I think most people would agree that the current Federer and Nadal rivalry is greater than the Agassi-Sampras one.
For one, the former two have retained their dominance over the tour for a far longer period and meet each other a lot more often than Sampras and Agassi did.
While Sampras and Agassi clashed nine times in Slams over a 12-year period (1990-2002), Federer and Nadal have contested in seven Grand Slams in six years.
The Sampras-Agassi rivalry did not always live up to the hype, mainly because of Agassi’s sabbaticals. It wasn’t until 1998-99 that Agassi was entirely focused on tennis.
But that was around the time that Sampras’ motivation was beginning to wane.
Considering that, it’s not surprising that they only met in five Slam finals, or that a lot of their matches were one sided (20 of their 34 meetings were straight set affairs). However, they reserved their best for the Slams.
Their 2001 US Open quarterfinal was a masterpiece. That match is renowned for being a high quality affair, with no breaks of serve in four sets.
But it’s their 2000 Australian Open match that I remember more fondly—which is one of two five setters they played against each other.
Admittedly, for parts of this encounter, the quality lagged: Sampras was wildly erratic from the baseline. But I can’t think of a better display of serving and returning in the same match.
Sampras served a personal best 37 aces that day—often on second serves—and yet faced 13 break points, saving 10 of them. Twice in successive games, he went down 0-40 and 15-40, only to come up with big serves to bail himself out.
Agassi, for his part, barely missed a return within his wingspan for five sets. He was either getting aced, served with unreturnables, smacking balls down at Sampras’ feet or past him.
He won 51 percent of his points facing second serves, despite facing a plethora of bombs from Sampras’ second delivery.
But if this rivalry has to be put in a nutshell, it can be showcased worse than with the clips featured in this piece. They are the third and fourth set tie breaks from this classic match.
The first was won by a Sampras in the zone where he shows utter disdain for Agassi’s high percentage tennis.
The other was won by a relentless Agassi, who survived a mid-tiebreak mini-break, an extraordinary forehand pass and two second serve aces to eke out the game.
That seems about accurate as a microcosm of their rivalry: Agassi hardly puts a foot wrong as Sampras produces a “blitzkrieg” and routs him; Agassi plays not just flawlessly, but has to come up with something special to marginally move past a brilliant, if slightly erratic Sampras.
That sums up why Sampras holds a 6-3 edge in their Slam matches and a 4-1 record in Slam finals.
These two tie breaks display many of the different types of points habitually played by these two.
- Both tiebreaks feature Sampras hitting clean winners off his trademark running forehand—one of the all time great shots in the sport. That running forehand was the reason Agassi was very selective in hitting to Sampras’ right. And that shot became lethal if Sampras’ got his backhand into groove. Unfortunately for Agassi, Sampras could hit his backhand lousy all set, only to unload a couple big ones at a crucial juncture.
- Sampras’ returning was erratic the entire match. He came up with as many big returns as ones he poorly miss-hit. In the tie breaks though, he kept making big returns.
- There was one unforced error in 18 points played in the two tie breaks. These guys could step it up when they had to.
- Agassi’s returning was sublime. Anything less than perfect was ricocheted back to Sampras’ feet. Even the serves close to the lines came back with interest. That’s the reason why Sampras kept hitting big second serves—often with success.
- Notice Sampras’ toss on his serves. Both of his second serve aces were on the deuce court, with the exact same toss, in different directions.
- In the third set breaker, Agassi chose to go for safe first serves on his first two points on serve, only for Sampras to assert control. He went for a big one on the next point, missed it and Sampras unloaded on the second serve. In the fourth set, Agassi hit just the one kicker out of six first serves. Instead he stepped out of his comfort zone, and hit them bigger and closer to the lines. Incredibly, he made them all and nudged ahead.
- Facing set point, for once Sampras’ nerve let him down. He chose to go with a safe second serve, only for Agassi to pounce all over it.
This rivalry was a lot different than Federer and Nadal’s. For one, the margins were smaller, which can be attributed to the faster conditions. When Federer and Nadal play, one gets the sense that one break doesn’t spell doom. Their five set clash at the Australian Open featured five breaks in the opening set.
This Agassi-Sampras match had four breaks in the entire match.
The importance of each break point was magnified in this contest. The quick conditions also made it tougher to play defense, so points had to be won. Sampras saved 10 break points by hitting big serves and backing them up with net play.
Amazingly, when the pressure was the highest, these two played their best. Just one unforced error in two tie breaks is an astonishing statistic. The fourth set tie break has got to be one of the most high intensity tie breaks ever played.
The Sampras-Agassi rivalry may not be the best of all time, or even of the last two decades. But when these two stepped it up, they were second to none.
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