- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

NEW YORK They are older, slower, blessed with considerably less hair.
But, as Pete Sampras likes to put it, they can still bring the goods.
Kicking the dirt off their long and storied rivalry, raging against the good night of ubiquitous beer commercials and lousy, extraneous exhibition matches against sketchy German ex-champs, Sampras and Andre Agassi proved once again that nostalgia is better left to living legends who are, in fact, washed up.
The creaky-but-hardly-cranky duo stormed through the U.S. Open semifinals yesterday, with Agassi downing Lleyton Hewitt 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (1), 6-2 and Sampras dispatching Sjeng Schalken 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2 before a partisan afternoon crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Next comes a meeting in today's Open final likely a duel for the ages, and certainly one for the aged.
"It's New York, baby," said the exultant 32-year-old Agassi, moments after his victory. "Where else would you rather be? This is it. I've worked all year thinking about tomorrow. And we're both here again. It's going to be a blast."
For more than a decade, Sampras and Agassi have been irrevocably linked, the serve-and-volley ace and the baseline basher, the yin and yang of American tennis excellence.
They came up through the juniors together. Navigated professional peaks and valleys. Combined to win 20 Grand Slams. Dabbled in model-actress significant others.
The journey began at the 1990 Open, when a 19-year-old Sampras stunned heavily favored Agassi, then 20, for the first of his record 13 Slams. Since then, the two have battled in four major finals, not to mention a brilliant, unforgettable night match in last year's Open quarterfinals.
"It [will] be a huge moment for both of us, for the game," said the 31-year-old Sampras. "Two older players, two rivals over the years. He brings out the best in me. To walk out there with him [will] be very unique, very special."
That said, the Hewitt-Agassi match was pretty special in its own right. For nearly three hours, the sport's two best returners traded head-shaking winners and heart-stopping gets in a contest that dripped with tenacity.
There was the sixth-seeded Agassi, turning a Hewitt crosscourt volley into an impossible, around-the-net-post winner. There was the top-seeded Hewitt, running down a sharply angled Agassi forehand, then pounding the ball down the line, the fuzz barely catching the paint.
On a second-set tiebreaker point that may have been the finest of the tournament, the two exchanged four quick volleys before Agassi cranked a swinging forehand winner, earning a standing ovation from the disbelieving crowd.
"Every time we've played, it just always feels like a few points separate each set," Agassi said.
Ultimately, Hewitt was undone by an uncharacteristically erratic serve. The defending Open champ connected on just 40 percent of his first serves and gave up two breaks in the first set alone.
With the second set on his racket at 5-3, Hewitt flubbed three straight first serves before losing the game on a double fault. In the fourth set, Agassi broke Hewitt twice, once on an unlikely slice volley and again on a wicked forehand return that sent Agassi's wife, tennis legend Steffi Graf, into a fit of applause.
"I didn't serve great," Hewitt said. "I served in patches. Against a guy like Andre, you've got to make a high percentage of first serves."
While Hewitt and Agassi were evenly matched, Sampras and Schalken were anything but. A four-time Open winner, Sampras owns one of the most dominating serves in the history of the game, a fluid thing of beauty; by contrast, Schalken's serve is stilted, stiff-legged, a study in sheer awkwardness.
"I wish I had the gift of Pete's serve," said Schalken, a late-blooming Dutchman. "He was placing the ball so good, with 120 miles an hour serves. I couldn't touch the ball. I was only actually playing in my own games."
Indeed, No.17 seed Sampras had little trouble holding serve, yielding just four break points across two shaky service games. Surprisingly, No.24 seed Schalken was nearly as stingy, making the most of his 90-mph knuckleballs and even hitting a few aces wide for good measure.
In fact, Schalken's very first service game set the tone for the first two sets of match: Down 0-40, he rallied in unflappable fashion, powering backhand winners while drawing Sampras into a series of extended, match-slowing baseline rallies.
"I told myself, 'I'm gonna try to keep Pete as long as possible on the court,'" Schalken said. "If we go the long one, then I'm very fit."
The result was a pair of tiebreakers, neither of which came easy for Sampras. In the first, Sampras pounced for a 4-0 lead, then fought a set point before winning on a leaping forehand; in the second, he rallied from a 3-1 deficit on the strength of a chip-and-charge and a backhand volley.
After winning the first set tiebreaker, Sampras pumped his fist, punctuating the moment with a emphatic if slightly goofy cry of "that's what I'm talking about!"
While Sampras wasn't quite the virtuoso who snuffed quarterfinal foe Andy Roddick, he was still plenty good, belting 23 aces and pressuring Schalken with razor-sharp volleys.
The best of Sampras' 62 net points? A gorgeous, blind backhand volley that made a mockery of Greg Rusedski's boneheaded claim that Sampras who hasn't won a tournament in 25 months has lost "a step-and-a-half."
"I haven't showed much this year," Sampras said. "You still just have to remember my ability. I never question that. Even though it's been a struggle, I never questioned that I could be back here."
For Schalken, who turns 26 tomorrow, the loss marked his first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, the best showing yet for a player who pushed Hewitt to a fifth set in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. "I'm playing very well," he said. "Hopefully I can get many of these results."
For Sampras and Agassi, of course, only one result matters.
"We both have a wonderful opportunity ahead of us," Agassi said. "One of us will be more disappointed than the other. But ultimately, I think the game will be better off for it."


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