Sampras adopts air of supremacy

John Roberts reflects on a US Open final that showed the men's game at its best
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Those anxious to show why tennis can be such a fascinating sport no longer need delve into the archives for grainy film. A clip fresh from Sunday's men's singles final at the United States Open provides compelling evidence.

Pete Sampras had reached set point on Andre Agassi's serve in the opening set. Agassi put the ball in play, Sampras hit a return, and the two best players in the world became synchronized in a breathtaking rally of angled groundstrokes on the rubberised concrete court.

No sooner had one driven the other wide on one side of the net than he was scurrying and stretching to retrieve a fierce counter-strike on the other. The duel continued until, on the 22nd stroke, Sampras out-manoeuvred Agassi with a forehand and delivered a backhand winner across the court.

As Monica Seles would say, it was like, wow!

The way the rally ended, Agassi reflected, his title gone after four sets, was an example of Sampras's "explosiveness". Shaking his cropped head, he said: "I ran him 12 corners, but what makes Pete such a great player is he knows how to seize opportunities. He wanted that point and he knew that it was going to have a big impact on his confidence.

Sampras described the point as "unbelievable" and expressed the hope that it would feature on "play of the day". Play of the year, more like. "I felt if I could just keep Andre moving I could get a short ball and come in, but we were running each other around and I never felt I had a winner until I flicked that backhand."

If this smacks of labouring a point, the purpose, aside from celebrating an unforgettable cameo, is to underline what is missing from the men's game at Wimbledon. The fast grass courts of the All England Club, combined with modern racket technology, enable big-serving athletes such as Sampras to win points with one or two shots.

That is why the sport's administrators and the equipment manufacturers are desperately seeking ways to reduce the pace of the game; too late, alas, unless they can be persuaded to turn back the clock and revert to wooden rackets or do the unthinkable and dig up the grass.

In fairness, the evolution of the players is a major factor. The grainy film depicts a different breed, few of whom, whatever their weapons, seem capable of generating the force of today's competitors. It is also true that even on synthetic courts, which provide an even pace and a consistent bounce, rallies such as Sunday's best are exceptional. Even on clay, the slowest surface, competitors are inclined to hit winners at the first opportunity; unless they try to bore each other to death waiting for errors.

There was never any chance of that here when the great American rivals brought their contrasting styles and personalities to the court, acknowledging that the victor would be able to claim the world title, whatever the rankings computer said to the contrary.

Sampras, by adding the US Open to his Wimbledon triumph, 6-4, 6-3, 4- 6, 7-5, will end the year leading Agassi by two Grand Slam singles titles to one, having lost to him in four sets at the Australian Open in January. Though Agassi is still listed as No 1, by virtue of his consistency on the ATP Tour, he admitted: "Come 31 December, Pete is going to feel better about the year than I did. When your career is all said and done, you want the Slams. Like I said a long time ago, being No 1 is great, but after the first hour it doesn't make a bit of difference, because you've still got every guy in the tournament trying to beat you. You want to peak for these events."

Unseeded when winning the title a year ago, Agassi quickly discovered the difference that goes with being the top seed. He stumbled through two of his earlier matches, and found himself with too great a task after Sampras had won the first two sets. Though Sampras's serve, his chief ally, occasionally let him down, he hit 24 aces and ended the tournament with 142.

At one stage, Sampras was distracted by the crowd's reaction to the arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I was ready to serve, I heard the noise, I looked over, and there he was, The Terminator," he said.

Agassi also looked up and saw The Terminator. His name was Sampras.