Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Supreme Sampras raises standard

Men's final: Agassi brings out the brilliance in fellow American during a thrilling climax to the championships

ALL RIGHT, the match was decided in straight sets. And the fellow who came out on top was the one who had won it five years out of the previous six. Nobody smashed a racket or abused the umpire. There wasn't even a rain break to give the plot a tweak.

But as Pete Sampras left the Centre Court yesterday evening, there can have been few among the spectators who felt that they had seen anything other than a tennis ball being hit just about as well as a man can do it.

In a sense, it wasn't close. The match went by quickly, with a single break of serve in each set. Only six of the 31 games went to deuce. The winner took the first game, and the loser was forced to chase him the rest of the way. Andre Agassi could never quite haul himself up to the level of the man he first encountered on a tennis court when they were no more than children.

But how misleading the mere statistics of a match can be. Yesterday afternoon, there were individual points that could have had novels written about them.

Like this one. Second set, 15-all, Sampras serving. Agassi snaps in a great backhand pass, a certain winner. Sampras races across the court and hurls himself horizontally to interrupt the flight of the ball with a flying volley that floats over the net cord and drops in. The crowd explodes. Agassi stands on the spot from which he hit the backhand, just beyond the baseline in the ad court, and stares straight ahead. As Sampras rises slowly to his feet, brushing at the long graze on the elbow of his racket arm, Agassi doesn't move. It's as if he's in shock. Five seconds, 10, 15, he stands there, lost in something. Not until Sampras has resumed the position to serve the next point does he refocus his eyes and return to the moment.

Or this. Same set, Agassi serving at 4-5, 40-15. Agassi gives Sampras his very best forehand not once but twice, one to each wing with consecutive shots, the ball taken as early as only Agassi can take it, skimming the net in the lowest possible arc, giving his opponent the minimum time to respond. But off the second one, hit deep into the angle of the deuce court, Sampras sends back a forehand of his own, hit down the middle with such power and length that it has Agassi scrambling in a dust cloud on the baseline as it zips by. An amazing shot, in itself. But how had Sampras got there in time to play it?

"In the middle of the second set," Sampras said afterwards, "I was on fire. From all aspects of my game, from my serving to my ground strokes, I was playing in the zone. It's not easy to maintain that on grass, especially playing him [Agassi]. But it was as well as I could play, plain and simple."

Or this. Third set, Agassi serving at 3-4 and deuce, having just saved two break points. Sampras winds up a cross-court forehand. Agassi races across the baseline and, with the merest flick of his racket, whips a forehand at an even more acute angle. It passes over the high part of the net and slants sharply down with the top spin to land on the one square yard of grass that Sampras can't reach.

So Agassi, too, played a part. To win a sixth championship, Sampras had to beat a man who has brilliantly adapted a baseline approach to the pace of the grass-court game. That Sampras led from the front, and refused to allow his rival to get close enough to get even a glimpse of victory, did nothing to diminish the quality of the contest, or of Agassi's contribution.

The Las Vegan was right when he said afterwards that his service had not been at its strongest. Nor, although he did not say it, was he covering the width of the backcourt with the voraciousness we saw, particularly, in the early rounds at Wimbledon in 1995, when he played tennis touched by the gods until Boris Becker brought him to earth in the semi-final. Agassi never reached those heights yesterday. But then he was playing Pete Sampras.

"It wouldn't happen every time," Agassi said afterwards, when someone asked him if the same thing would happen were they to repeat the contest. "I'd expect to beat him maybe two times out of 10 on grass." Yesterday was their second contest on grass in almost 10 years of meeting each other in Grand Slam competitions. The previous time, in the 1993 Wimbledon quarter-finals, Sampras won. By that yardstick, Agassi has a long wait coming.

What we were seeing was the expression of a rivalry that should have dominated men's tennis in the Nineties. Thanks to the ups and downs of Agassi's personal life, it didn't. His failure to maintain his challenge throughout the years of their prime robbed Sampras, to some extent, of the chance to establish the true measure of his greatness, beyond the contents of his trophy room.

But here it was, right in front of us, the spectacle of the two greatest men tennis players of the decade, both nearing 30, confronting each other for only the fourth time in the final of a Grand Slam tournament, one looking back on a career of unbroken dedication, the other still savouring the satisfaction of rebuilding a shattered reputation.

"Andre and I probably went out a little more nervous than usual," Sampras said. "It's not an easy situation. It's not easy to play well in a final like this. There's a lot at stake, and playing Andre on the Fourth of July is different from playing anyone else. I knew it was going to be a tough fight, and it was. Much tougher than three, four and five, which was the score."

Sampras's previous victims this year, from Danny Sapsford to Tim Henman, would hardly have recognised yesterday's player. The ponderous, tentative, morose figure of the earlier rounds disappeared the moment he set eyes on the figure with the shaven head and the pigeon-toed waddle.

"You know, Andre brings out the best in me," he said. "There's no question that he elevates my game, because I have so much respect for his game. If I'm not at my best, it's a long day against him. I haven't played many matches this week, and I really didn't feel I was settled into the tournament. But I came out relaxed today, loose and in a good rhythm on my serve."

The serve was at its finest on the few occasions when Agassi was able to mount a serious challenge.

"I had maybe six different games where I was 30-30," Agassi said, "and if he didn't hit an ace on the first serve he was hitting his second serve at 109, 111, sometimes 119 or 120. He's taking chances out there, and people think he's walking on water until he starts missing a few of those. But he didn't. So he walked on water today."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?