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Agassi, Sampras renew rivalry with Wimbledon title on line

July 04, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -- Finally, a match to cherish and a rivalry capable of transforming Wimbledon's Centre Court into a boxing ring.

In one corner, Andre Agassi.

And in the other, Pete Sampras.

Today's all-American, Fourth of July men's final is tennis' dream match come true, the perfect finish to the 1990s at Wimbledon.

A year ago, when Agassi was down and out, few could have predicted he would ever meet Sampras in an important match again.

But yesterday, there was an inevitability that the two great players of a generation would somehow get back to where they belong -- Centre Court at Wimbledon, with a championship to be decided.

And they got there within moments of one another in a pair of gripping semifinals.

Sampras, the five-time Wimbledon champion, knocked out hometown favorite Tim Henman and all his British fans, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

And Agassi, the 1992 Wimbledon titlist, won a duel for the coveted No. 1 ranking in men's tennis when he routed Australia's Patrick Rafter, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2.

The air of expectation surrounding the final is nearly matched by what could have been. As good as they are, they've only managed to meet 23 times before, with Sampras holding a 13-10 edge over Agassi, including a 1993 quarterfinal win at Wimbledon.

"You get to see contrasts in play, contrasts in personality," Agassi said. "You get to see two guys who have basically grown up together and who somehow managed to bring out the best in each other's game. The stage is set. It's time to go out there and not miss our cue."

The players seem to realize this is one match to treasure.

"I'm sure it's an experience I'll never forget, win or lose," Sampras said.

They started playing in juniors, Agassi, the glitzy kid from Las Vegas with long hair and a two-fisted backhand, against Sampras, the dour teen from Northern California struggling to put together a classic serve-and-volley style.

And then the rivalry spilled over into the pro ranks, starting on clay in Rome in 1989, with Agassi mauling Sampras, 6-2, 6-1.

"He couldn't hit a ball in the court," Agassi said.

But it was Sampras who won the race to the first Grand Slam title, beating Agassi in the 1990 U.S. Open final. It was a pattern that would continue over the years, with Sampras making the most of his skills, winning 11 Grand Slam singles titles, one behind the record of 12 held by Roy Emerson.

"He has made me a better player," Sampras said of Agassi. "There was a time three years ago that he was beating me pretty consistently and I had to add things to my game."

Agassi earned a measure of redemption by resurrecting his career, claiming the French Open last month to win all four Grand Slams.

"Who would have believed it a month ago?" Agassi said. "I certainly wouldn't have, and now I find myself feeding off the momentum, actually executing and playing well. It's not about getting lucky out there. It's about hard work and focus."

Agassi showed just how good he is in beating Rafter. He hit some mesmerizing winners off the baseline, he attacked Rafter's serve and he finally wore down one of the toughest players in the game.

"He was very powerful with everything he did," Rafter said. "It's the best I've seen him serve."

Meanwhile, Sampras was having an off-day against Henman, just like he has been having a slightly scattershot Wimbledon. He may no longer appear unbeatable on grass, but it doesn't seem to matter as Sampras usually finds a way to win.

To get by Henman, he doggedly hung around for about 90 minutes waiting for his best break opportunity. It finally came as Henman needed to hold a second serve to remain in the second set. Sampras crept two feet inside the baseline and dared Henman to punch a serve past him. Instead, Henman double-faulted and gave away the set and, eventually, the match.

"It went away from me very quickly," Henman said.

Britain's loss was America's gain.

Tennis doesn't have many real rivalries anymore. The days when Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors would slug it out are gone. Now, the top players are routinely tripped up on the road to the finals.

But for one day, at least, the sport can bask in an all-American final, a match that can show everyone just what has been missing for so long.

"This is huge for American tennis," Agassi said. "I think it was starting to be a little bit discouraging, not having the top guys in the end of these events. I also think that it's not like Pete and I are going to be around forever, and people are starting to realize that."

Wimbledon

Today's men's final

Pete Sampras (1) vs. Andre Agassi (4)

Today's women's final

Steffi Graf (2) vs. Lindsay Davenport (3)

TV: Ch. 11, 9 a.m.

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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