Andre Agassi was asked what he remembered about his first match against Pete Sampras when they were juniors. "Just that I was a lot taller than he was," the Las Vegan said. "That was it."
Sampras was more specific. "It was in Northridge, California," he said. "I might have been eight and he was nine. I always claim I beat him." And Agassi was the taller? "He was. But that quickly changed. Thank God."
It is possible that tonight's match between Agassi, 31, and Sampras, 30, in the quarter-finals of the United States Open, will prove to be their last duel in a Grand Slam championship. Every shot, every nuance, will be recorded for posterity.
"It is a "can't lose" match for the fans, and if it is possible for a player to have a "can't lose" match, it would be a match like this," Agassi, the second seed, said. "You go out there, you give it all you have got. If you win, you have done something pretty incredible by beating one of the game's best. If you lose, you were part of something, part of a challenge and an opportunity that you know you are not going to get very often. It is just a great, great night for tennis."
"Hopefully, it is going to be a classic," Sampras, the 10th seed, said. "It is a pick 'em match. I don't see any strong favourite on either side. It is going to come down to how well I serve, how well he returns."
Sampras, the winner of a record 13 Grand Slam singles championships, has not lifted a title of any kind since defeating Pat Rafter at Wimbledon 14 months ago. The Californian's yell of "Yeah!" in front of a television camera after Monday's victory against Rafter in the fourth round here, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, was a clear expression of his joy and relief at finding his form again.
"There are certain times I do show emotion," Sampras said. "It is not too surprising when you win a big match like that. I have had a few challenges over the year, but to play Pat in the last 16 and back it up against Andre is about as tough as it is going to get. But I feel I am up to the challenge. I have got a good shot at moving on."
Agassi, who resurrected his career after slumping to No 141 in the world, was asked why he thought Sampras had lost momentum this year. "I don't think you can win every match all the time, you can't be No 1 in the world every year," he said.
"Things change: priorities and focuses and eagerness; sometimes the body, sometimes the mind, sometimes the heart. I am not inside of him. I can only attest to what is required to be the best in this game. And Pete can attest to that, too.
"But his particular reasons and how they are manifesting themselves in the court vary. Some days I have seen him not serve as well, other days not move as well. But I have also seen him put it together. It is an individual sport.
"Everybody has to make the decision as to what prepares them the best. The easy answer is, it is a lot of tennis and it is not always easy to be at your best nine times a year, plus the Grand Slams. So you do have to pick your moments."
Sampras has won 17 of their 31 matches, a rivalry stretching back to the 1989 Italian Open. Agassi was asked what he considered to be the most striking aspect of their recent contests. "That I have actually won them," he said, smiling.
Opponents have seemed less in awe of Sampras since his trouncing by Marat Safin in last year's final here, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The Russian's display called to mind the 19-year-old Sampras in his first final here in 1990, when he hardly missed a shot in dismantling Agassi, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.
Should Sampras overcome Agassi tonight, he may encounter Safin in the semi-finals. The Russian third seed, who plays Mariano Zabaleta, of Argentina, in the quarter-finals, has struggled to live up to the powerful image he created at Flushing Meadows last year, partly because he continued to enter tournaments instead of resting after injuring his lower back at the Dubai Open last February.
Since then Safin has enlisted Mats Wilander, the Swedish former world No 1, to help put his game, and his mind, back on track. Safin gave an uneven performance in defeating Thomas Johansson, of Sweden, 2-6, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6, in the quarter-finals on Monday night.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the seventh seed, is the Russian threat in the top half of the draw. He advanced to the quarter-finals, defeating Arnaud Clement, of France, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, after an hour's rain delay with Kafelnikov leading 3-0 in the third set.
Martina Hingis, the world No 1, advanced to the women's singles semi-finals, defeating the 18-year-old Daja Bedanova, from the Czech Republic, 6-2, 6-0. Bedanova, who eliminated Monica Seles in three sets in the fourth round, fought back to 2-2 after losing the opening two games, but Hingis won the next 10 games. "I have known Daja since she was a little girl," Hingis said. "She came to my house to hit with me. She was like my little pupil." How about Daja vu?
Women, Singles, Quarterfinals
(1) M HINGIS (Swi) beat D Bedanova (Cze) 6–2 6–0
Men, Singles, Fourth Round
(7) Y KAFELNIKOV (Rus) beat (12) A CLEMENT (Fra) 6–3 6–4 6–3
Women's doubles, quarterfinals
S Testud (Fra)/R Vinci (Ita) beat (7) M NAVRATILOVA (US)/A SANCHEZ–VICARIO (Spa) 6–2 4–6 6–4
Men's doubles, quarterfinals
(15) P HAARHUIS/S SCHALKEN (Neth) beat (10) M KNOWLES (Bah)/B MacPHIE (US) 6–4 6–4Reuse content