1985 Davis Cup final

From Pete Sampras’ autobiography, A champion’s mind:

After the [semifinals] tie, the US team room was awash with the usual assortment of friends, family, USTA types, ITF types, and garden-variety hangers-on. At one point, I glanced across the room and made contact with Tim [Gullikson]. His face by that time was starting to hollow out and his eyes – an intense blue to begin with – were practically burning. For a second, we looked at each other, and each of us knew what the other was thinking: this should be our moment. All these other people are extraneous. This is about the two of us, and nothing can take away what we’ve accomplished, or the trust we have. I’ve never forgotten that moment or that look. It’s with me to this day as my enduring memory of Tim.

So it was on to Moscow for the November final, and I knew how much Tim wanted to see me lead the squad to a triumph. It was a tough ask, because the Russians, predictably, held the tie on very slow red clay, indoors. For them, it was th right move, even though Jim Courier and Andre Agassi could be as tough on clay as anyone. There was only one hitch – Andre was still nursing his chest injury. We hoped until the eleventh hour that Andre would be good to go, meaning that my job would be a manageable one: making sure we won the doubles, while Andre and Jim could do the heavy lifting in singles. I had confidence that we would win the doubles – I liked playing Davis Cup doubles with Todd Martin and, as ambivalent as I was about clay, I played doubles on it happily, with confidence.

We arrived in Moscow on a Saturday, six days before the Friday start. Andre had sent word that even though he couldn’t play, he would attend the tie as a show of team spirit and solidarity. That sealed the deal. Tom declared that I was going to play singles unless, of course, I felt like I was the wrong man for the job, and made enough of a fuss about the decision. How’s that for an awkard spot? What was I going to do, say, “Nah, Tom I’m not up for it. Let Todd or Richey go out there?” I could see all the makings of Lyon revisited – a full-on disaster.
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1990 US Open: pete Sampras and Andre Agassi

From Pete Sampras autobiography, A champion’s mind

The guy on the other side of the net the late afternoon of September 9, 1990, was Andre Agassi – a kid, just like me. And he was easy to find over there in his wild, fluorescent, lime green outfit, and big hair.

I couldn’t know it at the time, but Andre and I would have a historic rivalry and both wind up in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In fact, up to that point in ou young lives, Andre an I had met on a court just four previous times. We were unfamiliar with each other’s games because Andre had played most of his tennis in Florida while I was a California guy.

The first time we played was on a hard court in a twelve-and-under junior tournament in Northridge, California. Neither of us can remember who won that match, but I still have a strong visual memory of Andre. He rolled up with his dad, Mike, in a huge green Cadillac worthy of a mobster. It was fitting, because the Agassis lived in Las Vegas and Mike worked as a pit boss in Caesar’s Palace. Way back then, Andre already had this junior rock star thing going. He was skinny as a rail, but so was I. He already had this junior rock star thing going. He was skinny as a rail, but so was I. He already had that big forehand and those quick, happy feet.

Andre and I were supposed to meet at another junior event. In juniors, you often have to play two matches on the same day, and both of us had won our morning match. But for some reason, Andre and Mike disappeared – just up and left the site, enabling me to advance by default. In our first meeting as pros, on the red clay of Rome in 1989, Andre had waxed me, losing just three games. But I had played him even-up in that Philadelphia match I mentioned earlier.
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Pete Sampras, 1990 US Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

This was a great day for American tennis. In 1986, one American man, Tim Wilkison, had reached the Open quarterfinals. Four years later, there had been five American quarterfinalists. No American had been in an Open final since McEnroe, in 1985. Now, with Agassi having beaten Becker, the US was assured of having the men’s champion for the first time since 1974. The USTA was taking all sorts of bows for his renaissance, but it had almost nothing to do with it. None of the top young Americans were products of the USTA’s programs. One, Michael Chang, had benefited from some clay-court coaching from José Higueras, but that was it. The rest were products of their families, private coaches, and their own desires.

The crowd didn’t care about any of that. It just knew McEnroe was on court. Sampras, who had been the hero Wednesday, against Lendl, was now cast in the role of villain. He was ready for it.

“I know they’re all going to be for John,” he had said on Friday morning. “If I was sitting in the stands, I would be for John. I understand it, but I just have to shut it out. I think the match will be decided by who can come closest to keeping his level where it was Wednesday. One of us is bound to have a letdown. I hope it isn’t me.”

In truth, it figured to be Sampras. He had played the match of his life on Wednesday to beat Lendl. On Thursday morning, over breakfast at Wolf’s Delicatessen, Blumberg told him that he had concluded a lengthy renegotiation of Sampras’ contract with Sergio Tacchini. The new contract was for five years and would guarantee Sampras at least $4 million, although it could go considerably higher if Sampras continued to improve.

Having beaten Lendl, having become extremely rich, Sampras would have been excused if he had a letdown against McEnroe. It never happened, though. He came out bombing untouchable serves, and before McEnroe knew it, the first set was gone, 6-2. In the second set, McEnroe began to creep into the match. down a break, he broke back to 4-all with a miraculous scoop half volley. For the first time all day, the crowd was into the match.

If it bothered Sampras, it didn’t show. He hit two perfect returns at McEnroe’s feet to set up a break point. McEnroe , trying to avoid another return like that, went too much on a second serve and double-faulted. Sampras calmly served out the set.

What was happening there? How could McEnroe, who had played so superbly in his last two matches, be getting manhandled like this? In a sense, McEnroe was looking across the net and seeing himself, circa 1979: young and brash, supremely confident, and equipped with one weapon – the serve – that could keep any opponent off balance.
The difference, of course, was in Sampras’ demeanor. He wasn’t bratty at all. He played one point, then another. No flash, no dash, no whining or crying.

“I wasn’t always that way,” he said. “When I was fourteen and I was still playing from the baseline with a two-handed backhand, I was a real whiner. But then I saw some tapes of Rod Laver, and I said, ‘That’s the way I want to be.’ I’ve tried to act that way ever since.”

He was succeeding. Much as the crowd wanted to see McEnroe complete his miracle, it couldn’t help but marvel at Sampras. McEnroe did come back and win the third set, but even with the crowd now manic, Sampras didn’t wilt. He started the fourth set with his sixteenth ace of the day, broke McEnroe to go up 4-2, and served the match out, ending it with – what else ? – an ace.

McEnroe walked off to one last huge ovation. He was disappointed but not devastated.

“I don’t think I played badly,” he said philosophically. “His power really put me off. He served well when he had to. I think he’s really in a groove right now, and that’s a good thing. I think the guy is really good for the game.”

He smiled.

“Hope springs eternal. Rosewall played in two Grand Slam finals when he was thirty-nine. I’ll be thirty-two next year. The next time I play Sampras or Agassi, they’ll be favored. The pressure will be on them.”

Lendl had said that the key for Sampras was to forget he was playing John McEnroe. He had been able to do just that, largely, he felt, because he had played McEnroe earlier in the summer, in Toronto. Then, it had taken him a set and a half to forget who his opponent was and just play. This time, he had come out firing. He had beaten Muster, Lendl, McEnroe. The question now was, could he do it one more time?

Pete Sampras, 1990 US Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

“I remember watching Lendl in all those Open finals,” Sampras said. “I was eleven when he played his first one, and everyone was against him. So I rooted for him.”

Six years later, when Lendl was No.1 in the world and Sampras was a brand-new seventeen-year-old pro, Lendl invited him during the week of the Masters. Lendl likes to have young players work with him. They are eager, attentive, and challenging. Sampras didn’t disappoint Lendl and Lendl didn’t disappoint Sampras.

“He taught me what it means to really be a pro,” he said. “There were times I hated him because he made me ride the bike or run until I was about to drop, but I learned from him. He also told me over and over to worry about one thing in tennis: the Grand Slams. He said he wished he had learned that when he was younger.”

As much as he respected Lendl, Sampras had a quiet belief he could beat him. Everyone in tennis knew that the Wimbledon loss had damaged Lendl’s psyche. The hunger to win every single match and every single tournament wasn’t there anymore. He had played in only one tournament prior to the Open and had lost his first match – to Malivai Washington – in New Haven.

Sampras has watch him play Michael Stich in the second round. Stich was a tall, twenty-one-year old German who was quietly moving up the computer. But he certainly wasn’t a match for Lendl on hard court. And yet, Stich kept Lendl on court for four difficult sets.

“It wasn’t like the difference was huge,” Sampras said. “The guy was still great. but he wasn’t quite at the same level as I remembered in the past.”

Sampras was hyper the day of the match, wandering from the locker room to the players lounge to the training room and back to the players’ lounge. Lendl sat quietly in the locker room with Tony Roche, waiting to play. Remarkably he had been to eight straight Open finals. This was not new to him.

The match was a roller coaster ride. Sampras, coming up with huge serves at all the key moments, won the first two sets. But Lendl didn’t roll over at this stage of his career, not in a Grand Slam. He came back to win the next two sets. Sampras felt tired, frustrated. Lendl seemed to be getting stronger. But, down 0-4 in the fourth, Sampras found a second wind. He came all the way back to trail 5-4 and even two break points to get to 5-5. Lendl saved those and served out the set, but Sampras felt as if he was in the match again.

Lendl, having come back to even the match, felt pretty good about his chances, too. But, serving at 1-2, he got into trouble – with his thirteenth double fault. Sampras had returned so well that Lendl felt he had to make his second serves almost perfect and, as a result, had missed a few. Lendl saved that break point and had two game points of his own. Sampras kept coming, though. He got to break point again and bombed a crosscourt forehand that Lendl couldn’t touch. Lendl swiped his racquet angrily at the ground. He was down 3-1 and knew that breaking Sampras again would be difficult.

Sampras was trying hard to stay in the present.

“I just had this feeling I was going to win the match, that it was meant to be,” he said. “I really felt that way. But I didn’t want to think about any of that before it was over.”

He had one scary moment when Lendl had a break point with Sampras up 4-2. Sampras took a deep breath and served a clean winner. He followed that with an ace – his twenty-third of the match – and closed the game with another service winner. With a chance to get back into the match, Lendl hadn’t put a ball in play for three straight points. The look on his face told the story. Six points later, it was over. Sampras hit one more solid backhand. Lendl chased it down and threw up a weak lob. As Sampras watched it float toward him, he felt chills run through his body. “Just hit the ball,” he told himself. He did, cleanly, and his arms were in the air in triumph.

It was another four-hour marathon and another stunning upset. Sampras was the young American most fans hadn’t heard of, but they knew who he was now.

Like it or not, Sampras’ life had just changed for ever. He was no longer a prospect or a rising young American. He was now a star, a just-turned-nineteen US Open semifinalist – one who had beaten Ivan Lendl to get there.

Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, 1995 US Open

From Sampras‘ autobiography ” A champion’s mind”:

My third consecutive Wimbledon title was quickly overshadowed in 1995 by Andre’s amazing resurgence, which picked up steam during the hard-court season. I was just another of his many victims as he went on a twenty-match summer tear that stunned all of tennis. Andre beat me in the Canadian Open as he went on a four-tournament run to enter the US Open as the favorite. But that also put him under a lot of pressure. If he lost to me, all twenty-five of the matches he had won over the summer went right into the toilet, and the fact that he was number one went into the wastebasket. Andre, like me, played for the big moments and the big tournaments more than for the numbers and rankings.

So that created pressure, and I also felt that Andre knew I would be very tough at Flushing Meadows. I had the game, I had the motivation, I had the experience. I had everything needed to spoil his magical run. I was confident, despite Andre’s superb level of play. The situation made great fodder for the press. But for me the bottom line was that I enjoyed playing Andre. Good as he was and no matter what the score on a given day might be, he didn’t really move me far out of my comfort zone if I was on the top of my game.

We marched to the final to a drumbeat of inevitability and media hype. The weather on the day of the final was tricky, although you may not have known it if you were just watching, or even sitting in Louis Armstrong Stadium. It was a little breezy, and we started off feeling each other out, a little like two heavyweight fighters. I could sense that this was a huge occasion because the a-list celebrities had come out: John F Kennedy Jr as there, so was Arnold Schwarzenegger and a host of of others.

Andre and I jabbed at each other and built a feeling for the ball, game after game; both of us knew that as the set went on, one or the other would have an opportunity. At 5-4 set point to me, we had a nineteen-stroke rally, much of it forehand to forehand, that I remember as if it had just happened yesterday. It was one of the most important and significant points I ever played, and I won it with a sharply angled backhand winner.

Andre had maneuvered me into playing the kind of point that was his bread and butter, and I had not just escaped the trap to win the point; it won me the set. It was like a right hook that staggers a fighter. In tennis, a moment like that can cost you a lot more than the game. I think it probably cost Andre the next set, because I more o less cruised through it without being pushed, or feeling like I was being punished, physically. I won that second set 6-3.

With two sets in hand, my confidence soared. I had a commanding lead and just pulling even would cost Andre a lot. Still, I expected Andre to win his rounds as I would win mine. He played well to win the third set, but it took a lot out of him, and he still had a long way to go just to get on even footing. I had to be careful, though: if I went down a break in the fourth, it would be like an IV drip for Andre’s flagging spirits; he would instantly revive and get a massive surge of adrenaline and confidence. I had to dial it up, but still play “within myself.”

For me, dialing it up always started with improving the quality of my serve, either speed- or placementwise. One of the best things about winning your service points quickly is that you’re in an out of your service game in the blink of an eye, and you can then focus and take even more chances on breaking serve. Conversely, your opponent feels pressure; he’s so busy trying to hold serve that he barely has time to think of breaking you. Ts can be a big factor late in a set, and it always makes life tougher for a player whose own serve isn’t a huge weapon.

Andre and I played close through most of the fourth set, but I was serving aces and held the eleventh game with ease. I sensed that the pressure might be getting to Andre, and got the key break for 6-5, after which I served out the match.

The win opened the floodgates for me in a number of ways. It was my seventh major, and it launched me on a run that would earn me six more majors in the next four years. The match also had a devastating effect on Andre. It put me up 9-8 in our rivalry, but more important it impacted Andre so badly that he soon fell off the radar – he admitted much later that it took him two years to recover from that devastating loss. It was too bad, because the match also certified my rivalry with Andre; nobody could push me and force me to play my best tennis the way Andre could. And nobody could call our rivalry hype cooked up by Nike anymore – it was the real deal, even though it was put on hold.

Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, 2005 US Open final

From Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open:

Driving to the stadium with Gil, I’m quiet. I know I have no chance. I’m ancient, I’ve played three five-setters in a row. Let’s be real. My only hope is if it goes three or four sets. If it’s a fast match, where conditioning doesn’t come into play, I might get lucky.

Federer comes into the court looking like Cary Grant. I almost wonder if he’s going to play in an ascot and a smoking jacket. He’s permanently smooth, I’m constantly rattled, even when serving at 40-15. He’s also dangerous from so many different parts of the court, there’s nowhere to hide. Federer wins the first set. I go into frantic mode, do anything I can to knock him off balance. I get up a break in the second. I break again and win the set. I think to myself: Mr Grant might just have a problem today.

In the third set, I break him and go up 4-2. I’m serving with a breeze at my back, and Federer is shanking balls. I’m about to go up 5-2, and for a fleeting moment, he and I both think something remarkable is about to happen here. We lock eyes. We share a moment. Then, at 30-love, I hit a kick serve ti his backhand, he takes a swing, shanks it. The ball sounds sick as it leaves his racket, like one of my deliberate misfires as a kid. But this sick, ugly misfire somehow wobbles over the net and lands in. Winner. He breaks me, and we’re back on serve.
In the tiebreak, he goes to a place that I don’t recognize. He finds a gear that other players simply don’t have. he wins 7-1.

Now the shit is rolling downhill and doesn’t stop. My quads are screaming. My back is closing the store for the night. My decisions become poor. I’m reminded how slight the margin can be on a tennis court, how narrow the space between greatness and mediocrity, fame and anonymity, happiness and despair. We were playing a tight match. We were dead even. Now, due to a tiebreak that made my jaw drop with admiration, the rout is on.

Walking to the net, I’m certain that I’ve lost to the better man, the Everest of the next generation. I pity the young players who will have to contend with him. I feel for the man who is fated to play Agassi to his Sampras. Though I don’t mention Pete by name, I have him uppermost in my mind when I tell reporters: it’s real simple. Most people have weaknesses. Federer has none.