Friday, January 28, 2011

January 29, 1995: What could have been

MELBOURNE, Australia - This should have been just the next chapter of their rivalry, another highlight in their decade-long head-to-head opus. As Andre Agassi finished off the 1995 Australian Open with an ace on match point, beating Pete Sampras in the final, their rivalry looked like it was as even as ever. Instead, Agassi's third major championship ended up being the high point for many years, the spot when the wave started to roll back.

You never would have expected the careers of Agassi and Sampras to take such diverging paths after the final in Melbourne on January 29, 1995. Agassi won the final in four sets, completely controlling the match from his normal position on the baseline, moving Sampras around the court like he was on the a string. After the match, Sampras, then the world's top-ranked player, admitted that he simply lost to a better player that day, that he didn't have a chance when Agassi was at his best.

After Agassi's Australian Open victory, the personal score between the two men was 7-6 in favor of Sampras. Sampras also had more major victories, five to Agassi's three, but both men were now missing only the French Open from their goal of a career Grand Slam. Both men were young - still in their 20s, even - and both were at the top of their game. With their contrasting styles - Sampras the epitome of powerful serve-and-volley tennis, Agassi the best return man in the world and the man who stayed on the baseline to wear down his opponents - this looked like the rivalry that would define tennis for a generation.

And then it fell apart.

After his win in Australia, Agassi beat Sampras two more times before they met in the U.S. Open final later that year. Sampras won, evening up their head-to-head record at 8-8. And from there, Agassi disappeared. Vanished from the top level of tennis, for reasons that seemed mysterious at the time. After the fact, Agassi admitted that the loss to Sampras in the U.S. Open destroyed his confidence. He started taking crystal meth, and he disappeared from competitive tennis.

Agassi started working his way back, but in that time, Sampras turned their personal rivalry one-sided. For the rest of the 90s, Sampras held a 9-3 edge in head-to-head matchups. A rivalry that had started out so even, in which the question of who was better would cause a legitimate debate, had turned lopsided. There was no question who was better now.

After Agassi found his way back from the wilderness, he beat Sampras three times in a row to even up the score a little bit. He salvaged the rivalry with a late-career resurgance, and we are able to look back now and admire how those two, for the most part, brought out the best in each other. Arguements about who was better still always point to Sampras and his 14 career Grand Slam titles, but detractors can always mention the fact that Agassi won the French Open that Sampras never could, that Agassi won the Olympic gold medal that Sampras never could.

It's still considered one of the greatest individual rivalries in tennis history, but it could have been so much more.

No comments:

Post a Comment