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Comeback king

Pete Sampras beats Andre Agassi in four sets for his 14th Grand Slam title, first since 2000.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 9, 2002

NEW YORK -- Pete Sampras peered into the crowd in search of his wife and sister.

Then he took off.

The 31-year-old tennis icon climbed into the stands, shaking hands, giving high-fives and receiving pats on the back. But in the excitement, he overshot his target and needed help from an adoring crowd to reach his destination.

It was a rare miss.

Playing strong tennis against a top opponent, the 17th-seeded Sampras, thought washed up by some because of his lack of a recent title, shocked again Sunday, beating longtime rival Andre Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, before 25,210 at Arthur Ashe Stadium to claim his fifth Open and 14th major championship, two more than any male.

"I guess I'm back," Sampras said.

Without question.

The win tied Sampras with Jimmy Connors for the most Open titles during the open era. He is the event's oldest champion since 35-year-old Ken Rosewall won in 1970. Sampras ended a 33-tournament drought, as he last won at Wimbledon in 2000. He was 20-16 this year before coming here.

But despite consistent play in New York (he defeated five seeded players), one man Sampras beat, Greg Rusedski, suggested Sampras had lost more than a step and would lose his next match.

Instead, an energized Sampras, in succession, topped third-seeded Tommy Haas, rising American star Andy Roddick, Sjeng Schalken in the semifinals, then Agassi for the third time in an Open final and 20th time in 34 tries.

"I played so well today," Sampras said. "Andre brings out the best in me every time I step out with him. The guy is so good."

Sampras iced it in a grueling 55-minute fourth set. After watching a two-set lead turn to a 2-1 advantage, he fended off three break chances. Sampras held serve in a 20-point fourth game, the clincher coming on a volley, one of 69 points he won at net.

At 4-all, Agassi had his serve broken after missing a forehand. Serving for the match, Sampras hit a leaping crosscourt volley at 40-15.

"The atmosphere was awesome, it was really was," an emotional Sampras said. "It was quite a day. I played extremely well when I had to."

Apart from having 25 more unforced errors and nine more double faults, Sampras led in almost every major statistical category, including aces (33-7), winners (84-27), net approach points won (69-10) and service breaks (4-2).

"I got in the zone a little bit," Sampras said.

Sampras also hit more key shots in big moments.

Agassi had 12 break chances, but often Sampras came through with a winner. Down 3-4 in the fourth, Agassi had one break point against Sampras after a double fault. But Sampras forced an Agassi error, then followed with a volley winner and an ace to win the game.

"There's a lot of momentum coming back from two sets back if you can get to the fifth," Agassi said. "But that was a long ways off in hindsight."

Sampras was playing in his eighth Open final, third straight. He lost to Marat Safin in 2000 and Lleyton Hewitt last year.

"I peaked at the right time against Andre," Sampras said. "To play five matches in seven days, that was a lot of work. I'm just glad it's over."

The 32-year-old Agassi, a seven-time Grand Slam champion and player many thought was washed up before a comeback, is 2-3 in Open finals. The No. 6 seed has not won a major since the 2001 Australian Open. The precise shotmaking displayed in a semifinal win against No. 1 Hewitt was absent in the first and second sets. Agassi finally broke Sampras in the 12th game of the third set.

"It was a tough day for me," Agassi said. "On top of him playing well, I just got off to a rough start. I just was flat and I tried to get myself into the match and had to work pretty hard to give myself a chance."

For Sampras, the win was sweet. After all, who knows how much longer he will play.

"This one might take the cake," Sampras said.

Provided he can find it.

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