Great Matches You’ve Probably Never Heard Of #1

Los Angeles Final 1999

Sampras d. Agassi, 7/6 7/6

Andre Agassi devotes only a few lines to this match in Open, but this is how he chose to remember it: ‘I fly to Los Angeles and play well. I meet Pete in the final. I lose 7-6 7-6, and don’t care. Running off the court, I’m happiest guy in the world.’

Bollocks.

He cared, alright. I’ve hardly seen Agassi more edgy and committed for a match. He seems to spend an inordinate amount of time hollering and roaring into his shots, lashing himself himself over rare errors and hustling gallantly on a pretty hot day. He cared plenty. These two can’t step onto a tennis court together and not care. If you want proof – squirmingly discomforting proof – check out the Hit for Haiti charity event from March of this year.

Anyway, a bit of context. This was the tournament at which Pete retrieved his No.1 ranking from Agassi (another thing the latter proclaimed indifference towards). For Sampras, LA was the third of four consecutive tournament wins going back to Queens and including his record-equalling 12th Slam at Wimbledon. He would go on to win the Cincinnati Masters (defeating Agassi and Rafter en route), before withdrawing with a hip injury in the quarterfinals at Indianapolis, ending a 24-match streak. (At 28 years of age, with 12 Grand Slams under his belt, what the hell was Sampras doing playing LA and Indianapolis? Can you imagine Federer doing that? No, and with good reason: Sampras was forced to withdraw from the US Open with a back strain, aggravating an existing issue that had plagued him during the clay court swing.)

Agassi, for his part, had recently won the French Open, had reached the Wimbledon final, and was to go on and claim his second US Open the following month. However you cut it, both these dudes were in some form, and both characteristically inspired the other to stratospheric heights. Without exaggeration, I am convinced the first set of this match is the highest sustained standard I saw between them. As Frew McMillan remarks in the Eurosport coverage, it’s the ferocity of the play that is so startling. The pace is furious. The 2001 US Open quarterfinal is amazing – an all-time classic – but I think the quality here is higher.

The arc of the match is interesting, as the desperate winners, saves and breaks of the first set give way to the mounting tension of solid holds in the second. As ever, it’s Sampras that is prepared to go biggest when it counts. On a court as slick as this one, his serve is brutal, which is all the edge he needs in the tiebreaks. Stay tuned for the match point: it’s a frantic all-court gem.

Other moments worth mentioning:

  • Sampras’ sublime play to break in the second game, a beautiful example of the sudden acceleration he was capable of. Andre always professed himself baffled by Pete’s lack of need for inspiration, but if these surges aren’t examples of inspiration, then what is?
  • The game at 4/2, when Agassi finally breaks back. This game has it all, and is an exquisite miniature of what made the Sampras – Agassi rivalry great.
  • After this game, as Agassi sprints to his chair – he really didn’t care? – I note Brooke Shields cheering from his box. According to Agassi, he was off on his first date with Steffi Graf after this match.
  • There are countless barnstorming shots, but none better than Sampras’ lunging stab drop volley at 4/4 15-15 in the first set. In the reverse angle replay, you can see the thing break sideways as it hits the court, and just die.

The 1999 LA final was as representative as any match that these two played. It demonstrates that at his best, Sampras was still the man to beat. As he would do at in the last match of the 1999 season, when he overwhelmed Agassi in the Masters Cup final, Pistol Pete proved that when the big moments came around, he could go to a place beyond even his great rival’s reach. That’s what inspiration is.

The full match is available on Youtube. Part One can be found here.

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