This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.
Greg Rusedski, it seemed, was only saying what was on everyone's mind. The Canadian turned Brit had just lost his third-round match to Pete Sampras at the 2002 U.S. Open in five sets, but he wasn’t impressed with what he had seen on the other side of the net.
“I’d be surprised if he wins his next match,” Rusedski said. “I think the movement is not the same and the fitness is not the same. He’s just not the same player from the past. You’re used to seeing Pete Sampras, 13-time Grand Slam champion. He’s not the same player.”
There may have been some sour grapes lodged within those words, but it was hard to argue with their accuracy. By the fall of 2002, the 31-year-old Sampras wasn’t the same player he once had been. His last title had come 26 months earlier, at Wimbledon in 2000. He was ranked No. 17. In the previous two U.S. Open finals, he had been humiliated by two members of a new generation, Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt. That June, Sampras had experienced what he called “the lowest moment of my career,” when he lost to 71st-ranked lucky loser George Bastl at Wimbledon, his favorite tournament. While that debacle had pushed Sampras to reconnect with his old coach Paul Annacone, the work they had done that summer had yet to produce any notable results.
What Rusedski and the rest of the world didn’t know was that Sampras had turned a corner in the final game of their third-round match. Out of nowhere, after struggling all evening to return Rusedski’s formidable lefty serve, he broke in the last game and let out a long-bottled-up roar of triumph.
The bullets, his opponents would soon find out, were back in the pistol.
“It was all about believing in myself and my game, and Paul reminding me who I am and what I’ve done in the game,” Sampras recalled to the New York Times as he looked back on the 2002 Open, which would be his last. “The belief that as much as everyone wrote me off, that I didn’t write myself off; that I could still play at a high level and get myself going at the right time.”
In that moment, though, Sampras sounded more cautious than confident.
“My first thought is to get back to my hotel room,” he said after his late-night win over Rusedski. He knew he would need his rest.
Sampras had a tough—and much younger—road ahead. First up, in the fourth round, was 24-year-old Tommy Haas. The German, who was entering his prime, was touted as a Grand Slam contender of the future, and he had beaten Sampras in their previous two meetings. This time, though, while Haas managed to win a set, he didn’t stand a chance. It was here where Sampras, for the first time in two years, began to look like the Sampras of old. He used his serve and his big, opportunistic forehand to take the racquet out of Tommy’s hand.
Sampras only picked up momentum from there. His next opponent was another up-and-comer, and his presumed successor, Andy Roddick. Like Haas, Roddick, who turned 20 during that year’s Open, had won his prior two matches over Sampras, and he was a dark horse to win his first major at Flushing Meadows. But like Haas, Roddick stood no chance in this night match. Before a capacity audience, Sampras gave the future American No. 1 a straight-set lesson in big-stage tennis.
Winning quickly was a matter of survival for the ever-pragmatic Sampras.
“The Roddick match was a big match,” he said, “because I could save my body a little bit. It was a pretty comfortable match, and it helped me have a little bit left in the final.”
Waiting in that final was a familiar opponent, and one who would make him work his hardest, Andre Agassi. Even before the match began, it felt as if a circle between the two men was closing. What we didn’t know then was that the last great era of U.S. men’s tennis was also closing. Twelve years earlier, in 1990, a 19-year-old Sampras had announced himself to the world by upsetting Agassi in the U.S. Open final. In 1995, he had broken Agassi’s heart again at Flushing Meadows. That year, Andre came in ranked No. 1, and he had beaten Sampras twice over the summer. But Pete turned the tables in four sets and proved, once and for all, his superiority in their rivalry.
The situation was much the same in 2002. Agassi was the sixth seed; Sampras was the 17th. Agassi was in better shape, and while Sampras had been in decline for two years, Agassi was in the midst of a late-career resurgence. He would go on to win the Australian Open five months later.
“We’re the oldest players to meet in the U.S. Open final,” Agassi wrote when he looked back on his mindset before his last match with Sampras, “but I’m feeling like one of the teenagers who have been kicking ass on the tour. I feel like part of the new generation.”
Still, Agassi also knew his history with his opponent.
“He says I bring out the best in him,” Agassi wrote, “but I think he’s brought out the worst in me. The night before the final, I can’t help but think of all the different times I thought I was going to beat Pete, knew I was going to beat Pete, needed to beat Pete, only to lose.”
Unfortunately for Agassi, the nightmare would happen one more time. Sampras, despite having played five matches in seven days, saved his best for last. He hit 33 aces and 84 winners to beat Agassi in four convincing sets, giving him a men's-best 14 major singles titles. It would be the final match of his career, and he would call it his finest.
“The best tennis I would play was when I was older,” Sampras recalled a few years later. “I wasn’t as consistent week in and week out, but that final I played against Andre at the 2002 U.S. Open was the highest level I’ve ever played.”
Looking back, even Agassi could see that there was poetic justice in the result.
“My loss in the final to Pete is offset by his perseverance and our years together,” Agassi told the Times in 2012. “There is just something right about his career being punctuated in that way... Somehow Pete going out a winner was the right thing for him, and I think it was the right thing period.”