NEW YORK -- Finally, an American U.S. Open champion to love. Or, at least, respect and enjoy without serious reservation. Thank you, Pete Sampras.

Long, long ago, in a place far, far away -- it was Forest Hills, actually -- the men's champion of the U.S. Open was, almost invariably, a fellow you could approve of as a person, as well as revere for his tennis virtuosity.

Then, in the days before raucous commercial Louis Armstrong Stadium opened in the prop wash of LaGuardia Airport, gentlemen won tennis matches.

Starting in 1968, the names on the trophy read: Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Stan Smith. When they were not winning, then some hale sportsman such as John Newcombe or Manuel Orantes was holding the trophy aloft, washed with cheers of real affection.

Perhaps the watershed was the 1975 final, when the American crowd abandoned Jimmy Connors and rooted en masse for Orantes, chanting "Manolo, Manolo." Jimbo and The Barbarians were at the gate. It was time to abandon the grass courts, the tudor clubhouses and the quaint winding back streets. Go big time. Capitalize. Crass makes cash.

Now it requires an act of memory to recall an American champion of the U.S. Open who was not somewhat embarrassing. Andre Agassi, who spit on an official here 10 days ago, then genuflected in hypocritical public prayer in victory on Saturday, was just the latest of the brood. Even John McEnroe, who held the spotlight here until one day ago, spent much of this Open apologizing halfheartedly for a career that has set the standard for bad behavior in tennis.

Sunday afternoon Sampras, the youngest Open champion, and perhaps the most unexpected too, struck a symbolic blow for the civility of bygone days.

Sampras spanked Agassi from his lime green spandex tights to his stone-washed, tie-dyed pants to his multi-colored bandana-ragged hair. Maybe Agassi wore that gold watch not just to grab a few more endorsement bucks but so he could catch a quick flight out of town. It was, "Ciao, see ya, babe," in just 102 minutes. The only way Agassi could have given up the ghost faster was if he'd inflated his tennis shoes and floated away.

"It's not like I lost it. I got my butt kicked," said Agassi, excusing himself for culpability in his lifeless performance. "All his {13} aces were on the line. . . . Anything he touched turned to gold out there. . . . The way he played today, he should come back to Vegas with me. We'll go to the casino."

In the whole match, Agassi tried one lob, though Sampras came to the net 62 times. Agassi came to the net seven times. Both Agassi's ground strokes and first serves were painfully short, as though he were playing not to lose. Sampras saw the timid tendency. "I was quite surprised. I thought he'd go for more shots and more winners. He just seemed tentative. He wasn't being the aggressor. . . . That was the difference."

Aided by Agassi's minimal presence Sampras was able to "have a great time out there. . . . From the first point on, I had absolutely no nerves."

In a national ad for a camera, Agassi tilts up his sunglasses and says, "Image is everything."

Once upon a time, before Connors ever turned his racket into a phallic symbol or McEnroe had enriched the lexicon of referee-baiting with unbowdlerized Anglo-Saxonisms, image was not everything in tennis. Generally speaking, substance was usually the issue.

Sampras has consciously returned to that era for inspiration.

"About five years ago, I had a coach {Del Little} who showed me old films of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall from '71-'72," said Sampras after this 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 win. "I really enjoyed the way they played and handled themselves in that era. I think a lot of guys, especially my age, forget the Lavers and Rosewalls. I have tremendous respect for the Australians {of that period}. They were class individuals. I would like to be."

Laver was the master of all surfaces. Rosewall played at his peak until he was almost 40. Newcombe knew how to win by day and play by night. And none of them whined over line calls or grubbed for the last dollar or denigrated their foes or retired young just because they couldn't win all the time.

Since then, men's tennis has suffered all the insolent heirs of Ilie Nastase and the boring litter of expressionless baseliners begotten by Bjorn Borg. Now, in Sampras, the game may get an elite player who can be colorful without being crude and who can play with dignity and composure while also exposing a personality after the last point.

In other words, in Sampras (and his contemporary Michael Chang), America may produce a male player as appealing as Boris Becker.

If that sounds like a lot to lay on a teenager ranked 61st in the world at the beginning of the year, then let's plead guilty.

Fair or not, Agassi, the prima donna with the huge entourage, offered Sampras a perfect foil. While Sampras came here with one coach and took his phone off the hook, Agassi was taking a call from President Bush. While Agassi takes flak for skipping Wimbledon, Sampras said that a Wimbledon win "would be a tad notch higher than this. There's so much history."

Perhaps the core of Sampras's cool is his ability not to take himself or his sport too seriously. His parents -- his father is a mechanical engineer in the Air Force -- not only stay off the tennis circuit, they don't watch his matches live.

"I'm sure my family taped it," said Sampras. Has any player ever said that?

He knows that they will be told, "Pete won," or "Pete lost." Then they'll watch the tape. Just as if what he were doing for a living wasn't really as important as heart surgery.

"I'm just a normal 19-year-old growing up with a very unusual job," said Sampras, adding proudly, "and doing very unusual things like today."

"It's easy to play hard-hitting carefree tennis when you're the underdog," said Agassi of Sampras. "Let's see how he handles it now -- the criticism after he's expected to win {and doesn't} . . . . It's different on top. Let's let him prove it before we start assuming too much."

Sampras, the California boy with the big sincere features and the kid-brother looks, knows the dangers.

"Obviously there is going to be a lot more pressure on me now. I think I can handle that responsibility," Sampras said, pausing before choosing the last word. "And if I can't, then I'll have to look at things and see what I'll have to do.

"Right now, I'm going to let it all soak in and enjoy it."

So shall we.