Rivalry's recipe right, but just doesn't cook

September 11, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- They gave us one magical moment, one point that took us back to the days of McEnroe and Borg, or Connors and McEnroe, or Nastase and anyone.

One point out of 236 in yesterday's U.S. Open final.

Sorry, that's just not enough to consecrate Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi as a tennis rivalry for the ages.

The tennis poobahs want it, Nike wants it, everyone wants it.

But it isn't a great rivalry, at least not yet. And maybe never.

The recipe is perfect -- the two best players in the world, at their peaks, with different styles and personalities -- but something is missing.

Dislike bordering on hatred, for instance.

Or a history of playing memorable matches.

One of those two elements is required to elevate a rivalry into one that transcends tennis.

Sampras and Agassi are 0-for-2.

Brothers in the Nike nation, they don't dislike each other at all. In fact, they actually seem to have a genuine fondness for each other. Their girlfriends went shopping together at Wimbledon this year. Yuck!

And, as close and watchable as their rivalry is -- Sampras has won nine matches, Agassi eight -- they haven't played a single match that grabbed you in the guts and refused to let go.

McEnroe and Connors, who couldn't stand each other, did that in their sleep.

So did Borg and McEnroe, who exhilarated with the kind of deft shot-making that no longer exists in today's world of smash-mouth tennis.

Sampras and Agassi hit the ball so hard that, as splendid as they are, it's almost more numbing than exhilarating to watch. And, of course, they're much too cordial to each other to grab you in the guts. According to a recent New York Times story, when Agassi insulted Sampras at a Nike event a few years ago (he said that Sampras, who sometimes plays with his tongue out, swings on trees to the matches), Agassi immediately faxed an apology to Sampras, who immediately accepted.

"I definitely like Pete," Agassi said yesterday.

McEnroe and Connors could barely keep from spitting on each other. Remember those days?

Sampras and Agassi are just getting going with this rivalry thing, of course, having had to wait for Agassi to stop clowning around and start fulfilling his vast potential. Yesterday's match was only their third in a Grand Slam final. But now they're alone at the top and far superior to everyone else, and, with Sampras at age 24 and Agassi at 25, they figure to stay there for at least two more years.

Maybe they can get around to making an indelible print on our memories before they turn into tennis geezers at 27 and start fading.

They had a chance yesterday, when they finished the first set of Sampras' four-set victory with a breathtaking point that had Sampras thrusting his arms in the air in triumph as the crowd rattled the stadium with noise.

With Agassi serving at set point for Sampras, the two pushed each other back and forth across the baselines, hitting a series of laser beams that looked like winners but kept coming back even harder. It was macho tennis at its best, a 120-mph game of "top this." Sampras finally put the ball away with a crosscourt backhand.

"That was one of the best points I've ever been a part of," Sampras said.

"It stunk," Agassi grumped.

The crowd was into the match then and ready for the tennis opera to begin as the evening shadows stretched across the court, but neither player could sustain the level of that superb point. Agassi, in particular, was off, missing routine shots he normally puts away; he said later that he was tired from having played a long summer of hard-court tournaments and also from having played in Saturday's late semifinal, which ended just 19 hours before yesterday's match began.

"I definitely was lacking a little pep in my step," Agassi said.

It didn't help that a strong wind was blowing, turning net play into an adventure for both. Sampras came in to net on only 25 percent of the points.

"The conditions didn't lend themselves to great tennis," Agassi said.

The result was a match that, while certainly well-played and worthy of the final of a Grand Slam event, was not the stuff of greatness.

Not the stuff of which must-see TV is made.

"Pretty good tennis," Sampras called it.

Which isn't good enough, not if they want to grab us in the guts like the real rivalries did.

Understand, it's still a pleasure to watch them stir each other to play their best. Agassi takes balls on the rise like no one since Connors. And Sampras is just one of the most graceful, complete players ever.

They call it a great rivalry, the TV people call it a great rivalry, everyone calls it a great rivalry. But it feels more like a marketing campaign than a great rivalry at this point. Maybe that will change as Sampras and Agassi carve out their places in tennis history. But don't count on it.

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