Sampras' Open triumph comforting in its familiarity

September 09, 2002|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - These are times when familiar things, rituals, are in order, particularly here, where, over the next three painful days, the anniversary of Sept. 11 will be commemorated.

The U.S. Open's grand finale supplied a small, comforting dose.

After all, what could be more familiar than the sight of Pete Sampras, 31, ambling slump-shouldered across center court?

What could be more familiar than Sampras gunning 129-mph aces into the green concrete, dropping delicate touch volleys over the net for whisper winners or slicing that lethal, one-hand backhand crosscourt, into the night, out of reach?

Good, ol' Pete. He has been showing up in the Open final since 1990, when he stormed to his first Open victory at the tender and plush-haired age of 19 and served notice that he wanted to own this Super Bowl of tennis.

A dozen years later, his hair thinner than the yellow fuzz on the tennis balls he abused last night, it was Sampras' night in the big city again.

Man, was it. From the first set, when he began smoking Agassi with some of the 33 aces he would crank, Sampras was in total control of the evening, the tennis and the fairly subdued crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium where Sampras earned his fifth U.S. Open title and an incredible 14th Grand Slam championship, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

Yes, this had been billed as another showdown between Sampras and his bouncy cohort, Andre Agassi. This had all the promise of the ultimate meeting between the ultimate rivals over the past decade in men's tennis. And yes, in a country that's hungry - maybe a little too hungry - for signs of its strengths and accomplishments, it did not hurt the plot line that two thirtysomething Americans were left to duke it out at a sporting event that summons so much of its hubris from being contested near the streets of New York.

It never turned epic last night. There was no five-setter (complete with a tiebreaker) to fuel a storybook kind of night.

Despite a few noisy eruptions from the crowd when Agassi broke Sampras in the third set and threatened to do so again in the fourth and eighth games in the fourth set, there was a sense of resignation about the finale's proceedings.

Part of it was that Sampras was just too good. Part of it was that a bigger reality looms in this town now. Everything that has been done here is done with an acknowledgment of that bigger reality - particularly at this moment.

"It meant a lot more to me [playing here] after what took place a year ago. The heart and spirit of New York is something that gives you a lot of hope. This year was extra special," Agassi said.

For his part, Sampras gave a slight nod toward New York and the trauma suffered on and since 9/11. It was impossible for him to miss the bigger context of this tournament, particularly with Marine color guards standing for the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," New York City fire and police officers in full dress in attendance and the release of dozens of white doves into the New York sky.

"The ceremony before you notice, although when you're playing the match you're in the trenches. New York's been through a battle this year, and they came through it. It was a pleasure to come play here," Sampras said.

Unfortunately, for all the brilliance he delivered in prime time and on center court with a vintage performance that proved why Sampras has been one of the most dominant men's tennis champions in history, Sampras again fell short of establishing himself as the greatest champion - at least in terms of graciousness.

There has always been a cloud of apathy surrounding Sampras. It's not because his tennis is boring, because it certainly is not. He was masterful last night, particularly in the first two sets, when everything about his game was nearly flawless. He had 51 winners to go along with those 33 aces, demoralizing Agassi, who had only 27 winners, including aces. Agassi could never mount a sustained attack from the baseline against Sampras' varied arsenal.

But the negative rap - Sampras' inability to connect with people in any way that really feels genuine - was exemplified last night when Sampras failed to reach that extra level of graciousness, the kind that turns a champion into an adored hero.

In a city that has served as ground zero for a new world order - a terrible result of the terror that shook the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, those airplanes and beyond - Sampras could not resist talking in a somewhat pained expression about the travails of his past two years on the tour, when he failed to win a single title.

Listen to him:

"I wanted to stop [playing] on my terms. ... I deserved to stop on my own terms. ... I've done too much in the game to hear the negative things. ... I've dealt with some adversity. ... All the adversity I was up against this year, I was able to get through it."

It is a small matter, perhaps not entirely relevant to the duties of a tennis champion, particularly one whose only sin was to whine a little too much. (By contrast, the women's champ, Serena Williams, seemed to deliver an authentic bit of praise and remembrance to New York police, who worked hard to arrest a stalker. Serena said no wonder New Yorkers are lauding their police and fire officials.)

After all he has accomplished, Sampras could have just let his spontaneous post-match walk through the crowd say it all. He came here and delivered a few stellar moments of champion-caliber diversion. He pushed his record-breaking career to new heights. For times like this, we are always appreciative.

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