WIMBLEDON, England -- From striplings in the juniors to finalists at Wimbledon in the twilight of their careers, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi have stalked each other with fear and respect.
No one neutralizes Sampras' serve like Agassi. No one demoralizes Agassi and breaks down his ground game like Sampras.
They meet again Sunday on Centre Court for the 24th time as pros, both seeking one more piece of history, one more piece of each other.
"He has made me a better player," Sampras said Saturday after a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 semifinal victory over Britain's Tim Henman.
"We've caused a lot of grief for each other," said Agassi, who shredded the serve-and-volley game of two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter, 7-5, 7-6 (5), 6-2.
Sampras was No. 1 for six years. Agassi will take over the No. 1 ranking on Monday, win or lose in their all-American final on the Fourth of July.
Sampras is the defending Wimbledon champion and five-time winner. If he wins again, for the sixth time in seven years, he will tie Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam titles and pass Bjorn Borg to own more Wimbledon titles than any man in the open era.
If Agassi wins, he will become the first man since Borg in 1980 to capture the French Open and Wimbledon back to back. At the French last month, Agassi became only the fifth man in history to complete a career Grand Slam, which included the 1992 Wimbledon title.
"We are obviously different in a lot of ways," Sampras said, "but we are similar. We are both hungry, competitive, want to win Slams. But as people, our lifestyles are as different as night and day. That doesn't mean we can't get along. When I see him in the locker room, it's not like he's the enemy. He is a competitor I have respected over the years."
When Agassi started beating him more frequently a few years ago, Sampras said, "I had to add things to my game."
"He was controlling my service games, and I had to develop a backhand and chip and charge a little more," Sampras said. "He is very tough to beat from the back. He can take my serve away, and not too many guys can do that consistently over the years."
Sampras has a 13-10 record against Agassi. But they haven't met in a Grand Slam final since the 1995 U.S. Open, where Sampras won in four sets. In their only previous match at Wimbledon, Sampras won in five sets in the 1993 quarterfinals.
"You get to see contrasts in play, contrasts in personality, two guys who have basically grown up together, and who somehow have managed to bring out the best in each other's game," Agassi said. "The stage is set. It's time to go out there and not miss our cue."
They set that stage doing what they've always done best, Sampras punching volleys against Henman, Agassi counterpunching returns and groundstrokes against Rafter.
Sampras struggled at the start, failing to hold serve until his third service game, for 2-4. But after getting treatment for a sore groin muscle on two changeovers early in the second set, Sampras took control.
Sampras, normally so stoic, even did a little dance when Henman double-faulted to concede the second set. He then won eight of the next nine points and cruised to the end.
"The second set went away from me very quickly," said Henman, who had hoped to be the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936. "And in the third, he went up a gear."
Henman expects the final to be a "classic confrontation" between perhaps the best serve-and-volleyer in history and the best returner and baseline player.
On grass, Sampras ought to have the edge, Henman said. But not necessarily against Agassi.
"Agassi on any court is going to be very, very difficult to beat," he said. "And the court is bouncing much, much higher than usual. I think that suits him."
Rafter looked shell-shocked after seeing so many of Agassi's returns speed past him or land right at his feet. And Agassi served so well, Rafter couldn't break him even once.
Rafter's spirit was sapped in the second-set tiebreaker, a set in which he always struggled to hold serve. Rafter had to fight mightily in the ninth game of that set to hold off nine break points as the game went to deuce eight times.
Seeing Rafter so deflated after that tiebreaker, Agassi pounced on him, breaking him twice in the third set -- the last time in the final game when Rafter whacked an overhead wide to end the match.
"Everything was on for him today," Rafter said. "He was very powerful with everything he did. It's the best I've seen him serve. He never really gave me a chance to try to control the points."
Agassi's run to the final continued his remarkable resurgence. In November 1997, he dropped to No. 141 and played in low-tier Challenger events to work his way back into shape.
Agassi stunned even himself by winning the French Open last month.
"Andre is the hottest player on tour right now, and for him to win the French and come here and be in contention is a heck of an effort," Sampras said. "He's going to be very tough to beat."
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