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Aces in the Right Places

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The reason we’ll never tire of watching Pete Sampras play Andre Agassi is because these guys get it.

They know they’re the best thing going in tennis, that when they’re together on the court it goes beyond a match and becomes a happening.

It all came together in the final of the Mercedes-Benz Cup on Sunday, where Sampras met Agassi under skies that had just enough clouds to keep the temperature down on the court.

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It didn’t go the full three sets, but the more than 7,000 fans got as much tennis as Sampras and Agassi could squeeze into two sets. Both went into tiebreakers, and both were won by Sampras for a 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-1) victory.

“It was great tennis,” Sampras said. “I was hitting some shots that I didn’t think I could pull off at times. He came up with some great shots. The atmosphere was tremendous. The people really seemed to enjoy it. When you go out and people are into it, it elevates your intensity and your play.”

They’re a perfect pair for this town, where who is just as important as what and why.

The Mercedes-Benz Cup has always been long on star power. The list of winners in the Open era is a virtual Who’s Who of men’s tennis, including Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe and John McEnroe.

One banner high above the court this week bore the names of all of the Los Angeles tournament winners in the 1990s. Quite a list: Agassi, Sampras, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Richard Krajicek and Michael Stich. Every player had wonat least one Grand Slam event.

So if some unknown came here trying to make a name for himself, he was in the wrong place. He would have been better off waiting tables like all the other would-be stars in this town. This tournament is for the A-list crowd; the rest can wait outside the velvet rope.

When Sampras and Agassi squared off in the final Sunday it had all the buzz of a Hollywood premiere.

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It wasn’t so much that people were scrambling for tickets--that’s standard for just about any sporting event--it’s the type of people who were doing it. I’ve never had a woman approach me about tickets, until Sunday. I was only a few steps out of the garage when a well-coiffed woman asked, “Do you have an extra ticket?”

I told her I didn’t.

“Three hundred dollars,” she said.

That didn’t change the fact that I had no tickets, but it sure changed how I felt about it.

The crowd managed to be both fashionably late and timely, waiting until the very last minute to fill the stadium at the Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA.

They got what they came to see. It was about as thrilling a straight-set victory as you could expect.

It didn’t start out that way, when Sampras needed only 16 minutes to go up 4-1 in the first set.

It was as if they both knew a blowout wouldn’t leave the fans satisfied. Agassi dug in, and forced Sampras into a fight.

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Agassi would answer a big Sampras serve with a sizzling return, and somehow Sampras would have the reflexes to put the ball back over the net with a little drop volley. Agassi would show the range.

It wasn’t the best match they ever played, but--as they both said later on--they were playing at the same level. And that level is far beyond the reach of most mortals on the tour.

Agassi is finely tuned right now, perhaps in the best shape of his life. He’s so lean that he would put on weight if he ate a single leaf of lettuce. He has won 17 of his past 19 matches, with the only two losses coming to Sampras.

Sampras has won 17 straight.

Sampras not only played great tennis Sunday, he played to the crowd. He scaled a wall in pursuit of a ball on Saturday and ran almost halfway up the stands after chasing down a ball for a forehand winner Sunday. He also playfully tossed a ball at some fans who were delaying his serve by taking too long to find their seats.

“L.A., it brings that out of me,” Sampras said. “It’s all the beautiful people.”

This definitely wasn’t Wimbledon.

At the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club a commonly heard phrase is: “I’ll meet you by the Fred Perry statue,” referring to the centrally located monument to the last British player to win Wimbledon. At the Los Angeles Tennis Center Sunday, I actually heard someone say: “I’ll meet you by the silver Mercedes.”

Just because this wasn’t on the hallowed ground of Centre Court didn’t take away from the excitement. And if Tiger Woods and David Duval can stage a made-for-TV matchup, why not set up an Agassi-versus-Sampras promotion?

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One fan called for the two to go ahead and play a third set during the post-match ceremonies.

“No, I’m done for today,” Sampras replied.

But Sampras thinks a staged match with Agassi would be enough to get his juices flowing.

“I don’t care if we’re playing practice sets or the finals of Wimbledon, we want to beat each other,” Sampras said. “Our egos are at stake, and our competitiveness comes out.”

He has been playing Agassi for some 20 years now. He couldn’t remember many details about his first meeting with Agassi. He wasn’t sure how old he was or whether Agassi had long hair back then. The result wasn’t so fuzzy in his mind.

“I believe I won,” Sampras said. “That’s one thing I do remember.”

Why is that not surprising?

All that kept Agassi from winning Sunday’s match, in Agassi’s opinion, was “when it came to the end of each set, he just played a little better than I did.”

Why is that not surprising, either?

If you wanted to know why Sampras has more of this, that and the other than all of his contemporaries and most men who ever played the game, the answer was in the tiebreakers. When the margin for error shrinks to its smallest, Sampras plays his greatest tennis.

Agassi makes it happen for him. Together, they make it happen for tennis.

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com

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