Every great rivalry has a defining moment, a moment at which both men are elevated from being mere tennis players to being special. After that moment, the rivalry would never be the same, neither would the players themselves.
Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe achieved that moment in the fourth set tiebreaker at the Wimbledon ‘80 finals. McEnroe and Ivan Lendl never competed more fiercely than they did at the French Open ‘84 finals. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal set new standards for tennis pretty much every time they face each other in a major final.
Yet, it will be hard to find a single defining moment for the greatest tennis rivalry of the '90s—the one that had Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in it. Sure, their showdown at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2001 would go down as one of the best matches of the decade, but their rivalry was already in its final stages by then.
In fact, it did not take a single match, but a whole tournament to establish that peak. In many ways, Australian Open ‘95 was the key moment for Sampras and Agassi—individually and as rivals.
At the start of the 1995, tennis was not exactly in a golden phase. Even though Sampras and Agassi were the top two ranked players, both had problems of their own. Sampras’ lack of emotions on court did not win him as many fans as world No. 1 would normally have.
Moreover, the excellent command on his serve was not taken well by most tennis fans who loved to see longer rallies and more action. Sampras’ lack of popularity was further justified after he failed to make the cover of Sports Illustrated even after winning his third consecutive Wimbledon later that year.
Agassi was not an ideal world No. 2, either. The rebel was loved more for his image than substance. After all, not many top players can afford to boast a cheeseburger diet, and proudly sport long hair and denim shorts. His lack of consistency at the top made him a popular punching bag for the critics, regardless of his popularity among the fans.
Uninterested in these wider issues, both champions were battling their own little personal problems.
Agassi later revealed in his autobiography Open , that his carrying of his image was more a result of the fear of media propaganda rather than his own wish. After shedding his image as a possible one-slam wonder and silencing his critics by winning the U.S. Open in ‘94, the Australian Open next year seemed like a perfect time to throw away this element of self-doubt, and get vindicated from his image .
He shocked the tennis world by entering Melbourne with a clean-shaven head revealing his receding hairline. The long hair was gone and the denim was replaced by an unglamorous maroon fabric on the head and unfashionable attire.
Agassi had a knack of being an excellent beginner. He won Wimbledon the very first time he participated in ‘92, and now, free from media pressure and doing away with his image , he immediately developed a liking for this surface that had the right amount of pace and bounce to allow him enough time to take the ball on the rise, hit ballistic returns, and have enough speed for his rocket-like ground strokes.
Fittingly enough, he started his first love affair with the Rod Laver Arena by tearing apart his side of the draw without losing a set and baking three bagels along the way to land up in yet another major final.
On the other side of the draw, Sampras was in the toughest phase of his life after his longtime coach and close friend Tim Gullikson was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the start of the year. After suffering another stroke, Gullikson had to leave during the tournament, which put additional pressure on the curly-headed Californian to win the slam for his beloved coach.
It was evident in the way he played, as he rushed through his first three rounds, but barely managed to scratch through the fourth after going down two sets to love.
It was in the quarterfinals, though, against his close friend Jim Courier, when the inner mettle of Pete Sampras was presented to the world. Courier, the ninth seed, was no longer at his peak, but threatened to cut short his rival’s campaign after closely winning the first two sets. Not to yield so easily, Sampras shaved off the two-set deficit for the second consecutive match after which the drama unfolded in the decider.
The memory of his ill coach bothered him throughout the tournament, and it got to be a bit too much after an emotional fight back against Jim. Tears tried to erupt out of the tennis machine who tried hard to keep them at bay. A delayed service motion here, a couple of deep breaths down there, emotional breakdown during changeovers, and trying to be normal during the games.
At 1-1 in the fifth, it all became too much. Sampras cried belligerently during his serves, and hit aces all along the way.
“Are you all right, Pete? We can do this tomorrow, you know,” Courier tried to lighten the mood.
Sampras was in no mood to shift down a gear. He hit another ace to finish the game as Jim proceeded to the changeover with a smile of resignation. He tanked away Jim’s service games to conserve strength and aced along his own, ultimately edging out Jim through one service break as he had done so often.
The impression of Sampras was changed forever after this win and fans started viewing him in a different light altogether. He went on to win another difficult match against Michael Chang in the semis to set up a final with Agassi in a rematch of their first ever meeting.
It would be a perfect script if Sampras won this tournament. The illness of his coach, all the unnerving mental fortitude he had displayed to win two consecutive matches after being two sets to love down, the aces he fired in the midst of an emotional burst…everything seemed to hint at a staggering climax.
The Las Vegan took full advantage of his superiority on a medium paced, hard court, Sampras’ mental fatigue, and his own superb form in the tournament. Even though Sampras won a closely fought first set, the first time Agassi lost a set in the tournament, Agassi then overwhelmed Sampras in the next three sets to win his first of four Australian Open titles.
He took the world No. 1 ranking from Sampras, and started a fierce rivalry during the year, when a Sampras-Agassi final became as predictable as a Federer-Nadal one. They met in five high-profile finals, traded the No. 1 ranking numerous times, and their finals at the U.S. Open achieved record TRPs and reinvigorated the popularity of tennis.
But it all began in the year’s first major.