Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were kings of the ATP Tour in the 1990s. Their reign coincided with a boom in American men’s tennis, and their rivalry was that era’s exclamation point. It came on the heels of McEnroe-Connors, ensuring a decades-long presence of American men at the penthouse of the ATP Tour. Pete and Andre were part of a very special class of American tennis players who emerged at the turn of the decade. By 1994, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, and Agassi were all Grand Slam champions, and even though Courier reached #1 and won four Slams, it was Sampras and Agassi who were the top dogs of that great generation.
They were a marketer’s dream: opposites in all the right ways to form one of the greatest tennis duos of all time. Agassi possessed the flash, a walking embodiment of Nike’s “Image Is Everything” campaign. He wore the brightest colours, sported a ponytail, and openly flouted the tennis establishment; he chose to skip Wimbledon between 1988-1990 because of the tournament’s all-white dress code. Meanwhile, Sampras was all business on court. He projected a more serious attitude toward his tennis, in stark contrast to Agassi’s blasé approach. Their rivalry often felt like you were watching siblings on court: Sampras the elder, more responsible brother to the rebellious Andre. That they seemed so different to onlookers was precisely what made them such a fascinating pair.
Still, Sampras-Agassi was more than just a battle of personalities. Each had his own distinct playing style. Pete had one of the greatest serves in the history of the sport, and Andre could make even the best of serves look elementary. Pete paired an intimidating wingspan at net, with a deft touch on his volleys, forming an impregnable defence of his side of the court. Agassi’s off-court flair was manifested in his groundstrokes; he became a wizard at taking the ball early and catching opponents off guard. One of his signature shots was the half-volley that he hit off a full swing from either wing. He brought new and exciting elements to the sport. When all these considerations are combined (on and off the tennis court), we get a fully formed understanding of why these two players were so compelling. Perhaps the most vital part was that they were American. That was the icing on the cake for the media, ATP, and fans to latch onto Sampras-Agassi for the long haul.
I always felt that Andre looked a bit pressed when playing Pete, as if he had something to prove against his big brother. But, there was an added dimension to Andre’s anxiety: he knew that he had to make inroads on return if he wanted to win. Pete’s tremendous serve and volley game made it very difficult for opponents to break him. Even Andre, who is on a very short list of the game's greatest returners, had trouble in this department. Many times Andre would get to 0-40 on Pete’s serve only to have his advantage wiped away by aces. It must have been so demoralizing to know that your chances of winning were not always within your own control. The 1999 Wimbledon final is a perfect example of this – Andre played well, but there was no stopping Pete that day.
One of the more surprising things I learned while writing this was that Sampras and Agassi played only two 5-set matches over the years. (Perhaps I was surprised because Federer and Nadal have contested five, including some of the most breathtaking tennis ever seen.) Yet, Nadal-Djokovic has featured only two 5-setters, and the same is true of Federer-Djokovic. So, going the distance isn’t necessarily the best indicator of a great rivalry, but rather the quality of the matches and how memorable they are. Sampras and Agassi just didn’t play that many iconic matches. The obvious choice is their 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinal, which Sampras won in four tie-break sets, with neither player losing serve. All who watched that match felt it deserved to be a final, and John McEnroe declared it some of the best tennis he’d ever seen. I’ll never forget Andre’s expressionless face afterward in the press room; he looked as though his spirit had been broken.
When Pete and Andre played during the 90s, there was nothing on offer that could match their star power; the first order of business whenever a draw came out was to check if the two could meet in the final. They played so often on the biggest stages – 16 times in finals and 9 in Slams - that their rivalry was always in the spotlight. But, with all that has happened since, all the glorious tennis of the past decade, the Agassi-Sampras rivalry, unfairly, suffers in comparison. Just as Federer and Nadal cast a long shadow on Pete’s candidacy as greatest ever, so too they brushed aside Pete and Andre as the premier rivalry of the last 25 years. Spare a thought for them, because the Federer-Nadal rivalry has defied what we could reasonably expect from two athletes; it’s almost unfair to everybody else how godlike they’ve been.
Agassi and Sampras each did so much for the visibility and popularity of the sport, especially in the United States, that just having their names in a final was a huge draw. They have to be viewed beyond the lack of iconic 5-set matches featuring jaw-dropping rallies. Theirs was a rivalry that was a statement for American tennis, the marketability of the sport around the world, and the ability of two tennis stars to captivate the global consciousness. They set the tone for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to truly make tennis a global sport. Even if, over time, Sampras-Agassi fades in our collective imagination, they will always be tennis royalty.
This is the third in a series on great tennis rivalries:
Steffi & Monica: Ill-Fated Rivalry & Story of What Might Have Been
The Sisters Williams: Beyond Tennis Rivalry