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Final Will Be an Old Story

July 29, 2001

Agassi, 31, and Sampras, going on 30, will meet for 31st time today after beating Kuerten, Malisse in semifinals at UCLA.

The opener was a compelling chess match under the sun--a deliberate display of baseline power. The best one-handed backhand, owned by Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, against the owner of the best two-handed backhand, Andre Agassi.

The second act was shorter and succinct under the lights. The winner, Pete Sampras, prevailed despite taking only two points against Xavier Malisse's serve in the first set. Few rallies, and fewer breaks of serve. Attention-Deficit-Disorder tennis.

After the day-long variety on Saturday at UCLA's L.A. Tennis Center, it all comes down to the best rivalry in the men's game: Sampras vs. Agassi. They will meet for the 31st time, and the second this year, in today's final of the Mercedes-Benz Cup. The third-seeded Agassi took the tougher path, beating No. 1 Kuerten, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-3, in 1 hour 54 minutes in a well-played semifi-nal.

In the second semifinal, No. 4 Sampras defeated the Belgian, Malisse, 7-6 (4), 6-4. Though Sampras felt his semifinal hit a high level, the Kuerten-Agassi duel was several notches higher. Energy surged through the stadium, due to the noisy Brazilian contingent. "The worst thing is when you go to the court and you see people sleeping," Kuerten said. "That's not so nice." There was no chance of that happening with these four players on Saturday.

The Brazilian fans aside, the latest installation of Sampras vs. Agassi is what drives the game, especially in Southern California. They played here two years ago in the final with Sampras winning, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (1), and tennis legend Jack Kramer said it was one of the best finals he had seen in this event.

In their most recent match, Agassi beat Sampras in the final at Indian Wells in March in straight sets. "It's nice playing those guys, they're the legends of the game," Malisse said. "It's always a great final when Pete and Andre play. I think it is what the people wanted in the stands. It'll be a great final." Sampras leads the series, 17-13, and is 8-6 in finals against Agassi.

Immediately after beating Malisse, Sampras was asked about his longtime rival. He was feeling good because of the victory and the earlier news that he became an uncle for the first time. "I've never heard of him," he said of Agassi, joking. "I hear he's a pretty good player, won a few titles. "He's one of the best ever. He's the ultimate rival. The best player I've ever played."

Later, in the interview room, he spoke about the test of facing Agassi and how much it has forced him to improve his game. "There were moments, early on, where he was beating me and I had to add a few things to my game," Sampras said. "And he made me a better player because of that. I could get away with certain things against certain guys. He was at another level. He forced me to do some things I wasn't comfortable doing, but I had to do them against him. "He's by far the best player--no disrespect to anyone I've played over the years--but he's always had the extra gear all the great players have. He's always brought out the best in me."

Perhaps the presence of Agassi in the final provided a bit of extra motivation for Sampras. Though he struggled against Malisse's serve, he didn't have a great deal of trouble holding serve, facing just one break point in the first set. In the tiebreaker, Malisse had a 3-0 lead, but was later hurt by a close call on the sideline.

At 4-4, with Sampras serving, a Malisse forehand passing shot was called wide. Malisse argued, to no avail, and Sampras won the final two points to take the set. "I thought the level was pretty high, especially on our service games," Sampras said. "I was holding on pretty easily, he was serving great, not missing much from the back court. Came down to a tiebreaker, down 3-0, it's anyone's ballgame at that point.

Four-all, obviously, that's the big point. "Definitely a tight call. You need a few breaks to win a match and today I got that in the first set. It's the best I've played all week." Initially, it didn't look good. Sampras came out on court with his left groin muscle bandaged. He warmed up and then decided to lose the wrap. It was tough.

Sampras, who will turn 30 next month, was unraveling even before the match started. "I was attempting to try and play with it," he said. "I can't stand any tape on my body. I tried to do it, started warming up and I felt like I was playing with a cast, so I said, I'm not going to mess with it. I took it off--not very well. But I got it off." Sampras had a sore groin.

Kuerten needed treatment on his leg from the trainer before the third set, and Malisse lost his composure against Sampras. And so, the freshest, healthiest, toughest guy on the grounds was that kid, Agassi.

Agassi relished the challenge--after all, he ended Kuerten's 15-match winning streak--and has had an extra sparkle all tournament. "If you're going to play big against another big hitter, you're going to have to expect to make a lot of errors," Agassi said. "You're always walking that fine line of being aggressive, but not taking too many risks. "I think I got him to press a little bit. He made a lot of shots, but you have to live by the sword and die by the sword sometimes."

Kuerten was asked about Agassi's ability at age 31. The Brazilian grinned and looked at the reporter. "I don't know, you can write good, yes? You are older than him," Kuerten said, joking. "You have to believe it, or you won't be on the court. He believes in himself and that's why he's been successful." He also made it clear there is only one Andre. "I don't think I'll play [at 31], but I don't know," Kuerten said. "I'm 24 and I feel old."


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