Playing for their country and not for computer ratings, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi will put their rivalry on hold today as the United States squares off against Italy at Palermo, Sicily, in an effort to win back the Davis Cup.
After much negotiation between the players and the U.S. Tennis Assn., top-ranked Sampras and second-ranked Agassi agreed three weeks ago to join the team. Neither had played in the first match against France in February.
Having Sampras and Agassi on the team is a coup for the USTA, which has had increasing difficulty coaxing top American players to embrace Davis Cup, what with its often-difficult scheduling.
The quarterfinal match at the Palermo Tennis Club marks the first time the top two players in the world have been on the same Davis Cup team since John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors played for the United States in 1984.
The United States was knocked out of the Davis Cup by Sweden in the semifinals last year.
"We (will) have one thing on our mind next week," Agassi said last Sunday at the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla. "That is, to hopefully win. That is what we are going there for. We are going to do it together."
Agassi plays in the opening singles match today against No. 19 Andrea Gaudenzi. Sampras plays the second match against No. 67 Renzo Furlan.
The Americans also have a decided advantage in doubles Saturday, with the top-ranked team of Jared Palmer and Richey Reneberg playing Stefano Pescosolido and Christian Brandi.
Sunday's two singles matches will have opponents reversed.
This weekend's Davis Cup schedule will also have defending champion Sweden playing host to Austria, the bickering Germans traveling to the Netherlands, and 1994 runner-up Russia playing host to South Africa.
The United States has won six of the last eight meetings with Italy.
Italian captain Adriano Panatta said he couldn't foresee winning even one of today's singles matches but noted his team had one advantage.
"Psychologically, we know we have nothing to lose," he said.
In fact, the Italians have all the traditional advantages enjoyed by Davis Cup hosts. The surface, slow red clay, is fine for Agassi, a baseliner, but it will neutralize most of Sampras' serve-and-volley weapons. Jet lag will no doubt be cited at some point. Sampras and Agassi flew to Italy on the Concorde on Monday, directly from the Lipton's hard courts in Florida, and have had little time to adjust to the time change.
Ultimately the greatest advantages in Davis Cup play are a vocal home crowd and ample servings of patriotism. When Italian tennis officials were choosing the site for this match, they selected an intimate 5,000-seat tennis stadium in Sicily, theorizing that a sold-out stadium packed with Sicilians might prove to be more intimidating to the Americans than a larger venue in more cosmopolitan Milan.
That, though, was before Sampras and Agassi had committed to play for the United States. Now, with the top two players in the world on display, Italian officials may wish they had chosen a larger venue to take advantage of greater ticket sales.