All-American dream ticket

John Roberts
Sunday 08 September 2002 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Even ardent admirers have expressed the hope that the 31-year-old Pete Sampras will decide to bring his glorious career to a close before his game falls into a sad decline. Tonight, while not the favourite against his old rival Andre Agassi, he has an opportunity to win his 14th Grand Slam singles title and finish on a high note.

Paul Annacone, the coach who was reunited with Sampras after his loss at Wimbledon to George Bastl, of Switzerland, dropped a hint that a fifth US Open title might persuade him to call it a day.

"Who knows that tomorrow morning, if he wins this, Pete could just retire," Annacone said. "Who knows if Pete could just say, 'I finished the way I wanted to finish'." Annacone, who is not given to idle talk, has helped raised Sampras's spirits, particularly here at Flushing Meadows. Having come into the tournament with a 20-17 win-lose record for the year, Sampras advanced to his third consecutive US Open final, defeating the Dutchman Sjeng Schalken, 7-6 7-6 6-2, after just two hours and 24 minutes.

Agassi won one of his finest victories, beating Lleyton Hewitt, defending champion, Wimbledon champion, and world No 1 6-4 7-6 6-7 6-2 in just under three hours. He and Sampras, with a combined age of 63, will be the oldest men's singles finalists. Sampras leads their head-to-head 19-14 and has won their last two meetings, including an epic quarter-final here last year.

"Andre brings the best out of me," Sampras said. "It will be a huge moment for both of us and for the game: two older players, two rivals over the years."

"I couldn't be more thrilled," Agassi said. "You have a career playing your best tennis against one of the greats of all time. This is less about what we pull out of each other than a toast to the past."

At times yesterday Agassi was as majestic as Hewitt was insecure, the Australian cursing his errors and his luck. He lost 2-0 leads in the first and second sets, recovering to lead 5-3 in the second set only to double fault on a third break point while attempting to serve out the set. Agassi went on to win the tie-break 7-5. Hewitt responded by recovering from 1-4 in the second set to force a tie-break, which he won 7-1, but Agassi, surprisingly, had more to offer in the fourth set, breaking for 3-2 and 5-2.

Agassi won some magical points. When breaking Hewitt for 6-5 in the second set, the 32-year-old Las Vegan sprinted wide of the court to retrieve a forehand drop-volley and flicked a winner down the line. And on the third point of the tie-break, Agassi played a forehand volley into an empty court after a breathtaking exchange of drop-shots.

Sampras, whose serve has only been broken once in six matches, looks fresher going into the final than he did before being thrashed by Hewitt last year and Russia's Marat Safin in 2000. Not that he had an easy time beating Schalken, the 24th seed. He started as aggressively as in his quarter-final against Andy Roddick, holding to love in the opening game and then creating three break points. Schalken served his way out of trouble, and neither player forced an opening before the tie-break, which Sampras won 8-6.

The second set followed a similar pattern.Sampras continued to serve with pace and placement to avoid danger, hitting four aces in the sixth game, but was fortunate in his next service game. Having opened with two double-faults, he was relieved to see Schalken hit a forehand wide after intercepting a volley. Sampras won the game with two aces and a service winner to level at 4-4.

Another double-fault, his seventh, put Sampras 0-2 down in the second set tie-break. Schalken lost his advantage by missing a backhand, and Sampras made the decisive mini-break, going on to win the shoot-out 7-4.

Schalken, two sets down after an hour and 45 minutes, was broken for 1-3 in the third set, and when Sampras held in the next game it seemed that the contest was all but over. But Sampras showed signs of tightness at 4-2, hitting two more double-faults and missed volley to offer Schalken his first break point of the match. A Sampras smash took care of that, and he converted his first match point with a volley with Schalken serving at 2-5, 30-40.

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