Originally created 01/26/00

Agassi, Sampras renew rivalry



MELBOURNE, Australia -- At a moment when Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras are playing arguably the best of their careers, they will meet a round too soon in the Australian Open semifinals. It is the final before the final, a match that could set up the tournament for an anticlimactic finish.

Agassi and Sampras both are anticipating the high voltage that courses through all their matches, a charge that emanates from their days in the juniors and intensifies year by year as the stakes rise and they edge closer to the end of their careers.

On this occasion, Agassi will be seeking to become the first player to reach four straight Grand Slam finals since Rod Laver swept them all in 1969. For Sampras, history awaits as he tries to win his 13th major and surpass Roy Emerson.

"Once 6 o'clock, 6:30 comes around, you get the nerves going and you feel like, `This is it,"' Sampras said. "We are always a little nervous in the beginning of the matches, but once we get into it we are fine."

There is a fear Sampras senses against Agassi and no one else.

"He stands on the baseline and is basically looking you in the eye and saying, 'Ace me!' And if you don't ace him, he is going to pounce on that second serve," Sampras said.

Similarly, Agassi is undaunted by everyone else, but he knows that Sampras is capable of breaking down his baseline game with relentless net attacks.

"With Pete, there's a certain respect that goes along with playing him that makes you focus even more," Agassi said. "With the respect comes a level of anticipation and energy.

"It's always going to be close and it's always going to be a little that decides the difference. He's one of the greatest big-situation, big-match players that have ever played the game. Every time we're playing, it's a stage of the tournament when he's probably the least vulnerable. He's just a difficult player to beat."

The pity is the top-seeded Agassi and the third-seeded Sampras, so obviously performing at a higher level than everyone else in the Australian Open, will meet Thursday night, not in the final Sunday.