Tennis: Sampras sends a message to forlorn Agassi

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IN THE LAST important singles final of the century, Andre Agassi, the player of the year, was defeated by Pete Sampras, the player of the decade, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4, at the ATP Tour Championship here.

There were no bows and kisses from Agassi yesterday. The world No 1 was so disappointed with his performance that he could not even bring himself to address the 13,500 spectators, who had paid hearty respect to both Americans as the event bade farewell to Hanover.

"I was really unhappy with the way I played," Agassi said. "There was not a whole lot for me to say." Thank you would have sufficed; or auf Wiedersehen, which was how Sampras rounded off his neat little speech.

Agassi also cut a forlorn figure in the interview room. "It's a bad day to be flat," he said, adding: "It had a lot to do with Pete, too. He did play well."

The match lasted one hour and 46 minutes, although as a contest it was virtually decided after Sampras retrieved a 1-4 deficit in the second set.

Sampras thereafter fulfilled a prophecy Agassi made last Wednesday, having beaten Sampras, 6-2, 6-2, in the round-robin segment of the tournament.

"The guy can improve like nobody," Agassi said at the time. "He was like Lazarus at Wimbledon, just out of no-where. Completely when you thought that he wasn't really the same Pete, he plays tennis that he's never played before. So I have no doubt what he's capable of."

It is not recorded whether Lazarus picked up a racket along with his bed.

Sampras, however, may push Lazarus close in the recovery stakes. Before arriving in Hanover, the Wimbledon champion had played only one match in three months. That was 27 days ago, at the Paris Indoor Championships, when he defeated the Spaniard Francisco Clavet after saving three match points.

Sampras then withdrew from his next match, against Germany's Tommy Haas, because of a back injury.

Before that, Sampras had retired against Vince Spadea at the start of the third set of their quarter-final in Indianapolis on 20 August because of a strained hip muscle. Sampras missed the United States Open after herniating a disc while practising on the day before the championships.

Sampras has only been able to finish eight tournaments this year, winning five of them, whereas Agassi has won two Grand Slam singles titles, at the French Open and the United States Open, en route to securing the year-end No 1 position. In the circumstances, Sampras's performance in Hanover over the past week has been amazing, even though his victory does not compare in his own mind with last year's campaign here.

Then, stressed out after spending eight solid weeks chasing ranking points, he failed to win the event but gained enough ground to complete his goal of finishing the year as No 1 for a record sixth consecutive time.

"My goal this week was to see how I was physically, and if I could win here, that's a bonus," Sampras said. The straight-sets drubbing by Agassi in the round-robin, when Sampras was almost embarrassingly court-rusty, gave him the incentive to raise his game. "I was pretty much humiliated by him four days ago," Sampras said. "I definitely wanted to prove something - that I still have it."

There was little doubt about that in the opening set yesterday, when Sampras treated us to the entire range of his skills, from the solid serve and elegant volley to the impressive variety of groundstrokes and the spectacular "slam-dunk" smashes.

Agassi, well aware, after losing 16 of their 27 previous matches, of the risk of allowing Sampras to make a confident start, was unable to make inroads. Agassi's serve was broken for 0-2 and 1-5 as the set flashed by in 29 minutes. Sampras conceded only six points on serve, three of them double-faults.

"I was frustrated with the rhythm of the match," Agassi lamented. "He was changing the pace a lot, and there were a lot of short points. I really didn't even have a big sweat going an hour into the match."

By then, it was too late. Agassi's opportunity to play his way into the match had come and gone. Sampras, who hit 15 aces, also double-faulted 10 times. Two of those unforced errors gave Agassi a 2-0 lead in the second set. Sampras then saved two break points that would have put him 0-4 adrift.

But once Sampras had broken back for 3-4, Agassi began to lose what remained of his jaunty stride. "At 5-5, I played a really bad game," Agassi said, acknowledging that a double-fault to love-40 provided his opponent with an irresistible opportunity. "I just got angry with myself and never quite felt good about the way I was hitting the ball or where I was focusing."

Sampras has won the year-end finale five times in his 10 visits to Germany, earning $7.96m (pounds 4.97m) from the event.


Year-end rankings

1 Andre Agassi (US)

2 Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Rus)

3 Pete Sampras (US)

4 Thomas Enqvist (Swe)

5 Gustavo Kuerten (Bra)

6 Nicolas Kiefer (Ger)

7 Todd Martin (US)

8 Nicolas Lapentti (Ecu)

9 Marcelo Rios (Chile)

10 Richard Krajicek (Neth)

Leading British rankings: 12 Tim Henman; 14 Greg Rusedski.