Tennis: Agassi's dream time

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The Independent Online
THE men's final in the magnificent new stadium at the Lipton Championships here today is a tennis promoter's dream: Pete Sampras, the world No 1, versus Andre Agassi, the biggest personality in the sport.

Yesterday's women's final was also something of a bonus. Natalia Zvereva took a set off Steffi Graf, the first player to do so in 28 matches. Graf then steadied her serve, improved the timing of her mighty forehand, and won, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, in an hour and 48 minutes. It was the Wimbledon champion's 32nd consecutive victory since defeating Zvereva at Madison Square Garden last November. Her record against the 22-year-old from Minsk is 14-0.

It will be the first match between Sampras and Agassi since the American won in five sets in the Wimbledon quarter-finals on Barbra Streisand Day last summer, levelling the head-to-head series at 4-4. Sampras, remember, defeated Agassi in straight sets in the US Open final in 1990 to become the tournament's youngest men's singles champion, at 19.

Sampras, the defending champion, has dominated the game for the past year, winning 11 of 12 finals. Agassi has won 11 of his 12 matches since returning after five months' absence, during which time he underwent surgery to his right wrist. Straight-sets victories here against Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg have confirmed his form and fitness; indeed, Britain's Mark Petchey has been the only opponent to take a set off Agassi, in the American's opening match. Agassi has been the main attraction all week, before, during and after his matches. 'I'm pretty amazed he is beating the players he is beating pretty handily,' Sampras said. 'It shows you the talent Andre has.'

Sampras was not so impressed with his own performance against Jim Courier, another counter-punching compatriot, in the semi-finals. Sampras won, 6-4, 7-6, requiring six set points in the opening set and three match points in the tie-break, during which Courier had three set points. 'In order to beat Andre, I might have to serve better than I did today,' Sampras said. 'He can return my serve as well as anyone in the world.'

Patrick Rafter, the young Australian who lost to Agassi in the semi-finals, 6-2, 6-4, was made to pay for every mistake. 'He exploited all my weaknesses,' Rafter said. 'I played pretty defensively, and he had me confused from the baseline.' Agassi hit 20 winners and made only seven unforced errors.

Agassi's attitude to playing Sampras seems uncomplicated: 'I want to make him earn defending this title.'

The fourth-round win against the Frenchman, Cedric Pioline, has given Agassi most encouragement this week. 'Becker, Edberg and Rafter gave me targets,' Agassi said. 'Against Pioline I had to be patient. I thought it would take me a while to get that mental part of my game back.'

Dodging the crowds has been another challenge, though he was adamant that 'the last thing I want to do is become some sort of recluse'. Asked what he would need to do to go unnoticed in a shopping mall, he said: 'I would have to shave, put my hair up into a hat, take off my earrings, not wear any Nike, and walk with my toes facing out.'