Rewind 2001: Pete Sampras' US Open Nail-Biter over Andre Agassi

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Rewind 2001: Pete Sampras' US Open Nail-Biter over Andre Agassi
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Traditions are to be honored. The rarity of a surface is to be appreciated. The natural origin of the lush green carpet is to be revered. The rich yet subtle feeling of grandeur created by the strawberries and the reflections of the skies on the dew drops is to be enjoyed.

But it seems a bit weird that one needs to celebrate tennis under the absolute imprisonment of muted claps, colorless reverence, and imposed discipline.

When one needs to celebrate, one has no place for festivities like this one. The concordance of the seeming discordance of the crowd noise, the confluence of seemingly immiscible colors, the freedom.

The true gladiatorial nature of the battle under the lights gets to you more than in any other place under such an atmosphere. You cheer not with your heart, but with your life.

"Screw the rules! When I want to cry out to my favorite player, I must be able to do it!"

And there are not many matches in the past decade that might have raised the sound and the tension to greater levels than when Pete Sampras squared off against Andre Agassi in the quarterfinals of the 2001 US Open.

Both are antonyms of each other in many ways.

One man shut himself out from the world during his career and is widely known as a media introvert. The other was a crowd favorite and media savant.

One seemed unimaginative in his sense of fashion. The other flaunted bright colors.

One seemed lethargic between points, ready to drop dead the next moment. The other was full of bustling activity and fidgety movements.

One man arguably had the best service of all times. The other was the best returner of serves.

The tennis, when you bring matter and anti-matter together, can be explosive.

And it was so that night. No matter how deep a trough Sampras's career was in at that moment, the anticipation was always there when he squared off against his greatest rival. It was a Grand Slam tournament, and only in Grand Slams did "Pistol" bring out the real ammunition.

Sampras served out his bombs at regular intervals, attacked the net like a predator, and dished out winners from the base-line on many occasions. Sampras' formula for holding serve was never to be doubted—it was tried and tested for 13 Grand Slam titles. What if the best returner is on the other side of the net? You decide where you put the ball.

Agassi predominantly served to Sampras' weaker wing—his backhand. To mix it up, he served to Sampras' forehand side (mostly with his first serves) on occasion. Extracting a weak reply, he went for the kill with crushing winners on both flanks.

There were a lot of competitive service games in which Agassi would send back a serve at the speed it came and started dominating the ensuing rally, finally extracting the winner.

There were others in which Sampras would find his way to the net behind a deep slice and then send away the return for a line-kissing volley.

Sampras is no pushover from the baseline, however. He can stand his own from the baseline against almost anyone, but Agassi has one of the best passing shots. Due to this, and, of course, some errors, never were the "competitive games" good enough to earn either player a break of serve.

There was nothing unexpected in this match with regard to how the players would play each other. Sampras depended on his serve, aggressive instincts, and athleticism. Agassi depended on his hand-eye coordination (step into the shot and take it very, very early) to get the upper hand in rallies, his ability to churn out passing shots, and his return of serve.

The variety on show was amazing! Aces, laser-guided volleys, running forehands, and slam dunks from Sampras. Blistering ground strokes off both flanks, crushing returns, clean passing shots from Agassi.

Perhaps that Agassi played a bit conservative in this match (not exactly going for the lines, but a foot inside) is indicative of the way his playing style had changed during that time to cut down on unforced errors (he had very few in the match, but a good percentage came in the tie-breakers).

The execution was breath-taking. Both men played out their plans to an equal level, leading to absolutely no breaks of serve in the whole match. There were dozens of games in which neither player even faced a break point. Each set was taken deservedly to the tiebreakers.

The first set tiebreaker was lost by Sampras in dramatic fashion, as he lost three set points. A forehand winner from Agassi on serve, a forehand error from Sampras again on the Agassi serve, and a mishit volley from the curly-haired American saved all three set points for Agassi.

Sampras shoved another forehand into the net, unsettled by a deep lob from Agassi. Agassi then double-faulted, seemingly throwing away his chance, but an angry serve down the tee next found no reply from Sampras. Sampras then (mis)directed a routine volley into the net to gift Agassi the first set.

Everything pointed to an Agassi win at that point. He was perhaps among the fittest players on tour at that moment, and his second coming to tennis had been hugely successful.

Sampras was in a slump, and had lost all of his previous three meetings with his rival. It seemed that Agassi would weather down Sampras' will and stamina soon.

But it was not to be, as an inspired Sampras ran away with the second set tiebreaker.

He opened it with perhaps the best shot of the mach. Agassi served out wide to Sampras' forehand and got a short midcourt ball in reply. He slammed the ball toward Sampras' backhand corner and advanced to the net to dismiss anything that came back—if it came back—into the open court.

But on the dead run, on his backhand side, Sampras could do only one thing against that blistering stroke: slice—and slice he did! The ball sailed diagonally across the court, passing Agassi, who was in the service box lunging for the ball on his backhand side, for a winner, just kissing the line.

After a couple of blistering volleys and some errors, the score was 5-2, Sampras. Agassi served again to the Sampras backhand, extracted a weak slice, and went about business drilling strokes at his rival.

Going for the angle on Sampras' forehand was perhaps not such a great idea. On the run, Sampras went cross-court with his running forehand, forcing an error. On the next serve, again Sampras stepped into a short Agassi shot and approached the net following a powerful forehand. Agassi went straight for Sampras, but his reflexes stood him in good stead, allowing him a volley and the set.

The third set tiebreaker was not so eventful as the first couple. Agassi virtually gifted Sampras the set with a lot of unforced errors.

The fourth set tiebreaker was again a thriller but was won because the other man made more errors. After trading early mini-breaks, Sampras got another mini-break with a backhand down-the-line pass.

Agassi then mishit an easy volley to give Sampras the advantage. Sampras, on his part, double-faulted and lost a point as he netted a volley. On Agassi's serve, Sampras still had a set point, and he took it when his rival netted a forehand.

As the players assessed the match afterward, the showdown came down to really a few big points in which Sampras could step up his game on a many of them but was also a bit lucky on some.

It is not everyday that evenly matched players of such contrasting styles bring out the best in each other. When the styles are contrasting, and the weapons are not only distinct but also opposites of each other, where one's shots are exactly what are necessary to counter the other's, there is the feeling that everything about this match fits in splendidly like the minute pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle.

A match for the ages!

Final Score: Pete Sampras def. Andre Agassi, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5)


Please read the previous instalment of the "Rewind" series for the US Open here.

Highlights of this match can be viewed here.

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