NEW YORK -- Super Saturday at the U.S. Open began under a clear, cool, ice-blue sky and a half-empty stadium. Fourth-seeded Andre Agassi and second-seeded Boris Becker traded their first volleys at 11:12 a.m., and neither seemed to mind that they were a lounge act for New York City native son John McEnroe and Pete Sampras in prime time.
Agassi had much to prove. In every postmatch interview this week, he mentioned the 15 pounds he's added to his 5-foot-11, 155-pound frame and how physically conditioned he is now. Yet in the first game, he failed to chase a Becker drop shot at 0-30 and a backhand serve return at 30-40. No matter. He was nervous, naturally.
The first set was all mind games anyway, psychological warfare. Becker broke serve in Game 1, Agassi broke in Game 2. Neither player came to the net much, such was the mutual respect of each other's 80-mph passing shots. Before the 72-minute first set went to Becker, 7-6, they had traded nine set points. Both looked relieved to start Set 2.
Agassi won it, 6-3, and the next, 6-2, thanks to forced errors and weak second serves from Becker. On most points in the fourth set, Agassi played straddling or just inside the baseline, but Becker was a good two yards back. Agassi's two-handed backhand was particularly effective in pulling Becker wide off the court.
Even after pocketing the first set, Becker seldom looked in control. His first serve was rarely a weapon. By the middle of the fourth set, Agassi was a physical and psychological master.
Steffi Graf came into her women's final against Gabriela Sabatini with an 18-3 match record, and that's no accident. Graf strikes her forehand more squarely than any woman since Tracy Austin. Chris Evert's forehand also met the ball at right angles, but her backswing was straight rather than looped, so Graf's velocity is much greater. I have yet to see Sabatini hit any ball -- ground stroke or volley -- with anything but underspin or topspin.
It's all in her wrist, of course. This dark-haired Argentine learned to play on slow clay courts where spin, deception and stamina are more important than sheer power. Sabatini wins by forcing her opponents to hit weaker and weaker shots from shoulder height as a result of her topspin, which kicks up abruptly. Eventually she gets a "sitter" that she can put away.
Sabatini played with uncommon confidence and deliberation in her 6-2 first set against Graf. Everything worked. Her topspin forced enough sitters for her to serve for the match at 5-4. She then choked to force a tiebreaker. Then Graf choked an approach shot at four points to five, and Sabatini finished it with a forehand topspin pass for a second set 7-6 victory, her first Grand Slam win.
Pete Sampras is partly a product of the U.S. Tennis Association's new Player Development Program, a system that scouts, offers subsidies, coaches, and trains promising juniors. He showed early McEnroe-like feel for the game, even having enough confidence to change an initial backhand grip from two-handed to one-handed.
Sampras's four-set win was actually easier than the score indicated. His dominance was just as decisive as Agassi's over Becker. Blessed with long arms, he generates exceptional rackethead speed from such an ordinary looking swing. McEnroe was frequently left standing flat-footed because the ball had literally passed him by before he could react.
The Agassi-Sampras final will be a contrast in playing styles, clothing, temperaments and shot selection. Agassi in four sets to win is my guess.