One point, 22 shots, a U.S. Open championship at stake with every breathtaking stroke.
In that magnificent rally at the end of the first set Sunday, Pete Sampras imposed his will on Andre Agassi and broke him, literally on serve, figuratively in spirit.
It was a point that meant more than any of the 24 aces Sampras knifed through the whipping wind, more than the volley he dived for when he bloodied his knuckles and skinned his knees on the way to a third U.S. Open title, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5.
That point, even with three sets yet to play, defined the match and decided it, showing that Sampras could beat Agassi at his own baseline game, no matter if he had to chase every ball from corner to corner.
“It’s probably one of the best points I’ve ever been part of,” Sampras said. “I certainly hope that makes the play of the day.”
That point should be preserved on videotape in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, with all the gasps and screams and the final explosive cheers of the 20,000 fans in the background.
“That’s one of the best points I’ve ever seen in my life,” Paul Annacone, Sampras’ interim coach, said. “Before the match I told Pete to try to get into as many athletic points as he could get in. I think that (rally) was about as quintessentially athletic as you could have a point. You saw two superstars come with I don’t know how many different shots. I sat there in awe, as many of the other spectators did.”
With that point and the eventual victory, Sampras reached No. 1 in the esteem of his greatest rival, if not yet once more in the rankings themselves, two months after taking his third straight Wimbledon championship.
“Pete knows how to seize opportunities,” said Agassi, who had yielded only two points in his first four service games. “I ran him from 12 corners. He had to work for it, but he got it. And to think, the wind was against him there.”
The rally came at the end of a game that revealed the best of Sampras and the worst of Agassi, with a little luck thrown in. Sampras reached his first break point with a forehand return that clipped the net cord and trickled over, out of Agassi’s reach. Agassi’s service winner brought it back to deuce, but he went to break-point again when he bludgeoned an easy overhead 10 feet long.
Agassi thought he would even it up again when he got Sampras scurrying desperately in a baseline duel. Instead, on the last of 22 deep and hard and angled shots, it was Sampras who ended that rally with a cross-court backhand, and Agassi who could only hang his head.
“He’s so quick,” Sampras said. “I felt if I could keep him moving, keep him moving, I could get a short ball and come in. But I never really felt I had a winner until I hit that backhand. It was an unbelievable point.”
For Agassi, that point made him realize there was little he was going to get away with on this day.
Right down to the end, when Sampras served his 142nd ace of the tournament at 120 mph, he put on a show of power, control and resilience that he dedicated to his absent and ailing coach, Tim Gullikson.
“That’s for you, Timmy,” Sampras said to the television camera, knowing Gullikson was watching at home in suburban Chicago. “Wish you were here.”
Agassi, who came in with a 26-match winning streak, faded early in the second set to fall behind 3-0, then scrambled back in the third set, capitalizing on Sampras’ suddenly more erratic serves and breaking him for the first time in the third game.
When Agassi broke Sampras again to close the set, it seemed for a few moments that he might finally wear him down, push him all the way to a fifth and raise this final to the level of the hype that preceded it.
“I thought I’d sneak my way into the fifth,” Agassi said, “and roll the dice a little bit. But it didn’t happen.”
This match, for all of their fine rallies and all of Sampras’ aces, never quite lived up to its potential.
The swirling wind on a cool afternoon made it harder for Agassi, who counts on the timing of his groundstrokes. For Sampras, his serves cut right through the wind, and his volleys reduced the chances of the wind tossing his shots around.
Sampras bunched his aces, dealing out three in one game in the second set, four in the sixth game of the fourth set. He had aces on three of his last five serves.
“I hit an ace up the middle, and I saw John F. Kennedy Jr.,” Sampras said, drawing laughter. “I did. Honest to God. I said, he looks a little familiar.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: At a glance Results - Men’s final: No. 2 Pete Sampras defeats No. 1 Andre Agassi 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. Stat of the Day - The last point of the first set produced a 22-stroke rally won by Sampras. Quote of the Day - “I hit an ace up the middle and saw John F. Kennedy Jr. I did. Honest to God. I said, ‘He looked a little familiar.”’ - Pete Sampras on noticing a celebrity in the crowd.