WATCH—Stories of the Open Era – Pete Sampras:
Flushing Meadows is tennis’ largest stage, and over the last 50 years, it has been the site of some of the sport’s greatest dramas. This week, we’ll count down the 10 most memorable US Open matches of the Open Era. To follow the countdown, click here.
Greg Rusedski was only saying what was on everyone’s mind. The Canadian turned Brit had just lost his third-round match to Pete Sampras at the 2002 U.S. Open in five sets, but he wasn’t impressed with what he had seen on the other side of the net.
“I’d be surprised if he wins his next match,” Rusedski said. “I think the movement is not the same and the fitness is not the same. He’s just not the same player from the past. You’re used to seeing Pete Sampras, 13-time Grand Slam champion. He’s not the same player.”
There may have been some sour grapes lodged somewhere within those words, but it was hard to argue with their accuracy. By the fall of 2002, the 31-year-old Sampras wasn’t the dominant champion he had been for so long. His last title had come 26 months earlier, at Wimbledon in 2000. He was ranked No. 17. In the previous two U.S. Open finals, he had been humiliated by two members of a new generation, Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt. That June, Sampras had experienced what he called “the lowest moment of my career,” when he lost to 71st-ranked lucky loser George Bastl at Wimbledon, his favorite tournament. While this debacle had pushed Sampras to reconnect with his old coach Paul Annacone, the work they had done that summer had yet to produce any notable successes.
What Rusedski and the rest of the world didn’t know was that Sampras had turned a corner in the final game of their third-round match. Out of nowhere, after struggling all evening to return Rusedski’s formidable lefty serve, Sampras broke in the final game and let out a long-bottled-up roar of triumph. The bullets, his opponents would soon find out, were back in the pistol.
“It was all about believing in myself and my game, and Paul reminding me who I am and what I’ve done,” Sampras recalled to the New York Times as he looked back on the 2002 Open, which would be his last. “The belief that as much as everyone wrote me off, that I didn’t write myself off.”
At the time, though, Sampras sounded more cautious than confident.
“My first thought is to get back to my hotel room,” he said after his late-night win over Rusedski.
Sampras knew he had a tougher—and younger—road ahead. First up, in the fourth round, was 24-year-old Tommy Haas. The German, who was entering his prime, was touted as a Grand Slam contender of the near future, and he had beaten Sampras in their previous two matches. This time, though, while Haas managed to win a set, he didn’t stand a chance. It was here where Sampras began to resemble the Sampras of old. He used his clampdown serve and his opportunistic forehand to leave Haas looking helpless.
Sampras picked up momentum from there. His next opponent was another up-and-comer, as well as his presumed successor, Andy Roddick. Like Haas, Roddick, who turned 20 during that year’s Open, had won his prior two matches over Sampras, and he was thought to be a dark horse to win his first major at Flushing Meadows. But also like Haas, Roddick stood no chance in this night match. Before a capacity audience, Sampras gave the future No. 1 a straight-set lesson in big-stage tennis.
“The Roddick match was a big match,” Sampras said, “because I could save my body a little bit. It was a pretty comfortable match, and it helped me have a little bit left in the final.”
Waiting in that final was a familiar opponent, and one who would make him work his hardest, Andre Agassi. It felt as if a circle between the two men was closing. What we didn’t know then was that the last great era of U.S. men’s tennis was also closing. Twelve years earlier, in 1990, a 19-year-old Sampras had announced himself to the world by upsetting Agassi in the Open final. In 1995, he had broken Agassi’s heart again at Flushing Meadows. That year, Andre came in ranked No. 1 after having beaten Sampras twice that summer; but Pete turned the tables in four sets and proved, once and for all, his superiority in their rivalry.
The situation was much the same in 2002. Agassi was the sixth seed; Sampras was 17th. Agassi was in better shape, and while Sampras had been in decline for two years, Agassi was in the midst of a late-career resurgence. He would go on to win the Australian Open five months later.
“We’re the oldest players to meet in the U.S. Open final,” Agassi said when he looked back on his mindset before this last match with Sampras, “but I’m feeling like one of the teenagers who have been kicking ass on the tour. I feel like part of the new generation.”
Still, Agassi also knew his own history with this opponent.
“He says I bring out the best in him,” Agassi said, “but I think he’s brought out the worst in me. The night before the final, I can’t help but think of all the different times I thought I was going to beat Pete, knew I was going to beat Pete, needed to beat Pete, only to lose.”
Unfortunately for Agassi, the nightmare would happen one more time. Sampras, despite having played five matches in seven days, elevated his game even higher. He hit 33 aces and 84 winners to beat Agassi in four convincing sets. It would be the final match of his career, and he would call it the best he ever played.
“The best tennis I would play was when I was older,” Sampras recalled a few years later. “I wasn’t as consistent week in and week out, but that final I played against Andre at the 2002 U.S. Open was the highest level I’ve ever played.”
Looking back, even Agassi could see that there was poetic justice in the result.
“My loss in the final to Pete is offset by his perseverance and our years together,” Agassi told the Times in 2012. “There’s just something right about his career being punctuated in that way…Somehow Pete going out a winner was the right thing for him, and I think it was the right thing, period.”
Sampras’s 2002 U.S. Open win left him with a men’s-best 14 major titles. At the time, no one was within shouting distance of that mark, and it seemed that it might stand for decades. But no sooner does one era end than a new one begins. Nine months later at Wimbledon, Roger Federer would win his first Grand Slam title.
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