NEW YORK - Almost everyone acknowledges that center court at the U.S. Open is Pete Sampras' house. Yesterday, Sjeng Schalken tried to sneak in a back window, only to find Sampras nailing shut every opening at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Bang, bang, bang went his racket.
Ace, ace, ace. Twenty-three of them.
Pump, pump, pump went Sampras' fist.
And into the U.S. Open final for the third straight year and eighth time in his career went Sampras with a 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory.
From the first day Sampras arrived here, he said he could make it to this final, and play well enough to win one more title.
Of course, very few believed him.
"I've never felt like the underdog, not once in the last 10 years," Sampras said. "Maybe I seem to be on paper and in the minds of some people, but never in my heart."
At 4:15 today, Sampras will have a chance to win his fifth U.S. Open, collect a record-expanding 14th Grand Slam title and end a losing streak that dates to the 2000 Wimbledon.
To do it, he'll have to overcome playing five matches in seven days and his long-time nemesis, Andre Agassi.
Agassi joined Sampras in the final by stunning No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (1), 6-2.
"It's a huge moment for both of us and for the game," Sampras said of today's match. "Two older players, two rivals over the years. Andre has always brought out the best in me and to walk out there with him [will] be very unique, very special. It's hard to say how many [more] times we're going to play each other here, let alone in a Grand Slam final."
Sampras is 31. Agassi, the oldest man in this year's tournament, is 32. Should he win, he'd be the oldest U.S. Open winner in 32 years.
"Where else would you rather be?" Agassi said. "I've worked all year thinking about this. Pete's here and I'm here. It's going to be a blast."
The two met for the championship here for the first time 12 years ago. Sampras won then, claiming the first of his Grand Slam titles at age 19.
"Agassi is going to have a tough time," said Schalken. "Pete is serving very well right now."
Schalken created a set point in the first tiebreaker, didn't lose his serve once in the first two sets and was still down 2-0. Opportunity knocked in the first game of the third set.
There was controversy on the first point. A lines woman called a Schalken ball good. Sampras, for him, disagreed loudly, but the chair umpire would not overrule. Schalken got the game to deuce, and Sampras double-faulted to set up break point.
Schalken got his racket around a Sampras first serve and sent a wicked backhand cross court to the deep corner. Sampras went to his knees; would the lines woman - the same one who Sampras was unhappy with on the first point of the game - call it out?
Sampras said, "Woooooo!" as he looked up at the umpire and the crowd that was going crazy.
Schalken had another chance, but Sampras nailed that window shut, too, driving a swinging forehand volley beyond Schalken's reach. Sampras then delivered two huge serves to hold, and Schalken wasn't the same after that.
"He was just serving so good, I couldn't get them on my racket," Schalken said. "He was playing the ball so good with 120-miles-an-hour serves, I couldn't touch the ball. So I was actually only playing on my own serve and even then Pete returned well, so the pressure was really on me all the time.
"I was happy to get to the tiebreaker in the first and second set. Then you have a chance. But after the tiebreak, you could see that I didn't have a chance."
It took three games for Agassi to find his game against Hewitt, but once he did, it was a marvel. The two combined for many wonderful, athletic points that brought the crowd to its feet in manic cheers a time or two when Agassi's effort overcame Hewitt's youth for decisive points.
"Every time Lleyton and I play, it feels like such few points separate each set," Agassi said. "I should have closed out the second and the third. But you can't get discouraged. The difference was a few fell for me at the right time.
"The next match with Pete, I couldn't be more thrilled about it. You always question if it will ever happen again. You spend your whole career playing against the best of all time. There are no guarantees you'll have that.
"Tomorrow isn't about what we pull out of each other. It's more a nice toast to the past."