- The Washington Times - Monday, September 9, 2002

NEW YORK This one was for the eulogists.
This was for the mockers, the nay sayers, the ditch-digging doubters dumping fresh dirt onto Pete Sampras' still-open professional grave. The foes who counseled retirement. The knuckle heads who said he's lost a step (or two). The fans who showered him with the sort of pleading, sympathetic applause usually reserved for underdogs and lost causes.
Of course, this one was for Sampras, too.
In a performance culled from his seemingly long-departed prime, Sampras topped old rival Andre Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in the U.S. Open final yesterday at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
"This one might take the cake," said Sampras, who won his first tournament in two years and his first Open title since 1996. "To get through adversity means a lot."
With the victory, the 31-year-old Sampras captured his fifth Open title and his 14th Grand Slam, adding to his all-time record.
Shredded in the last two Open finals by youngsters Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt, Sampras also delivered the strongest message yet that he will walk away from the game in an hour and in a manner of his choosing.
"To beat a rival like Andre in a major tournament, a storybook ending, it might be nice to stop," Sampras said. "But I still want to compete. I want to play."
Billed as the latest and perhaps the last edition in the long and storied Sampras-Agassi rivalry, the match was as much a referendum on Sampras' sagging fortunes, his deep decline following a decade of dominance.
Title-less for the longest stretch of his career, his confidence shaken by a string of humiliating losses, his aura as faded as his patchy hairline, Sampras came into the tournament as a No.17 seed, his lowest entry position since 1989.
"There were moments where I was struggling to continue to play," he said.
Against Agassi, however, Sampras looked nothing like the creaky veteran who lost to someone named Paul Henri-Mathieu in the first round of a pre-Open warmup tournament and far more like the serve-and-volley maestro who bullied would-be successor Andy Roddick in a quarterfinal spanking.
Trademark running forehands. Sharp volleys. Even a handful of backhand winners down the line. Early on, the old Sampras gifts were all accounted for, unwrapped and fresh.
Above all was his serve: smothering, overpowering, largely untouchable. Sampras reached into the Wayback Machine for 33 aces and over a dozen service winners down the line, out wide, one at 132 mph, his fastest delivery of the tournament.
"I was having a hard time getting onto [his serve], getting off the mark, making any sort of impact at all," Agassi said. "I think he sensed that, and it was allowing him to play pretty loose on his return games. At that point, he was solidly better."
That said, Sampras slowed considerably in the third. Serving to force a tiebreaker, Sampras staggered to four deuce points against Agassi's shoestring returns; on the fifth, Sampras double-faulted, then dropped the set on a tight forehand volley that failed to clear the tape.
That gave Agassi clearly fatigued from his draining semifinal duel with world No.1 Hewitt new life. With Sampras down 2-1 and serving in the fourth set, Agassi forced a 20-point game, the longest of the match.
Twice, Agassi earned break points, once on a double fault and again on a hustling forehand lob save; two times, Sampras responded with points at the net before taking the game with a pair of forehand volleys.
"I felt like I still had a little ways to go to secure the momentum," Agassi said of winning the third set. "I had a few break points [in the fourth] and I didn't do it. And that turned out to get me."
After saving another break point to make it 4-4 this time with an overhead and an ace wide Sampras turned the tables. He pushed Agassi to two breaks, then captured a third by placing a forehand return just inside the baseline, one that Agassi couldn't dig out.
Serving for the title, Sampras jumped to triple match point on a gutsy 119-mph second serve down the middle; following an Agassi winner, he closed the match with a backhand volley.
"It all worked out," Sampras said. "So much of what I was going through this year was mental. It wasn't forehands and backhands and serves. It was in my head."
In a sense, things have come full circle for Sampras. As a skinny, unheralded 19-year-old, he upset the 20-year-old Agassi for his first major title at the 1990 Open.
Since then, Sampras has become the greatest player of his era, a seven-time Wimbledon winner whose classical playing style helped him break Roy Emerson's career record of 12 Grand Slams and spend six straight years ranked No.1 in the world.
Along the way, Sampras engaged in a spirited rivalry with Agassi Sampras leads the series 20-14 including a clash in last year's Open quarterfinals that is widely considered to be one of best matches ever played.
Still, time passes; so too did the game seem to pass Sampras by. There was the two-year title drought. The straight set skunkings in the last two Open finals. Three coaches since January. A humiliating loss to Swiss journeyman George Bastl at Wimbledon.
Following a third-round loss to Sampras, loudmouthed Brit Greg Rusedski who has never won a tournament of consequence had the gall to predict that Sampras wouldn't win another match, adding that his opponent had lost "a step-and-a-half."
"I've done too much in the game to hear negative things and start believing them," Sampras said. "I still felt like I had one more moment maybe a couple of moments and that's what happened today."
When it was over, Agassi hugged Sampras at the net, offering a "good job." Sampras clambered into the stands, embracing his expecting wife, Bridgette whom he credits as a major source of emotional support and exchanging high-fives with spectators.
"[Sampras] game is able to raise itself at the right time," said Agassi, the man who has always known best. "While the discipline and the daily grind of what it takes to be at the top has obviously gotten tougher for him, there's still a danger in the way he plays and how good he is. Anybody who says something different is really ignorant."
As Sampras raised his arms in triumph following match point taking in the moment, basking in title that few thought possible that much was obvious.

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