Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras forever will be linked in tennis history. Across 34 matches, five in Grand Slam finals, their rivalry thrived thanks to their contrasting styles of play and personalities.
Appropriately, the last match of Sampras' pro career came against Agassi, in the 2002 U.S. Open championship match. No one knew for sure at the time that it would indeed wind up being Sampras' farewell match. He didn't announce anything before the tournament, before the final or immediately after hoisting the trophy. He didn't announce anything the next day, week or month, either.
Not until the 2003 U.S. Open rolled around did Sampras formally say goodbye, although it was clear by then he was done, not having played for 50 weeks. Agassi, in contrast, has found a way for closure — for himself, fellow players and fans — by announcing a little more than two months ago that the U.S. Open beginning Monday would be his last event.
He arrived in New York unseeded at the Open for the first time since 1997, with a bad back and little match preparation.
"To be here, the inspiration of it — I'm hoping to get out there and feel awesome," said the 36-year-old Agassi, participating in his record 21st consecutive U.S. Open.
He won the event in 1994 and 1999, part of his eight major titles forming a career Grand Slam, and was the runner-up four times, including last year against Roger Federer.
The U.S. Tennis Association approached Agassi's team about the possibility of some sort of tribute during the Open, but the idea was scrapped.
"We're going to respect the wishes of Andre Agassi and respect the fact that he wants to approach this tournament as he does any other one," USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said.
Instead, Agassi's first-round match against Andrei Pavel of Romania on Monday night was scheduled to be preceded by an on-court ceremony marking the renaming of the National Tennis Center to honor ex-player and pioneer Billie Jean King.
Other past Open champions slated to appear on Day 1 included Andy Roddick (2003), Justine Henin-Hardenne (2003), Svetlana Kuznetsova (2004) and Lindsay Davenport (1998), who was hoping to be able to play despite hurting her right shoulder Saturday.
"Obviously, the story from the 2006 U.S. Open, regardless of what happens, is going to be Andre's last tournament. I hope that it's a celebration of his career, for this whole event, and that's what it should be," Roddick said. "He's earned that right. That will dominate the headlines, and I think it should dominate the headlines."
Still, what no one could know heading into the tournament, of course, was how long Agassi's final tournament would last.
One match? Two? Seven?
"I have yet to prepare myself properly for the emotions throughout this whole sort of summer and most of the year," Agassi said. "But in this case, I'm sure I'm underestimating everything I'm going to feel and experience."
He contested his first Grand Slam tournament at the 1986 U.S. Open. Now he closes his career at the 2006 U.S. Open.
"Pete, at the time, it was a little bit different than Andre, I guess, because no one really knew when he was going to retire and if he was going to play Wimbledon the next year, and so on," 2001 Open champion Lleyton Hewitt said.
"Andre is at the stage of his career, and he's such a showman, and given back so much to the game, that it's good that he's been able to have this sort of farewell. I think he's a bit different than Pete with his personality and off-court attitude, so I think that's probably worked in Andre's favor. I think the crowd definitely (will enjoy) it, as well."