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Action Replay: September 8, 2002

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Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:40

It is a dignity seldom afforded to sporting greats that they may leave their careers behind in a manner that both befits their achievements and definitively signals the end. But it was a dignity rightly afforded to Pete Sampras at the 2002 US Open.

The tournament’s youngest champion when he claimed the 1990 crown aged just 19, Pistol Pete bowed out of professional tennis with one last epic effort – signing off with the old trophy above his head for a fifth and final time.

“It was special. You can’t get around that” – Andre Agassi

The turn of the millennium marked the twilight of Sampras’ career. After the power-players of the nineties had swept all before them, a new breed of player had emerged and began to dominate the game: the baseliner.

The contrast couldn’t be more stark for the classic serve-and-volleyer – and neither could the impact on his career. Sampras didn’t post a tournament win after his seventh Wimbledon title in 2000 – 33 tournaments ago – and entered the US Open as the No.17 seed.

Talk of retirement stalked him incessantly as the drought persisted – but the American insisted he still could produce on the big stage. After all, he figured, he’d been good enough to win a record 13 previous Grand Slams titles.

And just as with the first of those Slams, 31-year-old Pistol Pete faced his old rival, countryman, and fellow Tour senior citizen – Andre Agassi, aged 32.

Both Americans had always saved something special for New York – particularly Sampras in his later years. In both 2000 and 2001 he had reached the final, only to face 20-year-old pretenders to his throne who each claimed their maiden Slams – first Marat Safin, then Lleyton Hewitt.

But in 2002, Sampras faced someone his own age. Based on their recent play, the showdown seemed improbable. At that year’s Wimbledon, both lost in the second round to players ranked outside the top 50.

But while talk of Agassi quitting rarely surfaced, it was Sampras who played his way to the final with a sustained display of excellence that betrayed his veteran years.

He dismissed the rising star of America’s next generation Andy Roddick in the quarters before beating Sjeng Schalken in straight sets in the semis to set up an electric finale.

The 23,000-strong Arthur Ashe Stadium was in the greatest voice. The crowd split its loyalties evenly – a cry of of “Pete!” from one corner would immediately be met by “Andre!” from another, and whenever either man was struggling, the mob leaned to the underdog – desperate for the spectacle to continue.

As always, Sampras-Agassi was a study in contrasts: Agassi the baseline slugger, greatest returner of his generation, and a showman. Sampras was a volleyer, at home at the net, the greatest server of his era, and almost always staid on court.

Each played the assigned role to perfection. Sampras racked up his serve to 132mph, and won the point on 69 of his 105 trips to the net. Agassi ventured to the net just 13 times, but produced 19 groundstroke winners to Sampras’ 16.

The last time the pair had met in a Grand Slam stage, a year earlier in the quarter-final, Sampras had won in four tiebreakers. Neither player had broken serve. After that match, Agassi had leaned over the net and whispered, “win this thing.”

One year later, Sampras did.

At 4-3 in the first set, Sampras converted the first break point of the match. Then, serving for the set at 5-3, Sampras faced his own first break point. A second-serve ace – something of a trademark in his later years – put paid to that.

The second set was similarly cagey, with Agassi still not handling the speed and movement of Sampras’ serving – he held to love four times – and Sampras getting a break to go two sets ahead.

His serve clicking, his volleys on target, his forehand as fluid as ever, Sampras looked to be cruising, but in the third set age caught up with him.

The 31-year-old’s play faded in the third and fourth sets, and it was hard to tell whether Agassi or time was taking the bigger toll. Agassi was finally reading Sampras’ serve with some regularity in the third set, but Sampras managed to hold on.

Agassi took the third, but Sampras dug deep in the fourth set to cling on to his serve. When Agassi dumped a backhand into the net to give Sampras the last break he would need, at 5-4, Sampras was so drained he barely lifted a fist, slowly pumping it once as he trudged back to his chair.

He then served it out, with an ace to reach match point and a volley winner to end it. Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi 6-3 6-4 5-7 6-4 to claim his fifth US Open crown. At 31, Sampras became the oldest champion since 1970.

Visibly exhausted, he mustered enough energy to climb the stairs in the stands to kiss and hug his pregnant wife Bridgette Wilson.

“This one might take the cake,” Sampras said afterwards. “The way I’ve been going this year, to come through this and play the way I did today was awesome. I peaked at the right time.”

Agassi couldn’t deny the fairytale ending appeared to have come true, even if it had been at his expense. The two had played each other since the junior ranks, before they were 10, and for a time had been the toast of world tennis. “It was special. You can’t get around that,” Agassi conceded later.

If the match signaled the end of an era, it was marked with the greatest of goodbyes.

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