NEW YORK -- Tennis is no different from any other sport. It is an ongoing process, a liquid account, always undergoing change. The collection of names at the top never remains stable for more than a few years. There are always additions and subtractions.
Sometimes, these changes occur suddenly, almost immediately, such as when Boris Becker won Wimbledon and emerged as a star, or when Bjorn Borg up and retired at age 26. Sometimes, the change is slower, almost imperceptible: The decline of Ivan Lendl is barely evident, but it's happening.
If all these changes represent tremors on the tennis landscape, vTC there was an earthquake yesterday. Pete Sampras hammered Andre Agassi to become the youngest male player to win the U.S. Open, and we should recognize the moment for what it is: the arrival of a new major player, one who belongs with Becker, Lendl and Stefan Edberg at the pinnacle of the game.
Winning a major championship is not always such a certification of impending stardom. You can win a major with a hot hand that never returns. Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989, but it was clear then that his game was still too defensive, incomplete, that he had much work to do. Sampras' victory is different. It may be true that he played a little over his head here, stunning even himself, but the kid has the game and temperament to stick. He is the genuine article.
Agassi has strutted around for a couple of years now taking bows as the best of a strong class of young Americans, but he just got passed. Agassi, 20, may win more teeny-bopper fans and sign more endorsement contracts during his career, but Sampras, 19, is going to win more tournaments.
(We interrupt this column for this shocking revelation: Sampras is the first early arriving American tennis star since Arthur Ashe who isn't obnoxious. Stan Smith was a late bloomer, and after that it goes Connors, McEnroe, Agassi. Sampras has a warm smile, an easy wit and doesn't browbeat linesmen. Yes, folks, a likable tennis star; we'll all need time to adjust.)
The part of Sampras' game that so raises great expectations is, of course, his 120-mph serve. He has a relaxed, loose-limbed motion, and he isn't just banging it, he's placing it. On the line. Again and again. It's as good as any serve in the game. "It keeps people on the defensive," Sampras said.
It is the rest of his game that marks him as a major talent, though. Powerful young servers are hardly a rarity in this era of oversized rackets, but rare is the 19-year-old who backs up his serve with such a mature volley, with such classic ground strokes and passing shots.
Agassi is considered the best ground stroker of his generation, but Sampras was his equal yesterday. Using long, graceful strokes, four or five different backhands of varying slice and speed, not overdoing the topspin, Sampras won more than his share of points trading angles on the baseline.
Agassi called Sampras' ground strokes "erratic" after the match, but it was a cheap comment, sour grapes. The truth was that Agassi was beaten at his own game, as well as at Sampras', and he wasn't the first. Sampras mistreated John McEnroe's serve as few have in their semifinal, sailed all kinds of passing shots beyond a bamboozled Ivan Lendl in their quarterfinal.
Here, finally, is a young American with a real chance to win Wimbledon. He admitted that winning there would thrill him even more than yesterday's victory, and with that serve, he's got a shot. At the very least, it's good to see him willing to go over there. (Agassi said yesterday that he was "toying with the idea." Please.)
It isn't going to be easy for Sampras from now on, of course. It's never easier than when you're arriving from nowhere, your game suddenly coming together. There was no pressure on him here. No one expected him to make the quarterfinals, much less win. Even Sampras himself said at midtournament that he was a few years away from being ready to win. "I proved myself wrong, happily," he said.
He will be a much-hunted trophy from now on, though. Everyone will want to beat the Open champion. There will be tough times. His concentration tends to wander. His volley isn't as consistent as it will be. He's going to lose some matches he should win, read some things he doesn't like. Life isn't nearly as perfect as the 102 minutes during which he blew away Agassi yesterday.
"A lot more than just tennis is going to be a factor for him," said Agassi, who was ranked in the top five in 1988 and again this year. "It's a different feeling, being on top. It's a lot easier to play carefree and hard-hitting tennis when you're the underdog."
Said Sampras, "I think I can handle the responsibility."
He isn't alone. Compliments are flowing in from all corners of the sport, from such disparate voices as Fred Perry and Ion Tiriac. They all say that this kid is the real thing, that he's going to get even better, win more Grand Slam titles.
Yes. We should identify those moments when the geometry at the top of the game changes. Just as it happened when Becker won Wimbledon for the first time in 1985, it happened again yesterday. Tall, economical in his movements, utterly impassive, Sampras is a young vision of Stan Smith. Get used to him. He just jumped into the inner circle, and he isn't jumping out.