The 2018 Australian Open is a few days away, and we are counting down the top 10 greatest singles matches. In case you missed it, here’s a recap of our previous entrants.
Today’s classic features two men who need no introduction and who set the standard by which most rivalries are measured. Americans Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras both held numerous Grand Slams and were synonymous with tennis worldwide at that point in their careers.
The two men had clashed an astounding 28 times before the day’s encounter, with Sampras holding a sizable 17-11 lead. He had won four of the last five meetings against Agassi, their most recent match occurring in the final of the 1999 ATP World Tour Finals. Sampras prevailed 6-1 7-5 6-4; as the final was still in a best-of-five sets format.
Agassi was the number one seed entering the 2000 Australian Open, sweeping aside Moroccan Hicham Arazi 6-4 6-4 6-2 in the quarterfinals. Sampras defeated fellow American Chris Woodruff 7-5 6-3 6-3, setting up the highly anticipated semifinal.
The first set saw both men struggle to assert dominance, with momentum swinging both ways like a pendulum. Sampras did have a triple breakpoint at 2-2 but was unable to convert, as Agassi attacked his weaker backhand.
The stoic American was soon broken, as the errors began to mount and Agassi raced to a 4-3 lead. Agassi, being the architect that he is, methodically picked apart Sampras’s backhand and claimed the first set 6-4. Sampras would have to rely on his powerful serves and proficiency at the net to overcome Agassi’s superior return game.
It was Sampras’s return game that saw him finally obtain a break in the second set, as he rifled an Agassi-like forehand return to break his opponent and lead 3-1. The world number one attempted a comeback, creating two break opportunities in the subsequent game. Sampras, however, displayed his serving prowess as he hit numerous aces and service winners to extend his lead. Aggressive groundstrokes and intimidating forays to the net were the order of the day, as Sampras overcame his rival and took the second set 6-3.
There were no breaks in the third set, as each man attempted to overwhelm the other. Agassi employed his strategic shot placement and return game, whereas Sampras relied on his booming serve and cat-like reflexes at the net. A tiebreak ensued, in which Sampras dominated, hitting two aces and three clean winners to win it at love and claim the third set 7-6(0).
The 4th set proceeded in the same fashion as the 3rd, with neither man breaking the other. Sampras’s serves were lethal as expected. Conversely, Agassi surprised the Melbourne crowd by matching Sampras with excellent serve placement and the occasional ace. Another tiebreak followed, with Agassi displaying some incredible defence against Sampras’s extremely aggressive play.
Sampras obtained his second mini-break following a spectacular running forehand passing shot to lead 4-3. However, an unlucky net cord gave Agassi the chance to hit a well-angled backhand shot to level at 4-4. With Sampras serving at 5-6, a spectacular return set Agassi up for a forehand pass, which he put away to take the set 7-6(5).
With momentum definitely on Agassi’s side, the world number one raced to a 3-0 lead in the final set; breaking Sampras with a beautiful backhand return winner up the line. Sampras looked somewhat despondent as he returned to his side during the changeover. Agassi’s serves and shot-placement were immaculate; he just could not miss. Sampras committed several errors at the net, missing volleys that he should have put away with ease for someone of his calibre. Defeated, the number three seed could only muster a single game as Agassi took the match 4-6 6-3 6-7(0) 7-6(5) 6-1 in 2 hours 55 minutes.
This victory was significant in more ways than one, not only had Agassi defeated his rival, but he was also the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to reach four consecutive Grand Slam finals (He had won the French and US Open in 1999, losing to Sampras at Wimbledon in the same year).
The level of tennis displayed in this match was exceptional, particularly in the first four sets. Agassi played a very efficient match, committing less than 20 unforced errors the entire match. Sampras set a personal record, hitting 37 aces against his rival. He seemed to tire in the final set, however, and Agassi took full advantage. It was later discovered that Sampras had injured his right hip flexor in the fourth game, and an MRI the following day revealed a tear that kept him out of action for four weeks.
”It certainly didn’t help with my moving, but I’m not taking anything away from how he played,” Sampras said of Agassi. ”He played great, and he’s got a great chance of winning the whole thing.”
Agassi then went on to face Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the final, whom he defeated 3-6 6-3 6-2 6-4 to win his sixth Major title.
In a battle between arguably the best serve-and-volleyer of all time and the greatest returner of all time, Agassi reigned supreme. His solid groundstrokes, tactical genius and unwavering spirit, saw him overcome his long-time foe and compatriot. And how he performed this feat is deserving of a spot on our list of the greatest matches in Australian Open history.
Do you think Agassi is the greatest returner of all time? Or is there someone else presently playing who can lay claim to that title?