There was the U.S. Open final in 1995, when Pete Sampras defeated Andre Agassi in a spectacular four-set showdown. There was the Australian Open final earlier that year, when Agassi defeated Sampras with sizzling shots and explosive service returns. And then there was the Wimbledon final last year, when Sampras defeated Agassi by playing what he later called the best tennis of his life.

This could be better. Because even though a trophy won't be at stake when Sampras and Agassi meet in the Australian Open semifinals on Thursday, both are playing some of the smartest, sharpest tennis of their careers, and both are preparing to take their storied rivalry to what could be unprecedented heights.

"It's going to be good stuff," Sampras said, smiling slyly. "There's no question about it."

The anticipation had already begun to build Tuesday, when Agassi looked so strong in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 win over Hicham Arazi that Arazi walked off the court saying "all you can do is laugh."

For a few hours, it appeared Agassi would have to be the favorite in the semifinals--no matter what Sampras could bring, it couldn't be as good as that.

Then Sampras stepped onto the court and served the first point of his quarterfinal match against fellow American Chris Woodruff. The ball was clocked at 134 mph. By the time Sampras wrapped up a 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 victory, Agassi wasn't the favorite anymore.

Sampras's backhands were like silk, his volleys like darts. It was a marked change from his game early in the tournament, where he was so off-rhythm that he fell down two sets in his second-round match against qualifier Wayne Black. In that match, he seemed unable to keep the ball in the court. On Tuesday, as Sampras said, "pretty much the whole game was the 'A' game." Woodruff couldn't disagree.

"I felt like I was playing one-on-one with Michael Jordan out there--he came ready to play from the first ball," Woodruff said. "When he plays like that, well, that's why he is so good."

Sampras is expecting more of a battle against Agassi, with whom he has traded victories over the last year. Agassi won the French Open, defeating Andrei Medvedev after Sampras faltered under the clay-court conditions. Sampras won Wimbledon, beating Agassi in a match that felt more like a clinic. Agassi won the U.S. Open after Sampras was injured, but then Sampras came back and defeated Agassi in the finals of the ATP Championships in November.

Of course, their history goes back much further, all the way to when they were youngsters on the courts of California, trying to beat each other years before anyone else in the tennis world cared. The tenor of their relationship has changed a lot over the years, especially recently as Agassi has tightened his training habits and gotten more serious about his tennis. Still, there is an element of rakish villain vs. Dudley Do-Right in each match they play, with Agassi dressing in black and Sampras in his spotless tennis whites.

"It's just kind of amazing, our careers and where we are today," Sampras said. "We were two kids hitting in a local park, and now we are competing for major titles.

"Andre and I have played each other so many times, and it's so close.

"He has pretty much breezed through this tournament so far, and I feel like my form is getting better. He's won big matches against me, but I've won my share.

"Obviously, Thursday will be a big one."

Australian Open

When: Through Sunday.

Where: Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia.


Yesterday's results: Men--Andre Agassi (1), United States, def. Hicham Arazi, Morocco, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2; Pete Sampras (3), United States, def. Chris Woodruff, United States, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.

Women--Jennifer Capriati, United States, def. Ai Sugiyama, Japan, 6-0, 6-2; Lindsay Davenport (2), United States, def. Julie Halard-Decugis (9), France, 6-1, 6-2.