A funny old thing happened on the way to the People’s Final, and his name is Boris Becker.
Pete Sampras is just going to have to go ahead and save tennis without Andre Agassi.
“Andre came here to play Pete,” bubbled Agassi’s coach, Brad Gilbert, before the match with Becker. “Andre wants a piece of Boris so he can get a piece of Pete.
“It’s like Michael Jordan in the last two seconds. He wants the ball. Andre wants the ball.”
Unfortunate image these days, Jordan and the ball in the last two seconds. And things worked out about the same, too.
Agassi, tomorrow’s darling, lost from in front to yesterday’s souvenir, that relic from the ‘80s, a man so out of fashion that his clothes actually fit, a man who has been around tennis so long, three countries have issued stamps in his honor, that three-time winner, now seven-time Wimbledon finalist, that Boris Becker.
“Seems like there are going to be two hungry boys playing tennis on Sunday,” Becker said.
That was in response to Sampras’ response to a question of how hungry Sampras is for a third straight title.
“Ravenous,” Sampras said.
If not the match most wanted, it is not a poor consolation. The way to make tennis interesting may be as simple as making sure that Becker is half the contest.
Becker played the two best matches of the tournament, beating Cedric Pioline in the quarterfinal classic and then completely taking the momentum away from Agassi, making Agassi look like a man who had come to work with only one idea.
“Everything was on schedule until I lost my lead,” Agassi said. “All of a sudden, I found myself behind the eight ball.”
Becker finally broke Agassi’s serve in the seventh game of the second set, with Agassi up a set and two breaks and playing “like someone from outer space,” according to Becker.
Coincidentally, Sampras was addressing his rivalry with Agassi at this point, anticipating what everyone else was anticipating.
“Over the past couple of years the game has been missing a rivalry,” said Sampras. “With Andre and I, our kind of personalities being a little different, our games being different, it’s a really great matchup.”
After winning the break point, Becker raised both arms in triumph and in relief. On the 10th anniversary of his first Wimbledon title, Becker would not, at least, be completely humiliated.
“Boris was just highlighting what everybody was seeing at that point,” Agassi said, “a one-sided match.”
“It was the first moment I felt I was finally in the match,” Becker said. “I was nervous about getting blown away.”
Sampras needed five sets to dispose of Goran Ivanisevic, who may have won if he didn’t treat the forehand volley like leftover liver.
The two of them served 59 aces, 38 by Ivanisevic. The two players spent most of the day walking back and forth to receive serve. Only one rally between the two went as many as six shots.
It was just the type of tennis that an Agassi-Sampras final was supposed to correct.
Lamented David Lloyd, British Davis Cup captain, “I’m not suggesting the players today are not skillful, but if we get another final like the last two, it will be disastrous. In the present climate of big men with big rackets, there is no hope that a McEnroe or a Nastase could flourish. Instead, you get these robots. It is simply a worry that if you lose tennis as a spectacle, how long before you lose it as a sport?”
Sampras is the robot in this formula. Becker is still the artist, full of agony and angst.
“Pete does everything like Boris except a little bit better,” said Agassi. “If they both play their games, I like Pete.”
“Nobody should underestimate me at Wimbledon,” Becker said.