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The New York Times
August 27, 1995, Sunday, Late
Edition - Final
A 90's Kind of Rivalry
By PETER DE JONGE;
EARLY ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 27, PETE SAMPRAS, THEN THE NO. 1-RANKED
TENNIS player in the world, and Andre Agassi, No. 2 with a bullet, boarded
a Concorde jet in New York City
to fly to London and then on to Sicily to represent the United States in a
Davis Cup match
against Italy. Not since 1984, when Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe seemed
to own the
sport, had two Americans been locked in such a furious competition for the
top
rung. Sampras and Agassi had each meticulously planned their schedules,
therefore, to give them the ideal proportion of action and rest needed to
peak at the
year's four Grand Slam tournaments. The Davis Cup was a huge disruption,
and
each had agreed to participate only if the other would. Even then, they
had to be cajoled into playing and promised the use of a private plane from
London to Sicily.
Unlike Connors and McEnroe, however, Sampras and Agassi didn't need a
straw-hatted emissary from the United States Tennis Association, beseeching
them to place love of country over contempt for each other. Despite the
one-on-one nature of tennis, a conflict of such focused and intimate
emotional
violence that a single exchange can leave a permanent ridge of psychic scar
tissue, Sampras and Agassi have always got along just fine.
It is true that Agassi once said of Sampras, whose long arms make him play
several inches taller than his 6-foot-1 height, that he looks as if he had
swung
onto the court from a tree. And last year, at a Nike shareholder
convention,
Agassi suggested that company engineers come up with something to keep
Sampras's tongue in his mouth. But in each case, Sampras accepted Agassi's
hastily faxed apology. On the credit side of Agassi's ledger, after all, is
the
time that he graciously agreed to delay a match so that Sampras could
recover
from food poisoning. Even Agassi's girlfriend, the actress Brooke Shields,
and
Sampras's girlfriend, a law student named Delaina Mulcahy, are friendly:
during Wimbledon this year, they shopped together at Harrods.
And so less than 18 hours after Agassi had beaten Sampras in the finals of
the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., a victory that would help
propel
Agassi to the No. 1 ranking two weeks later, they sat side by side on the
Concorde, Agassi by the window and Sampras on the aisle. Relishing the rare
opportunity to talk to each other's only true peer rather than the coaches
and
surrogate friends on their payrolls, they dissected their respective games
and
psyches like a pair of friendly hackers.
Recalling the conversation several weeks later in separate interviews, both
were still struck by the starkness of their differences. And while Agassi
confessed an appreciation for Sampras that borders on awe, Sampras was less
generous, bringing up only the parts of the conversation that reflected
better
on him. "Andre mentioned a point in the first set at the Lipton, where I
dove
for a volley," Sampras remembers. "He told me that if he ever dove for a
ball,
he'd look like a fool."
Sitting with Agassi in a hotel restaurant in Washington as he picks at a
bowl
of sliced fruit, I ask him about Sampras's recollection. "Pete's the kind
of
guy who can just decide you're not going to hit a lob over his head, even
if he
has to jump four feet into the air to get it," he says. "Me, I'll probably
let
it drop, and then wrack it." Besides, Agassi adds, "If a ball is about to
go by
me, I figure I've already done something seriously wrong."
What most impressed Agassi was how little Sampras leans on his coaches.
(Agassi is now coached by Brad Gilbert, who helped him climb from No. 32 to
No.
1 in a little more than a year; Sampras's coach is Paul Annacone, who
replaced
Tim Gullikson seven months ago when Gullikson withdrew to battle brain
cancer,
for which he is now undergoing chemotherapy.) "Pete said, 'Regardless of
what
Brad's done for you, you're the one who has to go out there and do it,' "
Agassi
told me in the restaurant. "I said, 'I totally agree with you, but he's
given me
a lot of important insights." He said, 'Like what?' And I was like, 'Well,
he's
directed me here and directed me there, and given me a game plan.' And Pete
was
shocked to think that's what a coach does. All he knows is someone who
makes
sure his toss is on line and helps with the fundamentals on some very basic
level. But nobody tells Pete how to play. Me, it's the opposite. I have all
the
shots, but what the hell do I do with them?"
Agassi, whose need to get naked is at the heart of his enduring charisma,
continued: "The one thing that Pete has over me, or I shouldn't say over
me, but
that I wish I had, is such a simple approach and raw belief that he is just
better than everybody. With me, it's different. Even at the level of being
No. 1
now for a while and winning tournaments and winning Slams, I still could
convince myself that, Geez, maybe I'm just not as good as I think I am."
Between them, Sampras and Agassi have won the last four Wimbledons, three
of the last five U.S. Opens and the last two Australian Opens, not to
mention
about $20 million in official cash (and unknowable millions more in
endorsements, much of it from Nike).
They represent opposite routes to the topof the tennis ladder. Agassi,
programmed since birth
to be a champion, only started to fulfill his talent after finally
conquering his resentment over the
lack of say in his own fate. Sampras, a "natural," suddenly bloomed at 19
with
a straight-set thrashing of Agassi at the 1990 U.S. Open, becoming its
youngest-ever champion, and has suffered nary a misstep since. Their
rivalry,
which has come to a boil this year, hasn't just rekindled interest in a
dying
game -- it's the whole show. Every major tournament begins with a fervent
collective prayer that Sampras and Agassi will meet in the finals. If they
do,
it's Aeschylus; if not, it's "Waterworld."
So far, unfortunately, it's been a pretty sodden summer. After three
memorable encounters at the start of the year, including Agassi's dramatic
win
over Sampras in the finals of the Australian, the year's first Grand Slam
event, Sampras and Agassi missed their date in both Paris and London. In a
fitting end to his disastrous clay-court season, Sampras lost in the first
round of the French Open while Agassi was beaten in the quarterfinals by
Yevgeny
Kafelnikov, a big, blond Russian who is No. 6 in the world. (Agassi then
blamed
the loss, rather unconvincingly, on a strained hipflexor.) At Wimbledon,
the
two seemed certain to meet in the finals after Sampras struggled past Goran
Ivanisevic in one semifinal, with Agassi set to play Boris Becker, whom
he'd
beaten eight straight times, in the other. But after shooting out to an
early
lead, Agassi crumbled, losing to Becker in four sets. In the final,
Sampras,
showing his best form in a year, dominated Becker and became the first
American man ever to win three straight Wimbledons.
With the late-summer return to the hard courts, the rivalry has slipped
back
into gear. On July 30, Sampras and Agassi played for the title in the du
Maurier Ltd. Open in Montreal, their first meeting in more than four
months.
Agassi pulled out a three-set victory, squaring the pair's pro records at
eight
wins each. Still, it is only fitting that their battle for supremacy, at
least
for 1995, should be settled on an American hard court, at the U.S. Open,
the
year's final Grand Slam event. "On a medium hard court, you can win from
the
back court and you can play serve and volley," Agassi says, "so it's the
perfect
surface on which to test our two different games." Starting tomorrow, they
will
each try to slog their way through the 128-man draw while contending not
only
with the August humidity but also with the singular stress of playing for
all
the marbles in New York City, where the late-night crowds bay at the moon
and
howl for blood. The Open is by far tennis's most gladiatorial spectacle,
where
two men enter and only one can leave. If it were staged by Aeschylus, of
course,
the two men would be Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
YOU MIGHT THINK THAT, THE MORE TIME ONE spent observing and talking to a
pair of extremely wealthy young athletes, both of whom left high school in
their
midteens and stand without rivals at the top of their sport -- as well as
the
marketing pyramid that props it up -- the more you would find they had in
common. But under such scrutiny, Sampras, 24, and Agassi, 25, emerge as
mirror
opposites. Their games and heads match up strength for strength, weakness
for
weakness, with perfect interlocking symmetry: Sampras has the best serve in
tennis, Agassi the best service return. Agassi has the nastiest
down-the-line
backhand, Sampras the best running forehand. Agassi has the most effective
and
best-concealed topspin lob, and Sampras, who is the sport's best leaper,
the
most explosive overhead.
Agassi's skills are oddball, eccentric and not even inherently athletic,
based on an ability to see and react to a tennis ball with uncanny speed
and
accuracy. In a rally from the back court, Agassi uses his hands and eyes to
make
the type of adjustments to the ball that most players make with their feet.
For
a long time, Agassi, who has a barrel chest and no-account legs, was
criticized
for his obsession with weight lifting, and in fact for a couple of years,
he did
appear more interested in bench-pressing twice his weight than in winning
tennis
matches. But watching Agassi swing at the ball with his short arms, you
notice
that he hits every ball just out in front of him and no more than a couple
inches on either side of his spinal column -- in effect, each stroke is
like a
small bench press.
Everything about Agassi's game is tight and compressed. Agassi reaching for
a
ball as little as a foot away is a crime against nature. He is the only
player
on the pro tour who never stretches; the only time he got a rubdown at
Wimbledon
was before the semifinal match that he lost to Becker. Even Agassi's smile
is
tight.
Sampras, meanwhile, is the sweetest, most fluid big cat in the jungle, with
tremendous power in the thighs and calves. When he is playing well,
everything
is loose, flowing, silent and deadly, and Sampras seems to simply kick back
and delight in what his body can do. For Sampras, tennis is a sensual
experience. After a four-day layoff following his Wimbledon victory, he
sorely
missed moving around a court and hitting balls. "I like the feel of the
ball
coming off the strings," he says. "I like the sounds. I just like to get
out
there and groove a little bit." Whereas Agassi's every second of court time
is
grunt labor -- with his sweaty bandanna and pigeon-toed strut, he'd look
right
at home on a construction site -- Sampras is a pureathlete. He plays.
The greatest difference between the two, though, may be that Sampras
operates from an unshakable belief that he has not yet laid eyes on the man
who
can take him down when he is playing well, while Agassi seems to be
motivated
just as effectively by ineradicable feelings of insecurity. That's why
Agassi
plays with such instant ferocity, trying to strip his opponent bare within
the
first few games of a match. Sampras, meanwhile, starts more slowly, is less
impressive in the early rounds of a tournament and plays with leonine
languor
until he gets in a bit of trouble. It's why every time Agassi steps on the
court, it's personal, while Sampras believes that whoever is across the net
is
irrelevant as long as he plays his game. As Brad Gilbert notes, Agassi
remembers
practically every point of every match, but Sampras often forgets he has
even
played someone.
Perhaps the reason why Sampras plays with so much more equanimity is that,
while tennis has deeply hurt Agassi, and at several times all but broken
him,
Sampras's career has been a stroll in the park. Agassi has had to clear one
psychic obstacle after another, but for Sampras, Agassi is his first real
challenge, the first opponent who he knows can beat him even if he plays
well.
"Pete needs someone who can give him a mental test," says Mats Wilander, a
former No. 1 player now finishing up his career. "Pete needs Andre more
than
Andre needs him."
In many ways, their well-marketed public personas run exactly counter to
the
way they play. Agassi may seem daring when he screws in his earrings or
laces up
his black sneakers or shaves off all his body hair, but on the court, he is
the
far more conservative and repetitive player of the two. He is also the
harder
worker, the more compulsively prepared, and as some o Sampras's recent
matches have shown, the better-conditioned. And while Sampras may look like
the boy that every father wants his daughter to bring home, he is all but
uncoachable and plays with almost reckless abandon. "Sampras is the more
artistic player," says Todd Martin, the No. 17 playerin the world, "Agassi
the
more solid."
It is Agassi, the putative bad boy whom Nike pitches as the creator of
rock-and-roll tennis, who is the born-again Christian and, if you can take
his
old pal Barbra Streisand's word for it, a "Zen master." A therapy graduate
and a
voracious reader of pop-psych authors like Marianne Williamson and Tony
Robbins
(whom Agassi has called "one of the most evolved people I've met"), Agassi
is
constantly seeking reassurances that he has changed, that he is getting
better.
Sampras, whose favorite line from literature is "Don't ever tell anybody
anything," from "The Catcher in the Rye," sees little need to change and
seems
perfectly content with who he is.
FIVE DAYS AFTER WIMBLEDON, SAMPRAS IS DRIPping onto the cement beside the
East Hampton pool of his coach, Paul Annacone, talking about the subdued
reaction to his third straight Wimbledon title. But he might just as well
be
referring to the uninformed reaction to himself in general.
On the court, Sampras turns himself into a conduit for his tennis, his
personality all but erased. You could watch every pro match he has ever
played
and not know a thing about him. Off the court, however, Sampras has no lack
of
personality. Muscular, hirsute, his kinky jet black hair swept back, he's
juiced
up, bristling with opinion and cynical wit, the very picture of brutal
youth.
Sampras "couldn't believe" that his Wimbledon victory didn't rate the cover
of
Sports Illustrated, which instead ran a story about the return of Monica
Seles,
who two years ago was attacked by a crazed,knife-wielding tennis fan. "I
mean,
she's playing a freaking exo," says Sampras, referring to her comeback
exhibition match against Martina Navratilova.
And Sampras offers an explanation for his scant postmatch praise of Greg
Rusedski, whom he beat in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. (In a brazen act of
self-promotion, Rusedski, a Canadian player whose mother is British, became
a
British subject just before the start of Wimbledon. After three early-round
victories, he all but declared himself the savior of British tennis.)
"Ninety-nine percent of the time," says Sampras, "even if I think a guy is
worth [expletive], I would say he's got some talent, and has some time to
improve. But I was so tired of hearing about Rusedski and listening to the
British media that I decided, if I kick his [expletive], I'm going to be a
little more opinionated."
One of the many revelations of the time I spent with Sampras is his foul
mouth. Obscenities are such a weight-bearing element in his terse syntax
that
with the expletives deleted, often all that's left is the name of the
guilty.
"[expletive] Rusedski!" he blurts out, for the sheer joy of it; later, when
I
remind him how frequently Brad Gilbert, Agassi's notoriously gregarious
coach,
brings up the fact that Gilbert is four and four in the eight times he met
Sampras as a player, he says, "[expletive] Brad!" He tries to point out the
meaninglessness of the statistic. "I mean, this [expletive] guy here is 1-0
against me," Sampras says, pointing to Annacone, who is wading in the
shallow
end with a silly grin, not quite sure whether to look proud or insulted.
"You
want to humble Brad, just ask him about the Slams," says Sampras, who is
well
aware that, despite the $5 million in prize money that Gilbert has earned
in a
long career as a sort of overachieving bottom-feeder, he never advanced
beyond
the quarterfinals in any of the four major tournaments. "Just ask him about
the
Slams."
I pass along something that Pete Fischer, Sampras's first and most
influential coach, recently told me: Gilbert, Fischer believes, has the
greatest mind in tennis and he was always Fischer's first choice to coach
Sampras if he couldn't do it himself. Sampras rolls his eyes. "Brad's got a
good heart, but I couldn't take all that talking, discussing every angle,
every
shot," he says. "Whenever we used to practice together, I'd say, 'Brad,
would
you just shut the [expletive] up for 30 minutes.' "
"Brad's got a lot to offer," Annacone throws in graciously.
"Yeah, too much," says Sampras.
Sampras has gone out of his way to give credit to Tim Gullikson for
helping get him from No. 5 in the world to No. 1, and his feelings were
painfully obvious when, after learning that Gullikson had cancer, Sampras
broke down and cried on the court during his semifinal match in the
Australian
Open. But since splitting with Fischer when he was 18, Sampras has seemed
to
value his coaches more for their company than their wisdom. When Annacone,
still
wading nearby, starts expounding tennis theory, saying that a player is
always
plotting to take away the amount of time his opponent has to return a shot,
either by hitting the ball hard or hitting it early, Sampras, without
taking
his eye off the little poolside basketball hoop he's shooting at, just
says,
"Nonsense."
"Nonsense," in fact, may be Sampras's favorite word, a blanket assessment
that covers just about everything his eye takes in. Not without reason, he
has
come to see himself as tennis's one truly sane man, trying to navigate a
sea of
posturing lunatics; for all its perquisites, the job is starting to try his
patience. Sampras refers to his time in Sicily with Agassi as "the whole
Davis
Cup nonsense," pointing out that although players like to milk the
international
competition for all the patriotic P.R. they can, "no one in America really
cares about the Davis Cup. Do you even know how the how the systems of ties
and
everything works?"
The more Sampras reveals of himself, the more it seems that his admiration
for Agassi does not extend much beyond his ability to hit a tennis ball.
When I
ask what he specifically likes about Agassi, intending him to cite some
attractive human quality, he draws a blank, then says, "I like the way he
travels," referring to Agassi's private jet.
Just as all the tennis talk is getting laborious, Delaina Mulcahy,
Sampras's girlfriend, wanders out toward the pool. She's got a towel
wrapped
around her thin waist like a sarong, and she's waving her arms in the air.
"The
best thing about Pete and Andre," she announces, "arethe girls."
She sits down next to Sampras. "Pete, it's beautiful here. We should get a
place here."
"We hardly spend any time in our one house and you want to get a second
place," says Sampras. "Nonsense."
Sampras and Mulcahy, 30, who is entering her final year of law school, live
in Tampa in a huge house beside a golf course. She is Sampras's first
girlfriend, and they have been together five years.
"Darling," she says, "tell him how we met."
"After I won the Open, she saw me holding the check, and said, 'I'm going
to
get me some of that.' "
"No, seriously," says Mulcahy.
"Seriously?" says Sampras. "I was doing this exhibition and we went out one
night, and she fell totally in love with me."
"He always get it backwards," says Mulcahy, examining her manicure.
 

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Discussion Starter #2
The real version seems to be that Sampras, who was 19 and had never been on
a date before he turned pro, called Mulcahy the day
after they met and asked her to spend a week with him in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"Our
first date lasted a week," says Mulcahy. (Agassi, by contrast, exchanged
faxes
with Brooke Shields every day for three months before risking the exchange
of
anything more intimate. Perhaps because they have so much in common --
former
childhood stars who both survived an overzealous stage parent -- they have
since locked into what they each describe as a solid and happy
relationship.)
Sampras and Mulcahy start to goof around by the edge of the pool. He throws
her in, twice, the second time eliciting a warning: "I'll remember this
when
it's time to get horizontal." At this moment, at least, Pete Sampras seems
like an exceedingly normal 24-year-old.
In fact, his only eccentricity may be the sacredness with which he regards
his sleep. Under the right circumstances, he can go for 12 hours at a
stretch.
He turns the air-conditioning on full blast, snaps the sheets as tight as a
drum
and insists that Mulcahy not so much as touch him until he wakes up. It's
as if
Sampras doesn't let anyone, even his girlfriend, near his subconscious.
ANDRE AGASSI, ON THE OTHER HAND, tends to run his
psyche like an open house, particularly if a visitor can help him play
better
tennis. On an early Friday afternoon in the middle of this year's Wimbledon
tournament, Agassi and Gilbert were working out on the grass practice
courts at
Aorangi Park. In his first two overpowering wins, against Andrew Painter
and Patrick
McEnroe, Agassi had hit two or three stone-cold service return winners each
game, often sending the ball back 20 miles per hour faster than it had
arrived. But
for Agassi's third-round opponent, David Wheaton, Gilbert was preaching the
rewards of moderation, and Agassi was listening intently.
"If you rip it, he just keeps charging in, where all he has to do is
react,"
Gilbert explains. "Slow him down, make him hesitate,
and he's got to think about it. That's when he gets nervous." Instead of
whaling
on the ball, Gilbert says, Agassi should hit low, dipping topspin returns
that
will freeze Wheaton. Gilbert serves a half-dozen balls and Agassi responds
as
instructed.
Agassi's first tennis coach was his Armenian-born father, Mike Agassi, who
had immigrated to the States after competing in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics
for
the Iranian boxing team. On the day that Andre first opened his eyes, Mike
Agassi tied a tennis ball to a string and dangled it
over his crib -- "to get him to follow the ball." When Andre was old enough
to
sit in a high chair, Mike taped half a Ping-Pong paddle to his hand and
tossed
balloons at him, "to teach him timing." And a few years later, Mike put
Andre on
the cement court he had built in the backyard of the family's Las Vegas
home
and began bombarding him with hundreds of balls a day, spat out by 11
machines
capable of manufacturing every kind of spin or angle.
Mike Agassi had long harbored the goal that one of his children would be a
champion. After the first three Agassis burned out early, Andre was his
last,
best hope. He was a pure prodigy, a toddler who hit with topspin, moving
into
the junior-tournament circuit at 7 and, before heturned 13, rallying with
at
least half a dozen pros who came through Vegas.
Through the lens of psychotherapy, Agassi now sees the earliest stages of
his
tennis education as a mild form of child abuse. In an interview with Tennis
magazine, Jim Courier recalled a junior tournament at which Mike Agassi
took
Andre's runner-up trophy and threw it in the trash. These days,
communication
between father and son is cordial but sparse. When I ask Mike Agassi what
advice
he might offer if his son were to meet Sampras in the finals of the U.S.
Open,
he says: "Why should I tell him anything? He hasn't listened to a thing
I've
said for three years."
At 13, Andre was shipped off to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the
notorious Florida tennis factory. Two days after his 16th birthday, Agassi
turned professional, with Bollettieri, a law-school dropout who had never
played
competitive tennis, as his coach. In one early stretch
as a pro, Agassi lost in the first round of nine straight tournaments, an
experience that left him bawling on a Washington park bench, where he was
comforted by a minister who traveled with the pro tour -- the same minister
who
not long before had helped Agassi become a born-again Christian.
By the time Agassi was 18, he was No. 3 in the world, having made the
semifinals of two Grand Slams and won several smaller tournaments. Still,
except
for his victory at Wimbledon in 1992, he spent the next six years going
either
sideways or down, losing three Grand Slam finals in which he was heavily
favored. And yet, his celebrity grew ever higher, even when he was losing
and
showing up overweight for tournaments. The media began to think of him more
as
marketing phenomenon than tennis champion.
Bollettieri, expressing disgust with Agassi's lack of commitment, very
publicly severed their relationship, although Mike Agassi insists that his
son's
"firing" was a pre-emptive strike -- that Andre had offered to keep
Bollettieri
on contract, but had told him he needed to work with someone who knew what
it
was like to deal with on-court pressures.
That someone was Brad Gilbert, whose own career was in its late stages. In
jumping from Bollettieri to Gilbert (after experimenting briefly with a
handful
of other ex-pros), Agassi went from a coach with zero competitive
experience to
one of the most astute strategists ever. And because Gilbert was still
playing,
he had a current book on every player on tour.
Gilbert immediately went to work on Agassi's head, addressing the Grand
Slam
opportunities that Agassi had blown. "First of all," recalls Gilbert, "I
told
him those suckers are gone. There's nothing you can do to get them back."
Then
he convinced Agassi that all his failures were essentially due to lousy
coaching. "When he came to me, he was a diamond that was uncut," says
Gilbert.
"He could play some great tennis, but there were flaws all over the place."
Perhaps the most central flaw was Agassi's apparent lack of grit, evidenced
by his history of giving up once he got behind in a match. Gilbert, a
ferocious
competitor who as an apprentice pro won 28 straight matches in qualifying
events, has no tolerance for quitters. But instead of delivering his
message as
an ultimatum, as Mike Agassi might have, Gilbert reminded Agassi how
interminably painful it would be to look back on his career with regret.
When
Gilbert took over, Agassi was floundering badly and seemed destined to go
down
as one of the game's most underachieving great
talents. Within a year, he won the U.S. Open and the Australian Open; so
far this
year, he hasn't lost a single match short of the quarterfinals, nor to
anyone
outside the top 20. "If Brad had been my coach earlier, I think I would
have been
No. 1 in the world when I was 18," Agassi says, with more regret than
hubris.
One of the most fascinating aspects of their collaboration is the way that
Gilbert has built the new Andre without extirpating the old one. Gilbert
isn't
denying that Agassi got tight at the end of his Wimbledon match with Becker
("Hey, everybody chokes sometimes -- everybody," he says) or even that
Agassi
got that old spooked look in his eyes; but he makes the valid point that
Agassi
never stopped fighting. "There was no point in that match where I thought
Andre
was going to lose until they said, 'Game, set, match: Becker.' If I ever
thought
Andre wasn't trying in a single match, I'd have a real problem with that."
Because of Agassi's fragile feelings about himself, Gilbert is just as
concerned with keeping him from getting too pumped up too early in a
tournament
as he is with him going down -- particularly because
his toughest competitor, Sampras, often looks sluggish in the early
rounds."I
tell Andre that it don't matter that you're crushing everybody and Pete's
struggling," Gilbert told me at Wimbledon, "because second place don't mean
nothing to
either one of you. Pete's like a pitcher who wins 7-6 because that's all he
needs to pitch that day, and then the next day, when he has to, goes out
and throws
a 1-0 gem. I keep telling Andre to beware of the wounded bear."
Now, as Gilbert and Agassi are nearing the end of their workout at Aorangi
Park, still plotting how to knock off David Wheaton, Agassi asks, "What
percentage should I serve to his forehand?" as if he'll be toting a
calculator
in his shorts. They keep hitting as Gilbert spews out a steady stream of
exhortation and non sequitur. "When the bell goes off, you got to come
strong!"
he shouts across the net. And: "Steffi's looking thin, she's looking
razor-thin."
And: "I swear, I couldn't get that broccoli soup out of my mind
last night," to which Agassi responds, "Yeah, that can give you a foot
cramp."
The talk always returns to strategy, though, and Agassi can't get enough.
Despite the nearly miraculous results, there is something about Gilbert's
nonstop coaching and Agassi's rapt attention that is just a little much,
suggesting that the whole exercise serves more as an emotional balm than a
point-for-point battle plan. This seems especially true when, a few minutes
later, Gilbert and Agassi are replaced on the same court by Paul Annacone
and
Pete Sampras, who, in their own practice session, casually hit for 45
minutes
without exchanging a single word.
ACCORDING TO Sampras family lore, Pete taught himself to play by hitting
against a wall with a racquet he had found in the basement. One weekend
morning
when Pete was 9, his father, an engineer for NASA, took him to the Jack
Kramer
Tennis Club in Manhattan Beach, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Pete
Fischer, a
pediatrician who grew up in Yonkers, was just getting off the court, and
Sam
Sampras asked him to hit with his son. When they were through, Sam asked
how
much Fischer would charge to do it regularly. "Nothing," said Fischer. Thus
began one of the least likely coach-athlete pairings in the history of
sports.
"You have to see him," says Sampras of Fischer. "He's bald with glasses,
about 6 foot 2, has a bad back, is kind of hunched over and a little
overweight.
He's like a mad scientist. He tried to put his brain in my body."
Fischer, 53, still lives near Los Angeles, and works about 80 hours a week
caring for critically premature infants at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital.
He
recalls that before he met Sampras, he had speculated with a friend what
might
happen "if a pure athlete, somebody like Willie Mays, had taken up tennis."
And
now here he was, rallying with a silent little kid whom Fischer sensed with
frightening surety might indeed be tennis's Willie Mays. "He hit every ball
square center, where he wanted to hit it," Fischer says. "You can't
conceive of
how good he was unless you were there." (In fact, until Sampras won the
U.S.
Open, Fischer often feared that he had disastrously tampered with history
by
encouraging him to play tennis instead of baseball.)
Fischer's own tennis education was limited to six lessons he got one
summer,
courtesy of his father, a toy salesman. Still, he was immediately aware of
the
responsibility with which he had been entrusted, andapplied himself to
Sampras's development with the dispassionate objectivity of a scientist and
the unshakable confidence of a New Yorker. "Pete doesn't sugarcoat it,"
Sampras says. "He tells the truth."
With his parents' blessing, Sampras started spending all his free time with
Fischer. They played on the hospital's courts three or four days a week
after
school, and at the club on weekends. Fischer's first step was to establish
appropriate goals. "From the very beginning," he says, "the competition was
always Laver, and it still is." (Rod Laver holds the record for the most
major
singles crowns, 11, and he is the only player ever to win the Grand Slam --
all
four major tournaments in the same year -- twice.) "Pete is still five
majors
and two Grand Slams behind Laver," Fischer says, "and he knows it as well
as I
do."
Fischer was blunt in his criticism, but hisemphasis was always on the long
term; to discourage Sampras from obsessing aboutjunior trophies, he had him
play a bracket or two above his age. "That might have been the difference
between him and Mike Agassi," Sampras says. "Andre's father was more
concerned
with winning."
Sampras was 9 when he first ran into Andre Agassi, who was 10, at a
tournament in Northridge, Calif. They were both tiny for their age, and
Sampras recalls that Agassi beat him easily, hitting almost nothing but
trick
shots. "He toyed with me for about two hours,"Sampras says.
By the time Sampras was 13, Fischer was showing him tapes of Laver, and
talking very specifically about winning Wimbledon. Until he was 14, his
best
shot was a two-handed backhand, but after Fischer concluded that a
serve-and-volley game was necessary to dominate the majors, and that no
player
with a two-handed backhand had ever been a great volleyer, Sampras was
obliged
to drop it. "I was losing matches and losing confidence," Sampras says,
"but
Pete insisted that this was something that hopefully was going to help me
win
the U.S. Open and Wimbledon one day, and I trusted him."
Sampras's game changed so dramatically that his psyche had to adjust. "When
I was 14, I was such an intense little kid," he says. I played just like
Chang,
grinding from the baseline. When I started serving and
volleying, I became much more laid-back." Sampras discovered that that
there
is an entirely different psychology between being a serve-and-volleyer and
a
base-liner, puncher andcounterpuncher. And he found that being the puncher
was a whole lot more pleasant. At the same time, Fischer began banging home
the message that Sampras's only opponents were himself and history.
"He's Pete Sampras, " says Fischer. "He shouldn't care who is on the other
side
of the net."
The transformation of Sampras's game would ultimately account for his
stunning success, but it was probably also responsible for the collapse of
his
relationship with Fischer. "Until I was 16," Sampras says, "I did
everything
Pete said. But then I started to rebel." The biggest struggle was over
Sampras's serve. Fischer never intended for it to become as huge as it has,
and believes that its dominance has fouled the harmonyof Sampras's
serve-and-volley game. Fischer still thinks thatSampras should take some
speed off his first serve, get a higher percentage inand win more points
with
his first volley. As it is now, he thinks Sampras istoo dependent on how
well
his serve happens to be working on any given day:"Pete should realize he
doesn't need free points to win," Fischer says.
"Nothing is more demoralizing than getting aced a lot," counters Sampras.
"We have this discussion every time I go to Los Angeles and we go out to
dinner.
He knows how I feel, I know how he feels. I just think he's wrong."
Fischer's reply: "I've always said that Pete is like my Doberman, Hitler.
You've got to hit him with a two-by-four to get his attention."
Since Fischer, Sampras's coaching has consisted of little more than
tweaking and polishing. Joe Brandi, who was coaching Sampras when he came
out
of nowhere in 1990 to beat Agassi and win the U.S. Open, was a quiet
caretaker
of Sampras's game. Even Gullikson, whom Sampras hired in 1992 and who
helped
him make the jump to No. 1, instituted very few significant changes. Like
Fischer, Gullikson wanted Sampras to play more serve-and-volley, but it was
hard to argue with Sampras's success. Last year, until a foot injury
essentially wiped out his summer, he was having one of the most dominating
years
in tennis history, winning at Australia and Wimbledon and six other
tournaments.
Even Gullikson's illness, while it plainly affected
Sampras, hardly distracted from his tennis. In fact, in the five years
since
he won his first Open, he has been almost numbingly excellent. The result
is a
confidence that is as genuine as it is low-key. "The guy has just never
said
an arrogant thing, even in private," says Annacone, who is still considered
Sampras's interim coach in anticipation of Gullikson's eventual return.
"When he
won Wimbledon this year, all he said was, 'I feel really good.' "
ONE WAY THAT THE SOUL of professional tennis reveals itself these days is
in
the parceling out of seats in the players' boxes at Wimbledon and the three
other majors. One seat goes to your coach, one to your trainer, one to your
agent, one to the person you're most publicly havingsex with and one to the
administrator of your sneaker contract. For both Sampras and Agassi, that
is
Ian Hamilton, Nike's director of sports marketing, tennis division.
Nike has so insinuated itself into the Sampras -Agassi rivalry that one
occasionally wonders if it is really just some elaborate plan to hawk
sneakers.
(At Wimbledon, Nike plastered its oversize images on a double-decker bus
that
shuttled between the tournament site and the train station, and throughout
the
summer, Nike has broadcast a television commercial called "Guerilla
Tennis," in
which Sampras and Agassi jump out of a cab, string up a net and start going
at
it in the middle of a city street.) For all the prize money that each
player
earns, about $2 million a year, it's only a fraction of what Nike pays
them. So
beyond being competitors, Sampras and Agassi are fellow employees competing
for the affection of Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike -- who, after
Sampras's
Wimbledon victory this year, gave Sampras and Delaina Mulcahy a lift home
in
his private plane.
Each year, Nike rents an exquisite stone manse in Wimbledon, which, for the
duration of the tournament, is known as Nike House. One morning during this
year's tournament, Ian Hamilton ushered me past a security guard, a burly
Brit
with tattooed knuckles, and into the huge Nike House living room. In very
broad
strokes, he declared just how important Sampras and Agassi are to his
company.
While Sampras didn't sign on until just before the 1994 Wimbledon
tournament, Agassi has been with Nike since the beginning. In fact,
Hamilton was
one of the first people Agassi called from the Bollettieri Tennis Academy
when
he was about to turn pro, and Hamilton immediately dipped into a pile of
discretionary money he calls "my gut-feeling fund." Two years later, a
marketing
juggernaut was born when Agassi made the semifinals of the French Open in a
pair
of denim Nike shorts that John McEnroe had refused to wear. Agassi,
relentlessly
colorful and highly quotable, recently signed a10-year contract with Nike,
reported to be worth between $100 million and $150 million. One reason why
Hamilton won't name the exact figure is probably because Sampras is paid so
much less -- although Jeff Schwartz, Sampras's agent, says that each
player's
Nike compensation is tied to various performance clauses, making it
impossible
to predict exactly how much Sampras -- or Agassi -- will actually earn.
Hamilton invites me out back to the garden and opens a toolshed. Neatly
stacked are hundreds of pairs of grass-court sneakers, which Nike supplies
to
its players at Wimbledon and Queen's Club, the Wimbledon tuneup. The
surplus
sneakers, says Hamilton, will be airlifted to Africa when the tournament is
over. Arranged by size, they are available in just two models: the Andre
Agassi
and the Pete Sampras. The Agassi is a three-quarter-height model covered
with
odd little weltlike bumps; the Sampras is a more traditional low model.
"Andre
appeals to the young and the young at heart," Hamilton recites, "while Pete
is
the perfect ambassador for our new Swoosh collection."
There is an intriguing footnote, as it were, to Nike's role in the
Sampras -Agassi rivalry, having to do with the sneakers that the company
hastily prepared for Sampras last year when he jumped to Nike. According to
sources close to Sampras, the new sneakers didn't fit him quite right and
were
the start of the foot problems that sidelined him last summer. Which may be
why Sampras resorted to the sort of trick that has long been practiced by
tennis pros who are cynical or reluctant endorsers: until Nike came up with
a
shoe that truly fit, Sampras briefly went back to his old sneakers -- with
a
Nike swoosh painted on.
EVEN WITHOUT NIKE'S boosterism, the Sampras -Agassi rivalry would have
become a riveting one, all the more so for the inevitability with which it
has
unfolded. As far back as the junior circuit, astute tennis observers --
Pete
Fischer among them -- saw Sampras and Agassi as the two best talents of
their
generation; even then, Fischer had no trouble picturing them 15 years down
the
road, No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, settling the score on the hard courts
of the
U.S. Open.
For Agassi, the Open is where, as an 18-year-old semifinalist, he first
displayed the scale of his talent and charisma, later showed the weird
chinks in
his competitive psyche -- and then last year startled everyone by finding
the
will to overcome them. For Sampras, the Open is where, in one two-week
period
in 1990, all the careful plans of a street-smart pediatrician bore fruit,
and
the teen-age Sampras revealed what most authorities consider the most
devastatingly complete game ever. The Open is also where Sampras suffered
 

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his
most painful defeat, to Stefan Edberg in the 1992 finals, which five months
later was still keeping him up at night. "That loss really burned my
stomach,"
he says. "It made me realize just how bad it feels to lose a Grand Slam
final,
how the only player that people care about is the one who gets his name
engraved
on the trophy."
Coming into the Open, Agassi couldn't be riding any higher: as of last
week,
he had won all of his hard-court tuneups. In the sticky heat of Washington,
he
beat Edberg despite vomiting four times during the final. In Cincinnati,
after
Sampras wilted in the heat during a quarterfinal match, Agassi pounded
Michael
Chang for the title. And in Montreal, Agassi outdueled Sampras in the
final,
3-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Although Agassi and Sampras are now dead even in head-to-head competition,
they're not quite equals. As Agassi put it after his win at Montreal: "The
first
thing you do when you get on the court with Pete is try not to be
embarrassed.
Once you've done that, you think about winning." It almost seems as though
Agassi, even more than Sampras himself, acknowledges that Sampras is the
more talented player, and that if Sampras is playing and particularly
serving
at the top of his game, there is very little that Agassi or anyone else can
do
to affect the outcome. But rather than being paralyzed by this knowledge,
Agassi
is liberated by it. Every time he steps on the court against Sampras, he
plays
like someone who has very little to lose, while Sampras, who feels that he
absolutely should win, tightens up. Agassi has lost the first set in each
of
their last four matches, but came back to win three.
"Pete is the best player of all time," declares Mike Agassi. "He's got the
best serve, the best volley -- the way he moves, nobody knows how fast he
is. If
he is serving well, the match could be over in 53 minutes. But if Andre
stays
with him, then mentally Pete starts to fall apart."
If all goes according to seed, at 4 P.M. two weeks from today in Flushing
Meadows, Queens, Agassi and Sampras will make the 100-yard walk from the
locker room to the Louis Armstrong Stadium Court, toting their huge bags
filled
with some dozen racquets each, surrounded by terse security guards with
sunglasses and walkie-talkies. For all the middle-class trappings of the
game,
the atmosphere at ground level will be as raw and electric as when robed
boxers
make a midnight walk to a raised ring. As Agassi and Sampras make their
way,
it will certainly not occur to them that they may represent the one
exception to
the winner-take-all notion of sports, which is that
over the course of their careers, two athletes can become so intertwined
that
what is remembered is not the outcome of their various matches, but the
quality
of their rivalry. If both players can each hold up their end of the bargain
long enough,
no one has to go down in history alone. They can make the walk side by
side.
 
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