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  Monday, 9 September, 2002, 04:28 GMT 05:28 UK
Sampras cements place in history
Pete Sampras
Sampras has rediscovered his fearsome serve

If ever there were any doubts about Pete Sampras' right to call himself the greatest, he crushed them in emphatic style with his epic four-set win over Andre Agassi for a fifth US Open title.

Facing his long-time rival, the only man to have challenged his dominance in the 90s, Sampras somehow summoned a performance which overshadowed all his previous 13 Grand Slam triumphs.

For two and a half sets, a sentimental New York crowd were treated to the kind of breathtaking serve-volleying which had seen Sampras climb to the pinnacle of world tennis in 1993 and stay there for six years.

  Profile: Pete Sampras
Age: 31
Born: Washington DC
Lives: Los Angeles
Titles: 64
Grand Slams: 14
Career matches won: 762

Sampras' serve, once one of the most feared in tennis, was suddenly impregnable even to one of the game's greatest returners.

And once that was firing, the rest of Sampras' game clicked seamlessly back into place.

Such was the devastation wreaked by Sampras that the crowd, desperate for more entertainment, threw their weight behind Agassi.

It was just like the good old days when tennis crowds became bored of Sampras' procession of titles and would always support his opponent, more out of sympathy than hope.

Only in the last two years has Sampras found himself back in favour during a barren spell which has seen him slump to a series of new and shocking lows.

The most painful came at Wimbledon this year where in the second round he was beaten by 'lucky loser' George Bastl, a player who can most favourably be described as a journeyman.

A shell-shocked Sampras afterwards spoke of his belief that he was merely short on confidence and that he would be back for another shot at the title he had won a record seven times.

"I'm not going to give into the critics - I'll stop on my own terms," he said.

Pete Sampras and wife Bridgette Wilson
Sampras has been supported by wife Bridgette Wilson

"What I've done here and what I've done to the game is always going to stick no matter what happens in the next few years. But I still believe I have a major in me."

But to the majority of observers, it was the forlorn cry of a proud champion who would not accept the passing of time.

Having suffered moral-crushing defeats to 20-year-old opponents, Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt, in the previous two US Open finals, many might have taken the hint that their time was up.

Not Sampras.

After two run-of-the-mill matches at this year's US Open, he faced an in-form and fired-up Greg Rusedski in the third round.

Driven on by a wildly partisan crowd, Sampras scraped a five-set win which gave no indication of the fireworks he was about to produce.

Rusedski afterwards became the first of Sampras' contemporaries to say that he was no longer the player he once was, adding that he was a "a step-and-a-half slower" getting to the net.

Sour grapes

But though Rusedski might have saved his comments for a situation in which he would have avoided the accusations of sour grapes, the British number two did not seem to be too wide of the mark.

Having lost the spring on his serve, Sampras was no longer the imposing figure who would rush the net before dispatching the easy volley.

It was evident as far back as 2001 in his defeat to Roger Federer at Wimbledon that Sampras was having to pick too many half-volleys off his toes.

Most observers attributed it to his age but Sampras' performances at Flushing Meadows from the fourth round onwards told a different story.

His confidence flooding back, Sampras returned to the player of old, winning points with a swinging serve and crisp volley and demoralising opponents with his ability to produce an ace at the scent of danger.

And against Agassi, in a final played in an emotionally charged atmosphere days ahead of the 11 September anniversary, he lifted the bar once again.

Sampras will not be drawn on his future, but after leaving those who pushed for his retirement red-faced with the emphatic nature of his victory, he has ensured that the decision will be left entirely in the hands of the legend himself.

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