The U.S. Open starting Monday closes out a sizzling summer that began with Agassi and Steffi Graf triumphing on the French clay, moved on to wins by Sampras and Lindsay Davenport on Wimbledon's grass, and winds up on the hardcourts of the National Tennis Center.
The game is full of talented and personable young players: Alexandra Stevenson and Jelena Dokic, the latest in a long parade of talented teens making their mark; Marat Safin and Dominik Hrbaty, breaking through on the men's side.
Patrick Rafter, tennis' GQ cover boy, comes into the Open as the two-time defending champion and is giving the men's game the feeling of the late '70s and early '80s, when three great players Connors, Borg and McEnroe vied for big titles.
Everything is looking up for the sport these days, from soaring TV ratings to climbing sales of tennis balls and rackets as more kids and weekend hackers take to the courts. The rise of Venus and Serena Williams to prominence had as much to do with that as anything else.
Tennis never was on the critical list, much less dying, as one national magazine and various pundits suggested. But the sport did suffer through a lull for several years as Agassi drifted off and on the court and few new players had established themselves, especially among the men.
Agassi's decline began after he lost the 1995 U.S. Open final to Sampras their last match at a major until this year's Wimbledon.
|Andre Agassi's recent success is a big reason that tennis has made such an upswing as of late.(AP)|
"I think Andre took it very, very hard and didn't seem to recover," said Sampras, who is 16-10 against Agassi. "I remeber he didn't play at all that fall, and the balloon popped a little bit for him, probably for the next year or so. For me, I just kind of rode the wave and went to Europe and played great and finished No. 1. Our careers kind of went in different directions after that match."
Sampras went on to run his major singles titles total to a record-tying 12, including his July 4th Wimbledon victory over Agassi.
Agassi came out of his deep sleep with the surge to his first French Open title and the completion of a career Grand Slam in early June an accomplishment that Sampras envies.
Agassi doesn't have any regrets about the time he took away from tennis.
"It's helped my sanity certainly," he said. "I don't know if it's helped my career. I mean, guys respond differently to preparing themselves. For me to sustain the grind year after year has never been easy or, quite honestly, even possible. I have to work really hard to win matches. Pete can win five and six and actually feel like it was pretty routine. I think it's been necessary for my career."
Agassi felt that the alternative, playing all the time, might have dulled his spirits and his game.
"A methodical approach to the game could have kept me from accomplishing the things I have," he said. "But all in all, what happened in Paris this year answered any regrets I'll ever be capable of having."
The renewal of the Sampras-Agassi rivalry is one of the best things to happen to tennis and to Sampras and Agassi in recent years.
"Playing him in the final at Wimbledon and being on the court with him in that scene, I felt like a heavyweight fighter going out against another heavyweight fighter," Sampras said. "When I play Andre, I have to be at my best and, in some way, that calms me down. I have to go for it. And every now and then when I go for it, things click like they did in the final. It was the best tennis I think I've ever played on that court. He forces me to play at a level that I don't have to be at playing other guys."
If Sampras stays as dominant as he's been so far this summer he beat Agassi in the finals of Los Angeles and the semifinals of Cincinnati the rivalry may lose its luster. Worse, he could drive Agassi away from the game again.
But Agassi is not showing signs of fatigue or depression. He rebounded to win in Washington, and he's been playing well enough to grab a measure of revenge against Sampras if they meet in the U.S. Open final. On the medium-speed hardcourt at the National Tennis Center, Agassi's baseline style can be as effective as Sampras' net-charging tactics.
"When you play somebody so many times you get to a point where it really doesn't matter about the wins or the losses," Agassi said. "It is about how you do that day. While it is not ideal to lose to him going into the Open, it is always different every week, every court, three out of ive sets. There are always variables. If I could only have one (win), I would take it at the Open."
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