1990 US Open: pete Sampras and Andre Agassi

The 1990 US Open final by Pete Sampras

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.

Andre was the clear favorite in the US final. He had shot up to number three in the world, and he had beaten Boris Becker to get to the final. He was an over-the-top showman, but pundits were questioning his ability to win big matches and suggesting that he was more image than substance. That was odd, because nothing was more clear-cut and substantial than scores and results. And by that measure, Andre was the real deal, even though he had been upset in the French Open final by first-time Grand Slam finalist Andres Gomez. The critics, ever ready to heap scorn on Andre in those days, went to town on him after that one. But I wasn’t really aware of all that Andre was going through at the time because I had my own fish to fry.

Our two previous pro meetings were not a good preview of the Open final, because my game had grown by leaps and bounds in the summer of 1990. Andre couldn’t have had a handle on it, which had to be a little spooky for him – if he was aware of it all. I didn’t put much thought into such things – I was in the US Open final and felt like I had nothing to lose. A great deal of what was going on was way over my head, and any payback that my blissful ignorance would demand – and it definitely would ask a price – was not even on my horizon.

The stadium was packed for our match, but I felt relaxed and comfortable. After the wins over Lendl and McEnroe, I was utterly at ease with the situation and with my game. I had lived a fairy-tale US Open – the kind of tournament, really, that a kid would only invent in a fantasy. It was a saga that deserved a thrilling ending – an incredible see-saw battle, moments of realization, twists and turns in the flow of the match. But it wasn’t like that at all.

The match, at my end, was played in a fog of inevitability and invincibility. With my ground strokes working well, the final piece had fallen into place. I was in contact with the Gift. From the start, I was making Andre move around a lot, and he was missing quite a bit. Once again, I was serving huge – it was like I could hit an ace any time I wanted. To this day, I have a visceral memory of that feeling and rhythm. I could feel the ace coming before I hit it: All right, I’m gonna pop an ace, here it comes – boom! Ace!
And there it was.

I reached match point with Andre serving at 2-5 down in the third set and stood at the threshold of becoming the youngest US Open winner in history. I looked across at him and he looked very small, very far away. Yet the balls I was swinging at looked as big as grapefruits, and I felt I had all the time in the world to make my shots. Things get a little bent and distorted in the zone.

Andre was bouncing the ball, getting ready to serve. His hair was a little stringy from perspiration and he was almost glowing in that loud, lime green outfit. I got into my receiving crouch. Being up at least one service break and having a match point with the other guy serving is the ideal way to finish a match. There’s not a lot of pressure. You’re in position to hold one or two more times and end the match. On a medium to fast court, you love you chances as long as you have a solid serve – and don’t choke. You’re playing with house money; you can take a big cut on the return, risking nothing. Meanwhile, the guy serving to stay alive in the match is feeling the noose tighten.

Throughout his career Andre generally played fast. He was all business. But as big moments, everything slows down a little – and if it doesn’t, you have to make it slow down. That’s one of the first and most important things you need to know if you want to close out matches.

Andre bounced the ball, looking at his shoes, no doubt wondering whether he should go for an aggressive serve to win the point or play it safe and make me win it with a good shot. It’s easy in that situation to get overcautious, or overeager. That is one of the oldest dilemmas in the book, but it’s still a dilemma I’ll take at any time. I want to be the one to control the last point, for better or worse.

Andre bounced the ball one last time and went into that quick service motion of his. I was ready. Some six thousand miles away, at a mall near my family’s home in Palos Verdes, a slight man of Greek descent was walking around in a shopping mall with his wife. That was my mom and dad; they were too nervous to watch the match, so they decided to go shopping instead.

Andre hit a good serve and I returned with the backhand. It was a defensive, fend-off return that fell kind of short. He moved in to take a relatively easy forehand and he flubbed it, driving the ball into the net.

I put my arms in the air, and looked over at the player guest box. It was full of cheering people, but the only guy I knew in there was Joe Brandi. Across the continent, in that mall, my dad and mom were still wandering around, not knowing what had happened. It was some time before they strolled by an electronics store and saw that the televisions were all tuned to the US Open trophy presentation ceremony.

The kid on camera accepting the US Open men’s singles trophy was me. I had arrived, at blinding speed. But now I found myself in territory that was unfamiliar, and for which I was unprepared. There would be payback, because nobody gets a free ride.

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