Inside Sampras & Agassi's Legendary Rivalry
ATP Tour Uncovered presented by Peugeot looks back on the all-American rivalry that lit up the 1990s
It was a rivalry based on the serve of Pete Sampras and the return of Andre Agassi. In a 30-match series that spanned 13 years, the sport’s two most marketable stars of the 1990s pitted contrasting styles, and personalities, that led to high-quality match-ups and plenty of mutual respect.
Early in his career, Agassi played first-strike tennis, looking to end points as quickly as possible, but learned to dictate play from the baseline, with accurate groundstrokes — almost identical in strength — and wore down his opponents with his superior conditioning and depth of shot.
Sampras developed a classic, all-court attacking game, centred on a serve hit with great disguise. His second serve, struck almost as powerfully as his first delivery, is regarded as the best in the sport’s history. His jump smash and hitting an on-the-run forehand also became signature shots.
“It’s a great match up, both of us Americans, different styles of play and games,” says Sampras. “It’s a contrast and it has the ingredients of a rivalry. It’s different when I play him; there is a lot of respect for each other. We’ve competed since we were eight years old, playing junior tennis. I need to step up whenever I play him.”
Agassi says, “I felt if I played my best tennis, I can beat anyone. If I played my best tennis against Pete, it still doesn’t mean I will win. He’s taken away a lot of titles from me and caused me a lot of sleepless nights. I’m grateful now to have had him in my career.”
By 1995, when they met on five occasions at high-profile tournaments, their mutual clothing sponsor had a field day, with the ‘Guerrilla Tennis’ television commercial raising their profile further. Their matches had become the sport’s hottest ticket and must-see television.
But Agassi’s sharp decline, including a wrist injury, that saw him drop to No. 141 in the FedEx ATP Rankings on 10 November 1997, contrasted to Sampras’ sustained dominance and six consecutive year-end No. 1 finishes between 1993 and 1998.
Agassi recovered to finish 1999 in top spot, and the pair engaged in a further 11 matches, culminating in Sampras winning a then-record 14th major crown at the 2002 US Open. While it proved to be Sampras’ last match, Agassi forged on, once again rising to No. 1 at the age of 33 and the Las Vegan continued to compete until September 2006.
At the close, Sampras led 20-14 in their ATPHead2Head series, having won 10 of their 15 matches at Grand Slam championships or the Nitto ATP Finals. They brought out the best in each other, but it was Sampras’ 11-9 edge over Agassi in hard-court meetings that elevated the sport to new heights and the era of superstar tennis.