Sunday, August 08, 1999

Agassi's return stokes Sampras' fire


'Heavyweights' would meet in ATP semis

BY MICHAEL PERRY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — This is what Pete Sampras has wanted. This is what Pete Sampras needed.

        Andre Agassi's re-emergence has energized men's tennis and especially its six-time reigning year-end champion.

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        On July 3, Agassi returned to No.1 in the world four years after he was last ranked in the top spot and 19 months after he was as low as No. 141.

        Sampras responded with some of the finest tennis of his life against Agassi in the Wimbledon final (6-3, 6-4, 7-5), and another tremendous effort in last week's championship match in Los Angeles 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-1).

SAMPRAS vs. AGASSI
  • Head-to-head: Sampras leads 15-10
  • Grand Slams: Sampras leads 4-2
  • 1999: Sampras leads 2-0
  • Agassi's last victory: August 1998, Toronto
  • First meeting: Rome 1989, Agassi won
  6-2, 6-1.
  • Most recent meeting: Los Angeles last week,
  Sampras won 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-1)
  • In Cincinnati: Have never met
  • Sampras's 1999 record: 28-6
  • Agassi's 1999 record: 34-9
        “It's a pleasure playing him,” Sampras said. “He brings out the best in me. It's all about respect with me and Andre. Walking on the court is completely different than (against) any other player — it's like two heavyweights going at it.”

        Sampras has regained the No.1 spot — which had been held for one week by Patrick Rafter — and brings a 17-match winning streak into the Great American Insurance ATP Championship, which begins Monday. Sampras has not lost since the French Open in late May.

        Agassi, the No.3 seed this week, has won 20 of his last 23 matches, with two losses coming to Sampras and one Saturday night to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Montreal.

        Agassi was ranked No.1 during 1995 and finished No.2 behind Sampras in 1994 and '95. Then he began a slow decline and eventually finished the 1997 season at No.122.

        The turning point was the 1995 U.S. Open final, when Sampras beat Agassi 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. Sampras is 6-2 against Agassi since then, and it was 21/2years before Agassi would beat his nemesis again (San Jose, 1998).

        “Our careers kind of went in different directions after that match,” Sampras said. “I remember Andre won like 27, 28 straight matches and had a great summer. I had a decent summer. And I ended up winning that match.

        “I think Andre took it very, very hard and didn't seem to recover. The balloon popped a little bit for him. I just kind of rode the wave and went to Europe and played great and finished No. 1.”

        As Agassi's ranking plummeted, Sampras lamented not having a rival against whom he could measure himself.

        Agassi did not appear in the finals of a Grand Slam tournament again until this year's French Open. In '97, he didn't even play at the Australian Open, French Open or Wimbledon.

        Sampras has won five more Grand Slams since that 1995 U.S. Open and is tied with Roy Emerson for the most ever at 12.

        In the mid-'90s, it looked like Sampras-Agassi would become the rivalry of the decade. But Agassi faded, and even Sampras was sorry.

        And he's not sure that they can battle for tournament championships every week anymore because of the strength of the fields.

        “I think unfortunately, we're in a day and age where a consistent rivalry would be tough,” Sampras said. “It's not like 15 years ago when (John) McEnroe, (Bjorn) Borg and (Ivan) Lendl were so much better than everyone else and were kind of penciled in before the tournament started.

        “Now, if Andre and I are playing well, there's a good chance that could happen. But if we have a bad day or play against a player that gets hot, then we're out of the tournament.”

        Sampras has not shied away from saying that he doesn't have to be at his best to beat all his opponents. It is that attitude, in part, that prompted Rafter to say Sampras does not respect other players.

        A Sampras-Rafter rivalry also could help the sport and further ignite Sampras' interest. Sampras is a quiet competitor with a great deal of pride in his tennis records and accomplishments.

        That is why a statement like Andrei Medvedev made after losing the French Open title to Agassi — “(Andre) has the right to say now that he's a greater player than Pete by winning all four Grand Slams” — can only fuel Sampras' fire.

        And the fact that he hasn't beaten Sampras since Toronto one year ago this week, frustrates and motivates Agassi.

        However, the two have had no trouble showing each other respect.

        Before their match last week in Los Angeles, Agassi said of Sampras: “He's been good for my career in many ways and a pain in my ass in many other ways. It's the only time when you come to the park that you know even if you are playing your best, you might lose. You have to do something special, you have to raise your game.”

        The two have taken to bantering back and forth in front of fans after matches in which they are the finalists.

        Last year, Agassi kidded Sampras about making a commitment and marrying actress Kimberly Williams — now his former girlfriend.

        If they are to meet this week in Cincinnati, it will be in the semifinals Saturday. The two have never played at the ATP Tennis Center.

        “I think when we're both playing well ... that would be a match I would tune in to,” Sampras said. - Agassi's return stokes Sampras' fire
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