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American Heroes

Twelve months on from September 11, the city of New York is regenerated by a massive injection of patriotic pride, thanks to Pete, Andre, Serena and Venus.

Almost exactly a year after the attack on the World Trade Center, the US Open Tennis Championships produced an affirmation of America's strength and solidarity. With two All-American singles finals and an extraordinary performance by Pete Sampras, the unquenchable spirit of the nation - and the city of New York in particular - was celebrated by 23,000 patriotic spectators packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Right from the start, this year's US Open was all about the resurgence of Uncle Sam as the world's leading tennis power. The domination of women's tennis by the Williams sisters continued as expected, but on the men's side, the memory of Wimbledon, where no American reached the last 16 for the first time in nearly a century, was erased.

However, whereas the home country was looking to new young stars like Andy Roddick, James Blake and Taylor Dent to carry the Stars and Stripes into the later rounds, the Old Masters proved it was too soon to write them off. Sampras and Andre Agassi both flopped so dismally at Wimbledon that they were viewed by most pundits as has-beens. Sampras, particularly, had been having a dismal run. Since his last tournament victory at Wimbledon in 2000 he had failed to win a title in 33 starts. This year he had managed just one final (Houston) and one semi-final (Indian Wells).

Yet it was these two great champions who came through to play each other for the fifth time in a Grand Slam final and for the 34th time overall in a rivalry stretching back to 1989. It was a final few would have predicted but most were delighted to see.

Sampras, who won 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in a match which produced some exciting moments but did not surpass their marvelloous 2001 quarter-final, had always maintained that he had "one more Grand Slam" left in him. But his recent succession of early round exits, and the repeated image of him trudging off court, shoulders sagging, after yet another humiliation, had made the fulfilment of this claim unlikely.

"This one might take the cake," said the 31-year-old Californian when asked to compare his triumph with his 13 previous Grand Slam titles. "I never thought anything would surpass what happened at Wimbledon a couple of years ago, but the way I've been going this year, to come through this and play the way I did today, it was awesome."

Earlier in the tournament there was little to suggest that the most prolific winner of major titles would add one more to his haul. He was barely troubled in the first two rounds, but against Greg Rusedski in the third he was fortunate to survive. In a match spread over two days because of rain, the British No. 2 wasted four chances to win the first set. The American eventually scraped through 6-4 in the fifth, and Rusedski responded by saying: "He's a great player from the past. I'll be surprised if he wins his next match."

Sampras, riled by suggestions that he was "a step and a half slower" than in his heyday, went on to prove Rusedski wrong. He ground out a four set victory over third see Tommy Haas and completely outplayed Roddick in the quarter-finals. Another straight set demolition, this time against Sjeng Schalken, put him into the US Open final for the eighth time.

" To beat a rival like Andre in a major tournament like the US Open, a storybook ending, it might be nice to stop."
-Pete Sampras

Meanwhile, Agassi was scorching through the other half of the draw. He didn't drop a set until the net-rushing Max Mirnyi prised the first on a tiebreak in their quarterfinal, then in a pulsating semi he dethroned the reigning champion, Lleyton Hewitt. Agassi, all bustling energy and business looked the likelier winner when it came down to the final.

However, with their combined ages (63) making this the oldest Grand Slam final in the open era, Sampras was the fresher. His semi-final had been easier, and he had more time to recover. So when he took the first two sets, his ironclad serve-and-volley routine completely dominating his opponent, his fifth US Open title beckoned.

But Agassi fought back, clinched a 12-game third set and looked the stronger in the fourth, with Sampras visibly tiring and throwing in an alarming succession of double faults. Sampras needed to summon one last effort to prevent it going to a fifth set. He struck, broke serve in the ninth game and confidently served out in the tenth. "I guess I'm back," he declared, with satisfying understatement.

Asked if this might be the moment to bring down the curtain on his stupendous career, he admitted: "I'm going to have to weigh it up in the next couple of months. I still want to play. I love to play. But to beat a rival like Andre in a major tournament at the US Open, a storybook ending, it might be nice to stop."

While Sampras and Agassi, who first played each other in the US Open final in 1990, were extending all their yesterdays, Serena and Venus Williams continued to increase the distance between themselves and the rest of the field.

Their consecutive Grand Slam final was threatened only by Chanda Rubin and Amelie Mauresmo, both of whom made Venus fight all the way, respectively in the last 16 and semi-finals. The progress of Serena, whose figure hugging catsuit caused more of a stir than the high quality of her tennis - stuttered only when Lindsay Davenport led her 5-2 in the second set of their semi-final. Otherwise, the Williamses merely underlined their superiority.

However, Serena has now established her own eminence over Venus. In a hard-hitting and competitive final, which both sisters were equally desperate to win, Venus's double faults were her downfall, as they were when she lost to Serena at Paris and Wimbledon. "I did make a lot of errors, and it makes it tough to win the match," said Venus, who beat Serena in last year's final. Now she needs to find a way to reassert herself against her younger sister, who is focussing on winning the Australian Open in January to complete what she calls "a Serena Slam". "It's been a long time since 1999," said Serena, whose previous US Open title was won as a 17-year-old. "The difference between then and now is that I'm a bit more mature, more relaxed and a better player." It could be that Serena, still only 20, might become the greatest of all time.

Sampras' place in history

With 14 Grand Slam titles, Pete Sampras has won more than any other man in tennis history. But arguments will continue to rage as to whether he deserves to be regarded as the greatest of all time.

Sampras has never won the French Open - unlike Rod Laver, whom most experts regard as the one man whose record surpasses his own. Laver twice won the Grand Slam - all four majors in the same year - a feat no other player of either sex has achieved. But it must be pointed out that in Laver's day three of the Slams were played on grass, and the overall quality of the fields was nowhere near as strong as it is now.

Whilst Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12) Laver and Bjorn Borg (11 each) lead the all-time Grand Slam table, three other players are ahead of Sampras in the open era title stakes. Jimmy Connors is top with 109, followed by Ivan Lendl (94), John McEnroe(77) and Sampras (64).



Special thanks to Samprasfanz member Georgia Christoforou for sharing this interview.

Source: Ace Tennis Magazine, October 2002 Issue
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