13 years has passed since the last time Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras met in a Masters final, in the panoramic setting of the Californian desert town of Indian Wells. It proved to be one of the final matches they would contest on the ATP Tour, one of the closing chapters of an enduring rivalry which first began almost 35 years ago at a small junior tournament in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
“I was 7 and he was 8,” Sampras recalls.
“Andre was this crazy guy from Vegas. I believe he took me down.”
“6-1, 7-6,” Agassi nods. Such photographic recall has long been his trademark, enabling him to recollect virtually every single match he’s ever played in minute detail, since first picking up a racket.
“I was a year older though and between 7 and 8 that makes a big difference.
He only just about came up to my chin. So when I saw him in Indian Wells 10 years later, I was like ‘Bullshit that’s not Pete!’ He was 6’2 and had a 135mph serve. It just didn’t seem right.”
Initially, Agassi was famously disparaging of the teenage Sampras.
In his autobiography Open, he recalled a conversation he had with his team during a clay-court event in Rome, noting the technical weaknesses in Sampras’ groundstrokes and remarking that he would struggle to ever really make it in the game.
However within a year and a half, it was Sampras who was the first to collect a Grand Slam title, demolishing his rival with a blistering display of serving in the 1990 US Open final.
Over the next decade, they would go on to meet in four more major finals with Sampras winning three of them. He’s always admitted that Agassi’s game just managed to draw the best of him.
“Everything about his game just forced me to raise my level,” Sampras said.
“From his return, his passing shots to the way he moved well and competed well, He just did everything that I didn’t like to see and if I wasn’t on my game, if I wasn’t serving well I felt it was going to be a long day for me.
So I just felt it was a tough match-up. He hit the ball well, took it early, it was tough to control the court and I was doing a lot of running. If I didn’t play well against Andre it was going to be a long day.”
Agassi was regarded as one of the best returners of his generation, a legacy of the years he spent in his back yard being forced to half-volley legions of deliveries fired down by his father’s home-made ball machine, which the young Agassi dubbed ‘The Dragon.’ And it was that ability in particular which made Sampras, probably the best server of his generation, up his game.
“His return was incredible and if I wasn’t picking my spots, he returned offensively and it was just a tough situation,” Sampras said.
“He was the best player I played in my career and I played a lot of great players but he was a very special one.”
Agassi admits he always felt a certain nervousness about playing Sampras, simply because he was never really in control of the match.
“If I stepped out there and I pressed a little too hard, or I felt too much urgency too early, I could really find myself imploding against him and the match could get away in a hurry,” he said.
“At any moment he could just blow the match open and you never knew when it was gonna happen.”
One of the many factors which made the Agassi-Sampras rivalry just so iconic was their contrasting styles. While Sampras’ game was dominated by power, precision and a supreme agility at the net, Agassi relied as much on his wits as his ball-striking ability using his lightning reflexes and anticipation to stay one or two steps ahead of the game.
“Pete and I were both opposite kind of players which meant for some all-court style tennis,” Agassi said.
“One of us was trying to impose our game on the other at all times. I always went on the court knowing I had to play well but even if I did, I had no say in how the match was gonna go. I could get my wins here and there but he was the only guy I ever played where I felt I could play my best tennis and still lose.
That feeling of not knowing whether you’re in control brought out the best in Pete and sometimes it brought out the best and the worst in me. And every time we were playing, there usually happened to be a big plinth in the sky with some hardware on the line which made it mean a the more.
You never forget those moments.” US Open Final 1995 Highlights