Action Replay: Sampras v Agassi
Originally published on 03/03/14
It might seem a little strange to choose a quarter-final meeting as the highlight of the rivalry Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras thrilled sports fans with, particularly when the two American legends contested five Grand Slam finals.
While the significance of those major title deciders cannot be contested (for the record, Sampras won four of them), often great sport is a result of two of the world’s best producing their highest level on the same court on the same night. And that’s what happened on the second Wednesday of the 2001 US Open.
To add greater historical significance to the occasion, the meeting came just six days before New York’s twin towers disappeared in the terrorist attacks that shocked the world on September 11 that year.
Those involved in the US Open in 2001 remember the buzz around the venue that day as Sampras, then 30, and Agassi, a year older, prepared to headline one of Flushing Meadows’ famous night sessions. With both players approaching the final stages of their distinguished careers, many sensed it might be one of their last meetings. It proved to be the 32nd of 34 matches the two former world No.1s contested.
With 20 major titles between them at that stage, even fellow players were sensing it would be a special night. Andy Roddick practised early that day so he could watch the match on TV and Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin both spoke to the press about the influence Sampras and Agassi had on their careers as juniors.
With Sampras all in white and Agassidressed head to toe in black, they didn’t disappoint. Playing the kind of tennis rarely seen nowadays, the two went toe to toe in a battle that was almost a perfect contrast in styles. Sampras served and volleyed behind even many of his second serves that night. Agassi locked onto his returns and laser-like groundstrokes from the back of the court.
After dropping the first set on a tiebreak, Sampras won the next three shootouts to prevail 6-7(7) 7-6(2) 7-6(2) 7-6(5) in a match without a single break of serve. “You’ve got to do more than hold your serve, I guess, huh?” Agassi joked afterwards. “Two great players playing great at the same time,” was Sampras’ summary. “That doesn’t often happen.”
Later he also admitted the standing ovation the New York crowd gave the two men before the fourth tie-break was a significant moment in his career. It almost moved him to tears. “That was the first time I was ever affected by a crowd to the point where it got me out of a match mentally,” he told the New York Times years afterwards. Take a minute to find it on YouTube – it’s quite something.
Although folklore has it that Agassi whispered “win the thing” into Sampras’ ear when they shook hands after just over three-and-a-half hours on court, he fell at the final hurdle to the inspired young Aussie Hewitt. Perhaps a more significant result in the history books of tennis, but not a patch on the quality and drama of that Wednesday night in the Big Apple.
Words: Lee Goodall