TENNIS / LIPTON CHAMPIONSHIPS : Sampras vs. Agassi--Again


It's no wonder Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi give their early-round opponents the brushoff with such frequency. It's so they can get at each other in the final, when the play begins in earnest.

They hardly attempt to disguise it. Both revel in the challenge of their budding rivalry. The lower-ranked Agassi has a very practical reason to long for matches against Sampras--a victory will bring him closer to the No. 1 ranking.

So no sooner had Agassi disposed of Magnus Larsson in the afternoon semifinal at the Lipton Championships on Friday, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (7-1), than he grabbed a courtside microphone and led the crowd in chants of "Pete! Pete! Pete!" as if to will Sampras to victory in the night match.

As is happened, Sampras didn't need Agassi's help. He defeated Jonas Bjorkman, 4-6, 6-0, 6-1, setting up a meeting Sunday of the world's top two players.

Steffi Graf and Kimiko Date will play in the women's final today.

Sampras and Agassi have played in four of the same tournaments in this young season, and three times they have maneuvered themselves into the same final.

Even the verbally hesitant Sampras has coined a cliche for an Agassi-Sampras final: "It's like two heavyweights going at it."

Sampras had a knockout punch in his match against Bjorkman, despite a slow start. Sampras punished the Swede for taking the first set, preventing Bjorkman from winning a service game in the next two sets.

Asked why Sampras had not fallen apart after losing the first set, Bjorkman laughed.

"Because he's No. 1 in the world," was his simple response.

Agassi had a more difficult time. He thrives on the dual stimulants of his opponent's pace and the degree of crowd participation. Friday, he had both in sporadic bursts.

Larsson's game is a strange mixture of powerhouse ground strokes and sudden looping soft shots that seem to exhaust themselves moments after leaving his racket.

The unpredictability meant Agassi never established a rhythm.

Larsson seemed undecided whether his strategy was a good one. "I usually mix maybe too much, but that is my game," he said. "So, you know, sometimes a lot of pace off the racket and sometimes not."

It's just as well that Larsson chose the changeup, because the swirling wind had its own effect on the pace. Deep shots were often carried long, and anything near the line was pushed out. Agassi complained that the officiating was poor, but it was more likely that shots that felt good coming off the racket were waylaid by the wind.

The wind was still when the match began and would have been welcome to dissipate the heat. Agassi broke Larsson in the third game to go up 2-1, but lost his serve in the next game, also losing the advantage. Agassi broke again in the seventh game and was serving for the set at 5-4.

Agassi, already frustrated by Larsson's lumbering style, double faulted on his first set point then squandered two others. Agassi was broken when he finally got a short ball and, in his excitement, netted a forehand approach shot.

In keeping with the match's arrhythmic tone, Larsson broke back, but Agassi served out the set.

Agassi was crabby during the match and it was remarkable that he wasn't fined for his audible obscenities. Afterward, he found the oddest things to gripe about. One point he landed on again and again was Larsson's mobility. He couldn't make up his mind if the 6-foot-4 Swede had any.

"He is kind of strange," Agassi said. "He doesn't move great but he is very big. He covers a lot of court and he is also very lethargic. It is not like he has quick footwork, he kind of plays lazy."

Larsson needed only one break to win the second set. The game was brought to set point when Agassi produced a huge serve that forced Larsson wide to his forehand. His lunging stab worked, and the ball slipped over the net as an awkward drop shot. Agassi, still on the baseline admiring his serve, dashed to the net but couldn't get to the ball.

Agassi's backhand to the net on the next point gave Larsson the second set.

There were no service breaks in the third set, but the tiebreaker was not so steady. Larsson, whose serve is a massive weapon, fired blanks in the tiebreaker. He did not win a point on his serve and had a double fault.

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