Agassi relishes the rivalry aside side

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The Independent Online


reports from Key Biscayne

Hostilities between the world No 1 and No 2 have been suspended. As soon as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi concluded their interviews after the Lipton final here on Sunday, they began a journey to Sicily as team-mates for this week's Davis Cup quarter-final between Italy and the United States.

On second thoughts, hostility is too strong a description of the burgeoning rivalry between the two Americans.

Sampras, having returned from tennis's Bermuda Triangle (19 consecutive points disappeared in the middle of the match, which he lost, 6-3, 2-6, 6-7), happily boarded Agassi's private JetStar for the first leg of the trip, from Miami to New York. The pair planned to see Agassi's girlfriend Brooke Shields in Grease on Broadway before crossing the Atlantic on Concorde.

Such fraternal behaviour is not exactly the stuff of Lendl and McEnroe, Lendl and Connors, McEnroe and Connors, McEnroe and Borg, McEnroe and anybody.

"Pete is not my enemy, you know, he is somebody I have a lot of respect for on a lot of levels," Agassi emphasised after chipping Sampras's lead to 227 computer ranking points and reducing the deficit in head-to-head matches to 8-7. "The intensity of playing Pete is above and beyond anything I can feel with anybody.''

Sampras expressed similar sentiments with regard to the Las Vegan, adding that the sport would reap the benefits. "We definitely can make tennis more popular," he said. "I can make him a better player, he can make me a better player, and I'm happy to be a part of it.''

The Wimbledon champion acknowledged that public interest has been revived by their high octane performances as opposites, in both style and personality. "I am much more reserved," he said, "and Andre... well, he's not.''

Agassi was asked what they would be likely to talk about during the flight. "I don't think it would be limited to tennis by any means," he said, "certainly not this soon after the match.''

In which case, Sampras, who has lost four of their five tie-breaks (7- 3 in the final set on Sunday), may be interested to know how Agassi has been schooled by his coach, Brad Gilbert, in the mental approach to a shoot-out. "Every single point in a tie-breaker is a turning point," Agassi said. "I think every tie-breaker point is similar to a 30-all point in a normal game.''

Their mission is to quell the ambitions of the Italians in a tie to be contested in a 6,000-capacity stadium in Palermo. "Andre is a great team- mate to have," Sampras said. "He has played some great tennis. He is one of the best clay-courters in the world, I am getting better. We have a solid doubles team [Jared Palmer and Richey Reneberg], and I like our chances, even though we are not going to have a ton of time to prepare.''

The major goal for both is to win the French Open and become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete a set of the four Grand Slam singles titles. "Ideally," Agassi said, "I'd like to be playing Pete in the finals of the French to become No 1. And I think Pete would give up his No 1 ranking if somebody guaranteed him a win at the French.

"We are not playing in the same tournament for quite a while and we have got a lot of weeks now to prepare for what it is we both want. I think next week is going to be relaxing. We are going to enjoy being on the same team for a change.''

Agassi was reminded of his petulant performances on the European clay courts last year, and of a defeat in Rome by Stefano Pescosolido, a member of the Italian Davis Cup squad.

"I had a lot worse losses than Pescosolido, let me tell you," Agassi said. "Back then I felt like an underdog every time I stepped on the court. I was struggling a lot on the clay, and I just remember not knowing my ass from my elbow when I was out there.

"Davis Cup depends on how you react to the environment. Does it elevate your game, or does it make you play tight? To me, it is not who I am playing, it is what I am playing.''