NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, the U.S. Open men's singles finalists on Sunday, could scarcely offer more contrast on or off a tennis court.
The 20-year-old, free-spirited Agassi is an oft-publicized Bible study adherent, sports efflorescent color-coordinated tennis outfits, wears his hair long and flowing, and an earring pierces his left lobe. He frequently takes off his shirt after a match and tosses it into the crowd. His quotes are glib, candid, and apparently unexamined much of the time. He is famous and currently appears in two national television ads.
The 19-year-old Sampras's attire is mostly white, plain, and ordinary -- like Penn State's football team. He is cleanshaven, his hair is full but clipped, and he wears no rings, bracelets, bandannas, or even sweatbands. Ingenuously shy, he would sooner bite his lip than shout "Dammit" at a linesperson.
With that as background, I must say I was convinced Agassi would win. He had outpowered Boris Becker from the baseline; his passing shots are among the game's best. His angled topspin ground strokes take his opponents farther off court than anyone else's. But not only did he lose, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, he was made to look the novice. Near the end a masked thin veil of resignation was discernible.
Sampras early on established in Agassi's mind that he could hit the ball harder and cover the court as well. Particularly devastating were his torrid down-the-line approach shots on the forehand side. One is at a loss to remember a ball hit with such velocity. He does it by combining racket head speed, about 45 degrees of body torque, a relatively stiff racket frame, forward momentum, and a natural gift for timing. The result is a very heavy ball with the force of a much denser object.
The new champion has extraordinarily long arms. Thus his racket is more of a whip than a bat. He doesn't merely swing his midsize racket; he slings it.
Whereas Agassi is known for hitting the ball on the rise, Sampras did it better and with more variety. Agassi pinned Becker three yards behind the baseline while he -- Agassi -- dawdled in that "no man's land" just inside it. But Sampras's timing was so exact that he took full forward slings on Agassi's deep weighty topspin and sent it back with a one-way ticket.
With his bandannaed blond mane blown sideways, Agassi had to hit most backhands backing up. He was seldom able to "set up" and push off with the back foot. And any short ball was sideswiped by Sampras into the nearest corner.
Aces -- three in a row at one interval -- and other assorted unreturnables left the 20,000 plus ticketholders pining to see a slow motion replay; just to make sure they really could believe what they thought they saw.
Nearly all of us watching on site thought Sampras would cool off. He didn't. He got better and better.
Consider: In all the matches Agassi won this year through the Open final, he broke his opponents' serve more than 50 percent of the time. Yet he couldn't manage one break against Sampras.
While Sampras gets to savor his title, Agassi has a crucial Davis Cup assignment next week in Vienna on a specially built clay court in a football stadium. Also playing singles will be Michael Chang, the 1989 French Open champion. Should the Americans beat the Austrians, they most likely would face the Australians in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the finals.
That would be a friendly way to end the year for these two, young American swatters. Maybe Agassi would finally get to see his name on the cup of one of the game's premier competitions. But for now he's still a pretender.