In the late afternoon shadows of the Southern California desert here Monday, Pete Sampras had his day. Six weeks ago, on a sunny afternoon in Melbourne, Australia, Andre Agassi had his.
Tennis has a rivalry in full bloom. It is not yet McEnroe-Borg, but it is getting there. America loves a race for No. 1, especially if it involves two Americans. And this Sampras-Agassi thing is starting to get an Affirmed-Alydar feel to it.
It was almost a year ago that Sports Illustrated raised the question of whether tennis, with its male stars often sulking or colorless and its female stars often boring or disappearing, was dying. At the time, the premise was accurate and the sport deserving of the scrutiny.
But in the creeping twilight of this Newsweek Champions Cup final, with Sampras toeing the service line two points from the match, and with a near-sellout crowd of 10,219 locked on his every move, it was hard not to wonder if reports of this sport's death were premature.
Awaiting the serve was Agassi, dressed as always in his garish pajama-like tennis outfit and a bandanna that made him look like a greeter for Pirates of the Caribbean. But appearances are deceiving with Agassi these days. Where once he was mostly style and occasional substance on the court, now his look is clearly a sideshow to his tennis. Image is no longer everything. Forehands, backhands and major titles are.
On this day, he had battled gamely against a player who has been No. 1 in the world for more than a year and who was playing like somebody who didn't want to relinquish that top spot without a fight. For every big forehand Agassi hit, Sampras hit a bigger one. Every time Agassi raised his game a notch, Sampras raised his two.
Agassi got the first service break of the match, then let Sampras break back and never quite got on top again. And here he was, trailing in this best-of-five match, 5-7, 3-6, 5-6, with one of the biggest servers in the game about to fire at deuce. Agassi, who calls his rival "the Pistol," was about to see two bullets.
The first serve came like a flash, and Agassi, lunging to his backhand side, could only get an ineffective piece of it. The scoreboard showed 125 m.p.h. And match point.
What would happen next was fairly inevitable. All day long, Sampras had his serve grooved deep to the backhand corner on the ad side. When he was in trouble, it rescued him. And now, with the title on the line in this prestigious tournament, as well as the $255,000 first prize, Sampras rocked, tossed and fired a 112-m.p.h. ace to that very spot. Agassi, the best service-returner in the game, could barely blink.
With the victory, Sampras' hold on the No. 1 spot went from 372 points over No. 2 Agassi to 470. In tennis, that's neck and neck going down the stretch. And for tennis, that's a godsend.
Afterward, Sampras said, "When I play Andre, it's like two heavyweights going at it. . . . He's one guy who, I feel like, even if I play well, he can beat me."
Agassi said, "Pete and I are 1-1 this year in big matches. And you know, we are going to stay at it. . . . I am feeling great about my game, and there is just one guy who is ticking me off right now."
The Sampras and Agassi mano-a-mano will continue next week in Florida at the Lipton Tournament, like the Champions Cup event here, one of the nine major stops on the tour that are one level below the four Grand Slams. They will be seeded to meet again in the final, which again could produce the kind of tennis extraordinaire that was seen here Monday.
Paul Annacone, Sampras' coach, said afterward that, as well as each played, each could play better.
"And that's pretty frightening to the other guys on the tour," Annacone said.
But not to the tennis fans watching.