Both men were sweating profusely, those two titans of the sport, one ranked #1 in the world, the other widely believed to be the greatest of his generation, and they were playing a game with which the rest of us were not familiar. The one was a classic baseline player, the best at returning serve, while the other possessed the best serve the game had ever seen, so their heavyweight battles were full of punches and counterpunches, body blows that came in quick and fast with a dizzying array of shotmaking ability.
It was late night during Australian summer, in early 2000, and the roof was open to the late evening sky, ushering in a slight breeze that still did nothing to cool off the players. Sampras blinked first, losing one service game in the first set that proved to be the difference as Agassi won it 6-4. The second set was a mirror image of the first, however, with Sampras getting the set’s only break to win it 6-3. Agassi had a prime chance to win the third set with a couple of chances on Sampras’ serve but they were not to be, as Sampras took the lead with a dominating tiebreak win.
In the fourth set of that epic match in the making, Sampras looked fresher but could not capitalize, as it went to another tiebreak, this time with Agassi coming out victorious. Then the time had come for a decisive fifth set that seemed destined to be just as dynamic as any set they had previously played. But the Sampras who came out for that fifth set looked tired as he sluggishly thumped around the court. It didn’t look like he had any gas left in the tank while Agassi looked fresh and fit, even 2 1/2 hours into the match. Agassi looked like the man who ran up and down hills just outside of his native Las Vegas to train. He steamrolled Sampras in that final set and raised his hands in victory.
It had been a battle for the ages, and like so many before between the two of these behemoths of the game, it didn’t disappoint. It was the only time they would ever play a semi-final match of a major, oddly enough, but it was memorable. Agassi would go on to win the title two days later but it is this match that has endured the test of time due to the combatants. The two men would play 34 matches against each other in total during their career rivalry, absolutely riveting tennis at its best, a veritable tennis clinic, and absolute romps by Sampras at its worst, when Agassi had slid all the way to #141 in the world at one point.
But it was never boring. Two more contrasting styles were nowhere to be found in the world of tennis at the time. It was *good* for tennis, something that’s missing these days in the world of the “Big 4,” in my opinion. Rafael Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, and the French Open hasn’t really been a fair fight in years when he is healthy. Federer also for ages had a stranglehold on Wimbledon. Djokovic had his career year, as did Murray, with both winning multiple majors, but where are the classic rivalries like in years gone by? Federer and Nadal have the most majors between them, but they haven’t played head-to-head in an awfully long time.
What Agassi vs. Sampras had was riveting tennis, the flashy guy from Las Vegas against the stolid warrior with the goody two-shoes image. They acknowledged a respect for each other off the court, but when they got on the court it was gritty, heady stuff, with neither one giving quarter. It was at its best when they played uninhibited tennis, a beautiful thing to watch. I count myself lucky to have witnessed it while it was still in full flight, and I relive those matches in my mind and through the copies I made often. That’s what I’m doing this morning instead of watching the actual Wimbledon final that is on.
One of these days I’ll have to see them live. I hear tell of a champions’ tour.