A matchup for the ages ... but not the aged

Now-underdog Sampras mulls retiring after win.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sunday's US Open men's championship was a perfect bookend to one of the great rivalries in the history of sport.

There has been Ali and Frazier. Borg and McEnroe. Bird and Magic Johnson.

The duel on display in the US Open finals, however, had a singularity all its own.

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It was here at Flushing Meadows 12 years ago, after all, when two American kids named Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi engaged in their first memorable duel. A 19-year-old Sampras stunned Agassi, a year his senior, to become the youngest men's Open champion.

Their careers have been intertwined ever since they were adolescents, and now they have come full circle. In a sport awash with a new cast of teenage titans, the 30-somethings proved on Sunday that they remain lions at heart.

In their 34th meeting, it was hard to call one a loser.

The US Open final, with New York in the spotlight of the 9/11 anniversary, was an appropriate setting for what could prove to be their last major-title face-off. Sampras – winless since Wimbledon 2000 – ended his drought in storybook fashion, beating his longtime rival and fellow tennis legend 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

Looking like the Sampras of old – though slowing as the match wore on – the 31-year-old American claimed an unprecedented 14th career grand-slam title.

"This might take the cake.... This might be my biggest achievement of all," he said after dazzling 23,000 spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium with his trademark mix of power serves and deft volleys. In his career against Agassi, Sampras is 20-14, (and 4-1 in major finals).

Sampras versus Agassi has been a dream final for most of the last decade – but few would have dreamed that Sampras was capable of taking part in it this year.

"You would have gotten some great odds on making this bet before the tournament," said Agassi prior to Sunday's final.

You would have indeed, considering how miserable Sampras looked after losing early at the French Open and Wimbledon this year.

But over the past two weeks, Sampras defied critics and opponents by serving big and displaying the graceful game that his reputation was built upon. Once again, he made dominance look easy.

Whispers of retirement preceded Sampras's latest title run. Married and with a child on the way, he hedged about his options: "I guess I'm back," he said as he eyed the Tiffany trophy that will now bear his name five times. Does that mean back for another Wimbledon? "I'm going to have to weigh it up over the next couple months. I still want to play, I love to play. But to beat a rival like Andre in a major tournament at the US Open ... a storybook ending, it might be a nice way to stop."

In fact, Sampras's win has done little to defuse speculation about his future.

"I want to stop on my terms," he insisted . "That's the one thing I promised myself, even though I was struggling this year and hearing this and that.... I've done too much in the game to hear the negative things and start believing it." Before arriving at Flushing Meadows, Sampras had gone on record as saying he had one remaining goal – to go out on top by winning one more major.

The question remains whether Sampras will pursue still one more. The simple desire to compete may no longer be enough to entice Sampras onto the courts. Perhaps his most telling comment of all: "I met the woman of my dreams and now we're going to have a child, and that's what life is all about."

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