Sampras triumphs in titanic struggle

Hard-bitten New York crowd rise to salute masters of tennis as Agassi succumbs in four tie-break sets
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The Independent Online

It took something special to stop Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in their tracks at the height of an epic match, and the hiatus was achieved when the 23,033 spectators stood and roared in appreciation as the combatants were about to take their duel into a fourth tie-break.

Time appeared to be suspended, lumps came to throats, and hairs stood out on necks as the notoriously hard-bitten New York crowd created a chillingly emotional atmosphere in Arthur Ashe Stadium. "It was awesome," said Sampras. "Incredible," said Agassi. "It's what you play for."

The tribute acknowledged what the two great Americans have accomplished over more than a decade, both for themselves and the sport. It also served as a call for them to play on: into a fifth set on the night, if possible, and into the future as long as body and spirit were willing. Everybody wanted to hold on to the moment before another era in the men's game is swept away, like the age of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

"I'm lucky to be a commentator on a great night at the US Open," the ubiquitous McEnroe said.

When the cheering subsided, Sampras won the fourth set tie-break to secure a place in the semi-finals with a 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 victory after three hours and 32 minutes in which neither player had broken serve. As they embraced at the net, exchanging congratulations on a match well played, Agassi whispered into Sampras's ear: "Go win this thing."

This may not have been intended as an exhortation from one veteran to another to keep a new generation at bay, but it may have been construed that way. We had to remind ourselves that the marvellous contest was taking place in the quarter-finals, not on the final day, when the names Sampras and Agassi have been hailed in triumph so often in the past in major championships around the world.

The quality of the tennis surpassed expectations, given that the serve-volleying Sampras, 30, and the counter-punching Agassi, 31, were supposed to be nearing their sell-by date. The familiar vigour was there as the rivals sped about the court, trading shots and producing breathtaking winners from all angles.

There was a theory that Sampras, the 10th seed, needed to win the opening set if he was to succeed. He saved a break point at 1-1. Agassi saved three at 1-2. Then, in the tie-break, Sampras failed to convert three set points. "I showed a little bit of nerves there," he said. "At 6-4 in the breaker, I was standing at the line thinking, 'I don't know where this is going'. It went right in the net." Agassi double-faulted on his first set point, at 7-6, but converted the second, for 9-7, with a backhand down the line.

"One minute I felt like I had him," Sampras said. "Next minute I lost the first set." Neither player created a break point en route to the second set tie-break, which Sampras dominated, 7-2. Sampras produced one of his 25 aces on the night to save the only break point in the third set, going on to win the tie-break, 7-2, in spite of double-faulting to 2-2.

Agassi was under pressure in the opening game of the fourth set, saving two break points. Sampras aced-away break point at 3-4; Agassi out-rallied his opponent to rescue himself at 4-4. At 6-6, the stadium erupted.

"It was a powerful moment out there," Agassi said. "But I was trying to keep focused on the fact that I felt like I was a breaker away from going into a fifth set with the momentum to win the match."

That seemed a possibility when Agassi took a 3-1 lead in the fourth set tie-break, but his hopes began to unravel after he netted what seemed a routine forehand on the next point. Sampras was the man with the momentum. The surprise was that he failed to serve the match out at 6-3 and 6-5, securing it on his third match point by returning a second serve for 7-5.

Nostalgia is second nature to sports observers, and Sampras, in particular, has been irked by the feeling that his career has been consigned to history during his struggle to sustain form and motivation since winning his last title 14 months ago, at Wimbledon.

"It has been a disappointing year, and the press has been on me," he said. "To be honest about it, it's well deserved in a way. But what I don't appreciate is the retirement talk. I think it's gotten a little bit carried away. I don't know how it started, why it all started. I haven't said anything about it. It doesn't really faze me too much. I'm still around."

Sampras, the winner of a record 13 Grand Slam singles titles and world No 1 for a record six years in a row, emphasised that he has nothing to prove. But he would love to hear the roars rolling down from the stands at the weekend, starting tomorrow, when he is due to play Marat Safin, the Russian defending champion, in the semi-finals. "Last time I played Marat, I was pretty humbled out there," Sampras said, recalling last year's final.

"I never have been crazy about having two days off between matches, but I'm thanking my lucky stars I have two days between matches now, just to give my body a rest. Emotionally, it will be nice to shut it down tomorrow, not even come here, gear up for the weekend."

The younger players in the locker room may be thinking: "Give us a break."