In the Zone with Pete Sampras, Part Two

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In the Zone with Pete Sampras, Part Two
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After Pete Sampras spent most of 1995 chasing Andre Agassi in the rankings, then defeated him in the final of the US Open, Tennis magazine wrote that Sampras “never again needs to prove how good he is.”

If only that were true. Up to his retirement, Sampras never had to stop proving himself.

To begin with, he fell short in the first three slams of 1996 and had to win the last to maintain his No. 1 ranking. He also struggled in the first half of 1998, and went into Wimbledon playing like the world’s “10th-best” player, according to nemesis Richard Krajicek.

And going into the 1999 Wimbledon tournament, he was once again at risk of being overshadowed by Agassi, who had just capped a career Grand Slam by winning Roland Garros: Sampras had won only one title for the year, and it had come just two weeks prior at Queen’s Club.

Not that it mattered: Pete Sampras believed in Pete Sampras in each of the previous occasions and was vindicated. Going into Wimbledon 1999, it was only matter of time before he brought everyone else around.

His first convert would be Agassi: Following his recovery from the career low of 1997 (which, we recently learned, was a lot lower than we’d suspected), Double-A was not only in the shape of his life but was now more confident than ever.

The serve was never his go-to shot, but he had long used it to set up his peerless ballstriking and allow him to work his opponents’ legs over.

Following his Paris triumph, Agassi was so confident in his fitness and movement that he began using his first serve as a weapon, assured that he could win plenty of second serves with his quick feet and hands.

As the game’s best pure hitter and returner began serving with authority, he plowed through the Wimbledon draw, losing only two sets along the way, and crushing No. 2 seed Patrick Rafter in the semis.

His game was good enough to stay with anyone, including the best grass-court player of his generation on the Centre Court lawns.

For about six games, anyway. Serving at 3-3 in the seventh game, Sampras found himself down 0-40 against his greatest rival, with one more lost point putting him down a break on the surface least forgiving of service games that slip away.

Still, Pete Sampras believed in Pete Sampras: Agassi may have been the best returner in the game, but Sampras had the best serve, and the server controls where the point’s first shot is going.

He didn’t have to hit aces: First serves that land on lines or in corners while traveling in the neighborhood of 120 mph are usually enough to ensure the ball won’t be coming back.

With four overhead swings of his Wilson, The Pistol erased Agassi’s break-point chances and gave himself a game point. In takes no stretch of the imagination to see those serves caused Double-A’s missed return on the game’s last point.

From then on, Sampras not only believed, but knew: What his serve started, his running forehand (particularly against Agassi’s wide serve in the deuce court) carried the rest of the way.

The sudden uptake in pace deprived Double-A of adequate time to set up, and soon Sampras was up a break and every shot in his considerable repertoire was on target.

Agassi had seen Sampras in The Zone before: In the 1990 US Open final Agassi was encumbered by expectations for his first major, while Sampras was a bony kid with an explosive serve, too inexperienced to know that he was supposed to lose.

In 1995, they met at the same venue as the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 players, with Agassi bringing his A-game and Sampras his A-plus.

Impressive as those displays were, Sampras had taken his smothering net game to another level by 1999, and the slick sheen of grass clearly favored him.

When he broke Agassi to start the second set, viewers went from wondering who would win to wondering if Agassi would survive the day with his ego intact.

But Double-A responded to the barrage by amping up his second serves from the high-80s to low-90s, then punctuating each groundstroke with a grunt to add a touch more velocity.

His first serve percentage dipped into the 40s and his double fault count increased to six, but for a time it worked: He held his serve throughout the rest of the second set and well into the third.

He just couldn’t break The Pistol. Sampras faced only one more break-point that afternoon, which he promptly denied.

He put exactly two-thirds of his first serves into play, winning 89 percent of them. He hit 16 aces, and didn’t once have to pull out the patented slam-dunk overhead.

Striking out against the Sampras serve and under pressure from his deep returns, Agassi held it together until the 11th game of the third set. Down 15-40, he saved one break-point with a first serve, deep approach shot to the backhand, and a put-away volley.

On the next point, as The Pistol repeatedly floated back a series of deep slice backhands, Agassi tried for a winner too low over the net and found the tape.

All that remained for Sampras now was to serve out the match, which he did, culminating in a second-serve ace down the T. He had never stopped believing in Pete Sampras; still, the roar he released after match-point indicated that making everyone else believe is a feeling that only grows more satisfying as the years pass.

"Andre brings out the best in me," Sampras said later. “He elevates my game to a level that is phenomenal."

Asked how many times Sampras could win the Wimbledon championships, Agassi said: “As many times as he wants.”

That win gave him his 12th major title, tying Roy Emerson’s record. He wanted one more to break it, and got it the following year despite an injured shin. After that came marriage and family, along with the accumulated injuries of age that make victory less consistent.

But when everyone else had stopped expecting much of him, his own expectations carried him to one last major at the 2002 US Open. Having justified his self-belief he left the game, never again needing to prove how good he was.

For the previous installment, In The Zone with Pete Sampras Part 1, click here.

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