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Pete sends Agassi home in classic match

September 5, 2001

There hadn't been a showdown like it in 32 years. Sampras and Agassi have won a combined 20 major titles, the most collective trophies in any Grand Slam men's match since Roy Emerson and Rod Laver -- holders of 22 titles -- played in the 1969 Open quarterfinals.

Pete Sampras outdueled fellow American Andre Agassi in four tiebreak sets in quarterfinal round of the US Open with a tight 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-5) victory. They battled for 3 1/2 magnificent hours, then met at the net with smiles, a handshake and warm words for each other. "Win the thing,'' Andre Agassi whispered in Pete Sampras' ear.

The match lived up to the sort of hype only New York can generate, with both players at the top of their game and the difference between them thinner than racket string. Four sets ended with four tiebreakers. In 48 games, neither player broke serve.

If there were any doubts that Sampras shook his yearlong slump with a victory Monday over Pat Rafter, he erased them with another poised, polished performance before a capacity crowd. And Agassi was nearly his equal in their 32nd meeting.

Sampras and Agassi met for the 32nd time in their storied rivalry. Sampras now owns an 18-14 edge, but this was his first win against Agassi in three tries this year. Agassi had beaten him in finals at Indian Wells and Los Angeles.

"I'm playing the guy with the best return in the game," said Sampras. "I was hitting my second serve very well."

It might have been a straight-set win for Sampras, who held three set points in the opening frame. However, Agassi rallied from a 6-3 deficit in the first tiebreaker to win it.

Agassi had been 49-1 at the Open when winning the opening set, but could not make a dent in Sampras' serve, despite holding his own.

"Probably about as good as it gets, playing the very best in a night match at the U.S. Open,'' Sampras said. "The atmosphere was phenomenal, and it was so close. It always comes down to a couple of points against Andre. He's an unbelievable player.''

"Certainly a memory I'll never forget,'' Agassi said. "Quite a powerful evening in many respects.''

Both players dominated on their serve. Sampras served 25 aces and erased three break points. Agassi hit 18 aces and erased six break points. During one stretch the two went 22 games without a break point. In one game Sampras double-faulted three times, endured an unlucky bounce on a net cord and still held.

Squandered chances cost Sampras the first set. Agassi fell behind 1-2, 0-40, but Sampras committed errors on the next three points. Those were his only break-point chances until the fourth set. They pushed on to the first tiebreaker. Sampras held three set points at 6-3, but Agassi saved them all with a forehand winner, a service winner and a sizzling forehand passing shot. On the final point Sampras mis-hit a volley into the net, then hung his head and swatted at the ball in frustration.

"I was kicking myself a little bit after that first set,'' Sampras said. ``But I got it going a little bit.''

In the eighth game of the second set he hit two skyjam overheads, his patented putaway, and after the second slam hopped on his toes as though reinvigorated. Again the rivals went to 6-6. "Let Pete win this set, Andre!'' a fan screamed.

Pete did, sweeping the final four points of the tiebreaker. When he yanked a forehand crosscourt to make it 6-2, he screamed "Yeah!'' and punched the air. A deft drop volley on the next point gave him the set, and Sampras screamed again and threw an uppercut as he walked to his chair.

In the third set they dueled again on even terms, Sampras playing serve-and-volley, Agassi hugging the baseline. Again they reached 6-6. Agassi committed three of his 19 unforced errors in the third-set tiebreaker, and Sampras delivered aces on the final two points for a 2-set-to-1 lead.

When Sampras faced a break point in the eighth game of the fourth set, he responded with an ace and two service winners. When the fourth tiebreaker started, the crowd gave both players a standing ovation. Sampras hit consecutive aces for a 4-3 lead, and Agassi blew a volley to make it 6-3. Sampras squandered the first two match points, hitting a volley into the net and double-faulting for the 12th time. But Agassi then blew a short forehand, giving Sampras the hard-earned win.

"It came down to the wire. How much closer can you get?'' Agassi said. "When you lose one that close, it's difficult to appreciate much about it except the standard I forced him to play. And that I feel good about.''

In the end Sampras' serve was just too good and his composure too cool. When Agassi hit a forehand into the net on match point at 12:14 a.m., Sampras raised his arms in well-earned celebration.

Sampras isn't bad, despite recent reports to the contrary. He entered the Open amid questions about retirement with the No. 10 seeding, his lowest since winning the first of his record 13 Grand Slam championships in 1990. Now he's two victories from his fifth Open title. He will face Safin in the semifinal - a rematch of last year's final.

Safin advanced earlier by defeating Mariano Zabaleta 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. During a postmatch on-court interview, Safin said he's not good enough to beat Sampras or Agassi.


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Another Night of Magic and Memories

September 6, 2001

After more than two decades of playing each other, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi have a peculiar entanglement, not exactly a friendship and not exactly a rivalry, either. It's more of a looking-glass war. One is what the other is not.

Picture two boys, each with future glories in him. They are 8 and 9 years old, respectively, and they are on a court in Northridge, Calif., about to play for the very first time. Agassi is the taller of the two. Sampras "comes up to about my chin," Agassi remembers. Agassi has no forehand yet. Sampras has no serve, and he uses a two-handed backhand.

They could not be more different in the way they will go about things from this point onward. Sampras will fall in love with tradition and study past greats and attain a gorgeous classicism. Agassi will raise screaming contrariness to performance art. They don't really remember who won that first match -- which is almost appropriate, because although they would play each other countless more times, from the junior ranks through their stunning meeting in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open on Wednesday night at the National Tennis Center, they weren't really playing each other. The boy-men on the other side of the net were never the real opponents. Sampras was always playing against history. Agassi was always playing against himself.

Through it all, something was always missing from their relationship, a central tension. They never seemed to play their best against each other on the right occasions. When Sampras was great, Agassi was absent. When Agassi was present, Sampras was already old. Or so it seemed. The emotional centerpiece of their rivalry was lacking -- until Wednesday night, when it became complete.

There was no bigger occasion for either of them than this: the U.S. Open, before a packed house in Arthur Ashe Stadium, in front of the heavily cologned bond traders, and the lawyers in their 42-longs, and the network anchormen, the ladies in cashmere shawls and sweater sets, and the Queens guys in the upper decks who wouldn't shut up.

Agassi, now 31, and Sampras, now 30, were grabbing at a last bit of history, fighting for a last bit of preeminence before the long, slow fade that will end in retirement, and as they did so, it felt as though they had entered into a bargain with each other, as if they understood this was why they had surrendered their childhoods, that this end game, this match, was the final prize. It was won by Sampras -- and write this down -- because it was one for the record books, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-5). "It was a powerful evening," Agassi said. "It was an incredible moment. It's what you play for."

Each played what may have been the match of his life, and it was so close that each knew he was one tentative forehand from being in the locker room. It was impossible to sort through all of the fascinating aspects of their meeting: Sampras's greatest-ever serve against Agassi's stunning returns, headlong corner to corner rallies, a desperate game of trump. In the end, even commentator John McEnroe, who knows a great occasion and a great rivalry, was struck speechless by the moment. "I am lucky to be a commentator," he said. "I am lucky to be here."

In appearance, they couldn't have been more opposite. Sampras was languid in a billowing white shirt buttoned to his neck and white shorts, black sneakers trimmed in white, like spats. His ancient model Wilson was black and dull as an old iron frying pan. Agassi was piratical in black on black, V-neck open to his chest, fidgety and darting-eyed and pigeon-toed, rolling his shirt around his waist and waving his bright orange ceramic Head racket. There was just one similarity.

They both wore white socks.

They began by playing the points carefully, like two men picking their way across a dangerous stream. But the quality of tennis steadily rose -- each shot answered with something better. And then, as the night wore on, it was glorious.

It was a match made all the more gripping by the fact that their paths here have been so divergent -- the two boys became such very different men.

Agassi remembers being propped up on a tennis court at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, his father Mike, a showroom captain, determined to create a child prodigy. The racket was bigger than he was, but he could rally with the visiting pros. Crowds would gather. "I remember being watched," he says. "And I remember liking it."

Sampras recalls being dropped off at junior tournaments by his father, Sam Sampras, who would then turn and walk away, because he disapproved of paying a boy so much attention. Sampras would stand on the court, watching his father's retreating back. "I remember feeling alone," he says.

Once, when Agassi lost a junior tournament, his father took the runner-up trophy and furiously hurled it into a nearby garbage can. In that moment, perhaps Agassi's lifelong rebellion and refusal to play tennis single-mindedly was born. "You know what?" he likes to say, "I'd rather feel I missed out on some good tennis than some good living."

Once, when Sampras was a junior, he won a big match and found himself surrounded by a throng of press for the first time. His father cautioned him, "Just tell them you were lucky." The next day, Sampras lost. The press surrounded his opponent. As Sampras sat there, brooding, his father tapped him on the shoulder, and pointed to the new darling of the press. "Look. See that?" he said. "That's what happens." And in that moment, perhaps Sampras's lifelong reticence and fierce internalization was born. "I've bit my lip so often I need stitches," Sampras says.

They became mirror reflections of each other's character -- and the measure of each other. Sampras was always the more disciplined and self-willed and accomplished, by the book; Agassi was the charismatic seeker, exploring the shortcuts and byways, evading responsibility and breaking the rules.

But now they have arrived at similar points in their careers, and attained a like stature. Sampras holds the career record for Grand Slam titles with 13. Agassi's seven Grand Slam titles are fewer, but he is one of just five men to possess all four major titles, which has a stature all its own.

Of course, the truth about them was that they weren't quite as different as they seemed all these years. Sampras was never really boring. How can a man who has alternately wept openly on the court, and thrown up on it, be boring? He is more profane than anyone would imagine, and also more neurotic. Agassi, in turn, is more mannerly, philosophic, and better read than you might imagine.

So when they met at Arthur Ashe Stadium, this time, it was with a sense of reconvergence, and better understanding. They were fully grown -- and still great.

They have known each other for longer than they have not. And they know each other better than the rest of us can possibly know.


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US Open - Quarterfinals
Post-Match Interview

Pete Sampras defeats Andre Agassi
6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6

September 5, 2001

Q. Did you call this conference to announce your retirement?


Q. Anything more satisfying?

PETE SAMPRAS: Well, probably about as good as it gets. You know, playing the very best on a night match at the US Open, the atmosphere was phenomenal. And it was so close. It really was. I had my chances early on in the tiebreaker in the first set. He came up with some good stuff. You know, I was kind of kicking myself a little bit after that first set. But, you know, kind of got it going a little bit. You know, played a couple good tiebreakers. I mean, we were really holding on the serves. Pretty convincingly. I was serving well. He was serving well. It always comes down to a couple points against Andre. He is an unbelievable player and the best player I've played over the years. When he's down, he was coming up with some unbelievable shots. I mean, I thought I was coming in on some really good stuff and he was flicking winners left and right. That's the great player that he is.

Q. How much did the first set, not winning it, at the time, how much did you feel it might have taken out of you?

PETE SAMPRAS: Well, I was kicking myself a little bit. I had the Love-40 game, let that slip. 6-3 in the breaker, had a couple second serves. I didn't do anything really with them. He had a great return at 6-5. It can happen so quickly out there. Especially in a tiebreaker. One minute I feel like I had him. Next minute I lost the first set. Not much you can do. There's still a long way to go. I had to regain my composure quickly. I couldn't dwell on it for too long. Continue to hold serve all the way through. And played a good breaker. He didn't miss much. I mean, he was really hitting the ball well. Keeping me on my heels a lot of times. Second set breaker was a huge part of the match. If I go down two sets to love, without losing my serve, mentally it would have been tough to come back.

Q. Is that one of the very best matches between the two of you?

PETE SAMPRAS: I think so. I think we both played at a very high level. You get one of the best serve and volleyers in the game against one of the best returners going toe to toe, he didn't lose serve. I mean, he can't feel too bad about the way he played. You know, I just got the breaks today. Won the bigger point. Like he said on the court.  And I showed a little bit of nerves there at 6-4 in the breaker. I was like standing at that line, I'm like, "I don't know where this is going." Went right in the net (laughter).

Q. You won 70 percent of your nets. Can you play any better than that? Were you satisfied with that?

PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah, I mean any time you can hold serve that often against someone that returns as well as Andre does and passes as well as he does, you know, to hold on serve that many times, I really felt like was going to be very tough to do. But I was -- hit my second serve extremely well, really kind of just going for it. Made a lot of them. But volleyed quite well and served really well when I had to. You have to do that against someone that returns as well as Andre does.

Q. What were your thoughts on that cheer before the fourth set tiebreak?

PETE SAMPRAS: Well, it was awesome. It really was. The appreciation, the crowd gave us, both of us, it was kind of a very chilling moment to have the crowd kind of stand on their feet and just applaud what we're doing out here. It was fun to be a part of it. Like I thought going into the match, "This could be a classic." And I think tonight it was.

Q. After a match like this, what do you do for an encore?

PETE SAMPRAS: Well, I got some work to do. You know, I'm gonna enjoy this for tomorrow. I never have been crazy about two days off, but I'm thanking my lucky stars I have two days now just to physically give my body a rest, emotionally it will be nice to kind of shut it down tomorrow. Not even come here. Gear up for the weekend. Last time I played Marat, I was pretty humbled out there. Should be another good test.

Q. You say you thought going into the match it was going to be a classic. Obviously a lot of people in this room did, too. So often matches like that, they're so hyped, don't live up to the hype. Does it almost surprise you it did?

PETE SAMPRAS: It wasn't that surprising. We both had been playing well coming into this match. Seemed like we were both peaking at the right time. When we clash, we're both playing well, I think it's some of the best tennis in the game. And it was all -- it all kind of lived up to the hype, I felt, tonight. It was good tennis on both of our parts, and, you know, he -- it's not very often that we hold on serve that often and come down to three tiebreakers, four tiebreakers. It was -- I wouldn't have predicted that.

Q. Have you ever played a match where nobody lost serve?

PETE SAMPRAS: I played matches where I haven't lost serve (laughter). But I -- no, I've never had a match like that.

Q. At the beginning of the tournament, we were saying, "When are you going to retire." Now you've beaten two of the best players of all time in a row. What kind of momentum does this give you for the rest of the tournament? Can you not win the tournament and still feel happy?

PETE SAMPRAS: Sure. I mean, I'm here to win it and gotten through a pretty tough draw. To play Pat and Andre back-to-back, this is about as tough as it's going to get. I think tomorrow's a time just to kind of relax, shut it down and enjoy it for a day. Come Friday, get back to work. I was a bit fortunate tonight, to be honest with you. I mean, you need a few breaks in the game. There's not much that separates Andre and I, a couple points here and there. Tonight I got them.

Q. What did Andre say to you at the net?

PETE SAMPRAS: He wished me luck for the tournament. He hoped I went on and win it. So he was very gracious.

Q. You haven't squalked about it. Don't you think the seedings were a little off? You haven't complained about it. You were seeded awfully wrong?

PETE SAMPRAS: I'm not going to complain about it. It has been a disappointing year, and that's where I'm seeded. You know, it's not Wimbledon. They go off the ATP ranking, which is fine. You know, I can't worry about stuff like that. I worry about my opponent and if it's a tough draw, it's a tough draw. It's a tough draw for all of us. It doesn't concern me that much. I mean, if anything, moments like this, you know, playing Pat on Monday, Andre tonight, was a big reason why I'm still playing.

Q. Does this tournament feel a little bit like the year restarted for you?

PETE SAMPRAS: No. I feel like it's getting to the end of the year (smiling). You know, it's not restarted. Feel like I'm --.

Q. Coming to a peak now?

PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah, good timing I think. It would be nice to do well here and to have won a couple epic matches against two great players. But I'm not content in any means. I feel like I've got a couple good matches left in me. But I think it's a time to enjoy this a little bit.

Q. You've talked in the past about the wonderful matches in your career, the ATP championship with Boris, walking in at that time. Your wonderful win at Wimbledon in the dusk in 2000. I know you just stepped off the court. Can you somehow put this incredible night with the 24,000 people, the standing ovation, the electricity, in context with some of your other great matches?

PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah. This is definitely right up there. I knew there was going to be a lot of hype with Andre and I playing Wednesday night. It's always a very high-energy when you play here in New York. I knew it was going to be a dog fight. I really did. I knew it was going to be a tough match. Very memorable match for me. I'm sure I'll appreciate this a lot more when it's all said and done. But just the ovation that the crowd gave us there at the end and when we got into that fourth breaker was, I just kind of, you know, stood there and kind of looked around, kind of enjoyed it for a minute. But it was back to work and trying to win the match. But it was one of our epic matches.

Q. Do you think in some way it's kind of a vindication to at least some extent, we in the press have been pretty tough on you, saying the end might be in sight and all that. Do you think in some way this is a vindication, back-to-back wins here?

PETE SAMPRAS: No. I look at it, what I've done in the game. There's not really anything I have to prove to anybody in this room. It feels good to do well here. It feels good to win two big matches. It's -- the press is on me about whatever, it's fine. It has been a disappointing year. To be honest about it, it's well deserved, in a way. But what I don't appreciate is the retirement talk. I think it's gotten a little bit carried away. I don't know how it all started, why it all started. I haven't said anything about it. But it doesn't really phase me too much. I'm still around.

Q. You lost the opportunity of the three break points in the fourth game of the first set. Then you lost the three set points. How did you manage to rearrange yourself for the second set, the way you played the second set?

PETE SAMPRAS: Well, I was, like I said before, I had some chances. I give him credit because he came up with some good stuff. You know, you just have to hang in there. You know, it's still only one set. Still got a long way to go. You know, but I must admit, for about five, ten minutes I was a little bit unsettled. It was like one minute I thought I had the first set, then I let it slip away a little bit. I just had to mentally kind of regain my composure and fight back and got into another breaker. Finally I got it going.

Q. When you're out there and you're in it and it's tiebreaker after tiebreaker and no one's lost serve, do you stop at some point and marvel at what you're a part of, the way we're all thinking, "This can't be another tiebreaker," and no one lost serve. Do you think that way? Do you charge through?

PETE SAMPRAS: You just charge through. You're just playing. You know, you get into your own way of how you're going to play the breaker. But when the crowd stood up and that was one moment where I was like, "This is pretty special what we're doing out here," but after that was over, it was back to work. But you can't -- you're just so focused on what you're trying to do, the point, what he's doing, you don't have a lot of time to really appreciate what you're doing out there. But for a moment, I think we both kind of stood there. It was a nice ovation.

Q. Can you pump yourself up enough to get through another match? You beat Rafter and Agassi.

PETE SAMPRAS: Like I said, it's absolutely huge, I have two days off. I've never been crazy about it. But for me at this stage in the tournament, it's huge.

Q. More emotionally, mentally than physically?

PETE SAMPRAS: It's everything. It's everything. It's just kind of shutting it down for a day and just let the body rest, let the mind kind of enjoy this for a little bit then have another day to kind of gain -- or kind of, you know, get ready for the weekend because it's going to be a pretty tough match against Safin.

Q. Are you the favorite to win now?

PETE SAMPRAS: I'm one of them. I'm one of the four guys that can do it.

Q. How good is Andre's serve? We don't talk about that a lot. He didn't get broken?

PETE SAMPRAS: I don't know how many aces he hit, but it seemed like when he was down, he was serving huge. I mean, he possesses that, you know, hits a lot of the kick serves. When he flattens it out, it's a big serve. He was serving 120, just kind of starts off the point on his terms. And -- but he served great.

Q. Best you've seen him serve?

PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah. I think that's probably some of the best he's served. You know, he was popping it pretty good.

Q. You've had some rough matches with him as of late, especially this year. Going into the second set, I think you had lost eight straight sets to him. At what point there did you get the confidence to think, "Okay, I can beat this guy again"?

PETE SAMPRAS: Well, you don't think about at least I didn't think about my previous matches with Andre. All I was trying to do is, you know, after the disappointment of the first set, just kind of hang in there and maybe I can claw my way back into the match. And, you know, fortunately I kind of got it going in the breaker. It was a huge part of the match, if I would have lost that set, it would have been a tough uphill struggle to come back. But, you know, it's a matter of a couple points. It really is. When you're having two guys doing their part so well, holding serve, it's gonna come down to who gets, you know, some breaks and tonight I got them.

Q. You talked about how you've worked harder training over the last year. A lot of things haven't gone your way. Do you think you kind of deserve this?

PETE SAMPRAS: Sure. You know, when you do the hard work, on and off the court, you're going to get some breaks, you're going to get through some tough matches. And these are the reasons why -- tonight certainly helped. You know, I felt like physically I was doing pretty good out there. And, you know, when you work hard off the court, you're going to get a few breaks here and there.

Q. Does this change the trajectory of this stage of your career?

PETE SAMPRAS: No. What's going to change?

Q. I mean, you know, like we were saying, perhaps he's still the best player in the game.

PETE SAMPRAS: Well, I mean, I'm one of them. You know. Andre and Pat and Hewitt. I mean, they're all great players. I'm definitely one of the guys that's in contention mere.

Q. What will you do here this time that you didn't do last year against Safin?

PETE SAMPRAS: Well, I just hope he comes down to earth (laughter). I was pretty humbled out there the last time I played him, on that court. Defending champion, I'm sure he'll feel a little bit more pressure this year than last year. He's a great player, possesses a big game. He's playing well, so should be a good one.

Q. If you had to select one word to try and summarize tonight...

PETE SAMPRAS: It's hard to pick one word. I mean, it was intense. Very dramatic. It was, you know, too heavyweights going toe to toe. We almost went the distance. Could have gone five. Who knows what would have happened at that point. But, you know, I'm playing one of the best players of all time. And you have to step it up and you need a few breaks here and there. And tonight it finally went my way.

Q. Some people consider this one of the best matches in tennis history. Do you agree with that?

PETE SAMPRAS: Well, it's -- I wasn't sitting there watching it, so it's hard for me to say (laughter). Being part of it, it certainly felt like the level was very high. I think when you have that contrast, a serve and volleyer playing against a great returner, it's the best tennis, I think, in the game. Unfortunately, there aren't a ton of serve and volleyers now that we can look to the future that will be able to have that. But Andre and I still have it. We have that difference in our games and personalties that when we match up, it's a good clash.


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