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."

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders