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WHO WOULD YOU RATHER BE? SAMPRAS OR AGASSI

When Andre Agassi won the French Open earlier this year it didn’t so much make a statement as it forced a question.

Whose career would you rather have, Agassi’s or Pete Sampras’?

What means more to you, spectacular moments and adulation or sustained but unpopular excellence?

Agassi is the occasional meteor shower that lights up the night, catching our eye and making us stop in wonder. Sampras is the sun, burning brightly on a daily basis, taken for granted.

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Sampras has enjoyed success at record-setting levels, winning 12 Grand Slam event titles and finishing atop the ATP Tour rankings for six consecutive years.

Agassi racked up a nice list of accomplishments himself. Australian Open? Check. Wimbledon? Check. U.S. Open? Check. No. 1? Check.

And then came the French Open, when Agassi became only the fifth player to win all four Grand Slam events in his career. He has enjoyed a taste of every major achievement Sampras has, and he owns something Sampras doesn’t: a French Open title.

In addition, Agassi’s accomplishments have been better received, especially among the casual tennis fans and even those who don’t follow sports.

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Sampras is respected; Agassi is adored. The fans applaud for Sampras and scream for Agassi.

Even on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, where Sampras had won half of his Grand Slam titles, Agassi is the fan favorite. The tabloids never took to Sampras and, as a result, neither did the populace.

It’s not that Sampras is dull; he just isn’t flamboyant. There’s no hook to him.

There’s nothing distinctive about his game, either. While Agassi, for example, returns serves better than anyone, Sampras is just a great all-around player. He doesn’t have the biggest serve on the tour or any other singular weapon that sets him apart. But Sampras is a better athlete than most opponents he faces and mentally tougher than the foes with superior physical skills.

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After 17-year-old Phillip King of Long Beach lost to Sampras in the first round of the Mercedes-Benz Cup Tuesday night he was asked what places Sampras above the rest of the players.

“His calmness,” King said.

That might be a great attribute on the court, but it doesn’t make a snappy theme for a poster.

Sampras says he is comfortable with his level of fame. He’s big enough to avoid waiting at the best restaurants and to get prime tee times on the world’s great golf courses, but he doesn’t get mobbed in public.

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“I’ve always kind of been a very shy guy,” Sampras said. “I’m not crazy about all the attention, the glitz and the glamour. I look at myself as a tennis player. When I’m done playing that’s what I’ll be remembered as.”

What irks him is when the sports world doesn’t notice him. He would like for his accomplishments to lead off “SportsCenter” or make the cover of Sports Illustrated a little more often.

In some ways it’s Agassi’s fault that Sampras isn’t his peer on the popularity charts.

Agassi’s comings and goings from the top of the rankings denied Sampras the constant rival to fuel fan interest. Whenever Agassi has it together, Sampras is ready and waiting. They had it going for a while in 1995, when they faced each other five times and Agassi came out on top three times.

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But after Sampras handled Agassi in the U.S Open final that year, Agassi plummeted. By the end of 1997 he was ranked No. 141. When he ascended to the top of the rankings again this year it seemed to bring out the best in Sampras. His victory over Agassi in the Wimbledon final was Sampras in top form.

For interest’s sake it would be better if there were more bitterness to their rivalry. Instead, Sampras called Agassi to congratulate him after he won the French. And rather than gloat over the distinction it gives him over Sampras, Agassi actually wanted to share the feeling.

“It’s a great accomplishment,” Agassi said. “I wish everyone could experience it.”

Agassi has also taken mental time off to experience life, which is why he says he has no regrets about the gaps in his playing effort, all the times his attention shifted elsewhere.

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“I think in the big picture,” Agassi said. “I don’t look at in the scope of my career. I look at in the scope of my life. I’m very blessed. I have a lot of things, I’ve enjoyed a lot, I’ve experienced a lot and I’ve accomplished a lot. Everything I’ve done in my life, I’ve done intensely. It hasn’t always been tennis at the top of the priority list. That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed--or it doesn’t mean I’m not proud of--my career.”

But does it match up with one for the ages?

In any discussion of the all-time greats, Sampras has to come up. Agassi does not.

What has made for a better life for Agassi hasn’t necessarily made for a better career. He has reinvented himself more times than Madonna, and how many times have we heard “Agassi is back”?

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Well, Sampras never went anywhere. Since they are both playing at the UCLA Tennis Center this week, right next to Pauley Pavilion, it’s appropriate to describe success as defined by John Wooden: “Peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

Sampras feels that applies.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think every time I’ve stepped on the court I’ve given it my best effort. Sometimes I played well, sometimes I didn’t. I feel like, through the years, I did the right thing, if it was training hard, working hard. You give up things in your life to be successful in tennis or whatever you want to do.

“You’ve got the blinders on and there’s not much in your life but tennis. That’s the way, unfortunately, it has to be to stay No. 1 for many years.”

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He knows that focus has cost him enjoyment, even cost him relationships. In the end, he knows he has been repaid.

We have seen Agassi’s potential.

We know Sampras’ results. They are what makes his career the one to want.

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

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STAR GAZING: Andre Agassi delighted an audience that included many celebrities in a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Eric Taino. Page 9

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TODAY

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