Thursday, September 06, 2001

Sampras beats Agassi
in sensational Open showdown

AP Sports Writer

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi meet after their epic battle.
(AP photos)
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        NEW YORK — 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.

        Taking another huge step in his remarkable resurgence, Sampras edged longtime rival Agassi 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5) in a quarterfinal thriller Wednesday night in the U.S. Open.

        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.

        “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.”

Sampras exults after winning the final point.
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        A gracious Agassi agreed.

        “Certainly a memory I'll never forget,” he said. “Quite a powerful evening in many respects.”

        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.

        “It always comes down to a couple of points against Andre,” Sampras said. “He's an unbelievable player.”

        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.

        On Saturday, Sampras plays a former Open winner — third-seeded Marat Safin — for the third round in a row. It's a rematch of last year's final, which Safin won in a rout, accelerating Sampras' slide into the slump from which he has just now emerged.

        The women's final four Friday sports a stellar cast. The two best players this year, Jennifer Capriati and defending champion Venus Williams, will meet in one semifinal. The other will pair two former champions, 10th-seeded Serena Williams and No. 1 Martina Hingis.

        But Sampras-Agassi will be tough to top. The match drew a crowd of 23,033 at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The president's box overflowed, and even the skyboxes were full. VIPs included Agassi's shy girlfriend, Steffi Graf, who peered from around the corner of a suite. Even a wave couldn't taint the occasion.

        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.

        Sampras ended a three-match losing streak in the rivalry and extended his edge over Agassi to 18-14, including 3-0 at the Open. But the victory didn't come easily.

        Both players dominated on their serve. Sampras served 25 aces and erased three break points. Agassi hit 18 aces and erased six break points.

        “You've got to do more than hold your serve, I guess, huh?” Agassi said.

        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. The No. 2-seeded 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.”

        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.

        “I don't want to look ridiculous on the court against them,” he said later with a sly smile. “So I need some excuse in the beginning.”

        And that was before he saw Sampras' performance Wednesday night.

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