Agassi's Image Wasn't Everything
August 28, 2006
By TOMMY HINE, Courant Staff Writer
-- He won 64 singles titles, 14 Grand Slam events.
But Pete Sampras could not have done it alone. He needed a rival, an antagonist. He had to have a motivator, an incentive.
Andre Agassi was the man. He was the one player always pushing Sampras' game up a notch. Sampras acknowledges it: Without Agassi, Sampras would not have been the player he was.
"When he and I played in the final of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, I played some of my best tennis," Sampras said recently. "I think the tennis we played was some of the best tennis ever. We both respected one another. There wasn't any ill will toward one another. As competitive as it was, I think we handled it really well.
"I've always said he's made me a better player, made me add some things to my game that against other guys I could get away with. You know, he's always going to be the one guy. When people ask me who my rival was, he's the one."
Four years ago, Sampras walked away from the game he raised to a new level. Over the next two weeks at his final U.S. Open, Agassi will leave tennis, too. Sampras left as the U.S. Open champion. Agassi, 36, begins play in this, the final competitive tournament of his career, sliding on the downside.
He begins with a first-round match against Romania's Andrei Pavel at 8:30 tonight. If Agassi wins, he will probably play No.8 Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus. Agassi might not survive even the first match, and unlike Sampras' grand finale, written to a Hollywood script, few expect Agassi to be wearing the Open crown when he leaves. But it's the perfect place to cap his career.
"It's my home turf," Agassi told the Los Angeles Times. "That's where I figure it's best to end. I really didn't think about it beyond where I really had some of my best memories. I grew up, it feels like, in front of New Yorkers.
"They taught me a lot about myself. They helped me grow personally and professionally. They made me a better tennis player and a better person. It's a great environment to be your last."
And the tennis world is loud and united in one voice: Current champion or not, Agassi's performance at this Open won't affect his 20-year pro legacy.
"We as a rivalry hit mainstream sports fans that might not be tennis fans but maybe tuned into the match," Sampras said.
"Our games were really different. Our personalities were different. Whenever I walked out there against Andre, I felt different than playing [Boris] Becker, [Michael] Stich or [Stefan] Edberg. There was a little more on it, both being American, 1-2 in the world. It was as close to a great rivalry as I think we've had in the sport the past 10, 15 years."
They played 34 matches against each other over three decades (1989-2002), including finals at three U.S. Opens, an Australian Open and one Wimbledon. Sampras won four of those finals and overall won 20 of the 34 head-to-head matches. Only once did either player win more than three meetings in a row.
"Andre has so many memories, so many stories," said Patrick McEnroe, a former pro who is now a CBS and ESPN commentator and the U.S. Davis Cup coach. "What I remember most about him is his disappointment in losing big matches, particularly at the U.S. Open in '02 and then taking that disappointment and coming back and training that much harder and going down to win in Australia the next year.
"As opposed to one moment, I'll remember more this bigger picture of a guy who came into tennis having very little respect for the history of the game and the traditions of the game, and now the guy is the spokesman for the game."
No one but Agassi should have been on the other side of the net when Sampras won the 2002 U.S. Open in his last competitive match, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4. In less than two weeks, Agassi will be gone from tennis, too.
"It's hard to put a number on it, where I see him," Sampras said. "I see him somewhere in the top 10 of the greats of all time, being able to win on all surfaces, being No.1 in the world.
"It's hard to say. Was he better than [Jimmy] Connors? [John] McEnroe? Just the generations [were different]. I just think it's hard to mention who was the best ever on the list. Each generation has its best players. I think in the '90s, he was one of the best players, with me included. It's hard to compare the eras and all that stuff. Just you know, [he is] one of the best."
Agassi played in 15 Grand Slam finals and won eight. In June, he announced that this U.S. Open would be his last.
"When he announced it, it was the end of an era," Sampras said. "He was a great player that brought a lot to the sport, brought a lot to my legacy, just in our matches. He's going to be missed, but at the same time, I think he knew it was time to move on. I think physically it's taken its toll the last few years. When that happens, it wears you down mentally to the point where you pretty much make it known that it's time to move on."
Never was there a more memorable match than the one Agassi won over James Blake in the U.S. Open quarterfinals last year, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6). It didn't end until after 1 a.m., and more than 20,000 fans were still in the stands. It was one of the classic matches in tennis, and Blake and Agassi hugged warmly at the end.
"He's one of the legends of the game," said Blake, 1-4 in his career against Agassi. "He's transcended our sport to become a superstar greater than the sport itself. In doing so, he's changed from a kid that cared about his long hair and his earrings to a guy that cares about the amount of money he raises for the school in Las Vegas or helping out the young guys like myself and Andy Roddick. That's what he cares about.
"We're all going to miss him. I hope he has enough gas in the tank. I'll attest to the fact that he did last year. I hope he does this year. He's an unbelievable champion. We're all proud of him. I hope he stays close to tennis because he has so much to give."
This isn't the way Agassi wanted to leave, limited to seven matches in the first five months of the season because of a back problem. He skipped the clay-court circuit and planned to return in June for the grass-court season.
Agassi lost in the Round of 64 to Tim Henman on grass at the Queen's Club in London, then he was eliminated in the Round of 32 by Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. Agassi has played only two hardcourt tournaments since.
"It's been disappointing this summer because we all wanted to see Andre go out with a bang at the U.S. Open," Patrick McEnroe said. "And by `with a bang,' I mean by playing well and, hopefully, getting into the second week and playing a top player well.
"I certainly won't sit here and tell you I expect Andre Agassi to win the U.S. Open. To be honest, I don't think he would say that either."
No matter how Agassi does against Pavel tonight or Baghdatis after that or another player even deeper in the tournament, his legacy is intact for the generations to follow.
"When you think about players who have had as much or more impact off the court as on, I think of two players - Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe," McEnroe said. "I think Andre Agassi could be another guy. I think he's got such perspective and smarts and drive and class that we may be talking about him in 20 years.
"He was a great tennis player, one of the greatest of all time. He won every major, but man, what he's done [off the court] is even more remarkable. There won't be too many dry eyes in Arthur Ashe Stadium when he walks off the last time."
Contact Tommy Hine at