, the Open is where, as an 18-year-old semifinalist, he first displayed the scale of his talent and charisma, later showed the weird chinks in his competitive psyche -- and then last year startled everyone by finding the will to overcome them. For Sampras, the Open is where, in one two-week period in 1990, all the careful plans of a street-smart pediatrician bore fruit, and the teen-age Sampras revealed what most authorities consider the most devastatingly complete game ever. The Open is also where Sampras suffered his most painful defeat, to Stefan Edberg in the 1992 finals, which five months later was still keeping him up at night. "That loss really burned my stomach," he says. "It made me realize just how bad it feels to lose a Grand Slam final, how the only player that people care about is the one who gets his name engraved on the trophy."
Coming into the Open, Agassi couldn't be riding any higher: as of last week, he had won all of his hard-court tuneups. In the sticky heat of Washington, he beat Edberg despite vomiting four times during the final. In Cincinnati, after Sampras wilted in the heat during a quarterfinal match, Agassi pounded Michael Chang for the title. And in Montreal, Agassi outdueled Sampras in the final, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Although Agassi and Sampras are now dead even in head-to-head competition,
they're not quite equals. As Agassi put it after his win at Montreal: "The
first thing you do when you get on the court with Pete is try not to be
embarrassed. Once you've done that, you think about winning." It almost
seems as though Agassi, even more than Sampras himself, acknowledges that
Sampras is the more talented player, and that if Sampras is playing and
particularly serving at the top of his game, there is very little that Agassi
or anyone else can do to affect the outcome. But rather than being paralyzed
by this knowledge, Agassi is liberated by it. Every time he steps on the
court against Sampras, he plays
like someone who has very little to lose, while Sampras, who feels that he absolutely should win, tightens up. Agassi has lost the first set in each of their last four matches, but came back to win three.
"Pete is the best player of all time," declares Mike Agassi.
"He's got the best serve, the best volley -- the way he moves, nobody
knows how fast he is. If he is serving well, the match could be over in
53 minutes. But if Andre stays
with him, then mentally Pete starts to fall apart."
If all goes according to seed, at 4 P.M. two weeks from today in Flushing Meadows, Queens, Agassi and Sampras will make the 100-yard walk from the locker room to the Louis Armstrong Stadium Court, toting their huge bags filled with some dozen racquets each, surrounded by terse security guards with sunglasses and walkie-talkies. For all the middle-class trappings of the game, the atmosphere at ground level will be as raw and electric as when robed boxers make a midnight walk to a raised ring. As Agassi and Sampras make their way, it will certainly not occur to them that they may represent the one exception to the winner-take-all notion of sports, which is that over the course of their careers, two athletes can become so intertwined that what is remembered is not the outcome of their various matches, but the quality of their rivalry. If both players can each hold up their end of the bargain long enough, no one has to go down in history alone. They can make the walk side by side.
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