Top US stars don't shine Down Under

America's two best tennis players, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, both missed a rare opportunity at the Australian Open, which is entering its final weekend.

Agassi withdrew because of a wrist injury before the event even began. Sampras lost a tough match to Russia's Marat Safin early this week.

Their absence from the late rounds is disappointing for two reasons. First, most of the top seeds were injured or upset early, putting the year's first Grand Slam up for grabs. Second, both Sampras and Agassi are entering the twilight of their brilliant careers, and it's questionable whether either will win another major title. This could have been the best chance.

At 31, Sampras will need a favorable draw and a break or two to win what would be a record 14th Grand Slam title, says Tony Trabert, himself the winner of six slams. As for Agassi, he has already hinted that it could be tough to come back from his wrist injury. Also, he's admittedly preoccupied with raising his and Steffi Graf's son, Jaden Gil.

"Before [top players] become physically unable to perform at the top level, they lose their drive," Trabert says. "When you're a multimillionaire, it's hard to keep that desire."

What's more, the men's field as a whole is getting harder and harder for one player to dominate. There is a whole slew of tough, young players coming of age, led by world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who lost early in the Australian Open at least partially because of a lingering illness.

To win a Grand Slam, a player usually has to win six consecutive matches, which can take a bigger toll on older players. Last year at the US Open, for example, Sampras fought his way through Patrick Rafter, Agassi, and Safin, only to fall to Hewitt in the finals.

"It's truly a battle of the ages," says Greg Sharko, a spokesman for the Association of Tennis Professionals. "These younger players are hungry, and they have no fear of players like Sampras."

Sampras does seem to have more fight left in him. He's expected to play a full schedule this year, and he's reportedly been getting in better shape with the help of coach Tim Gullickson. He's said he'll play Davis Cup singles this year for the first time since 1995, when he led the United States to victory. And as long as he is still standing, he'll be dangerous on Wimbledon's fast grass courts.

Agassi could be a different story. Without a huge serve to rely on, he has to be in supreme condition to win. The wrist injury could prevent that.

"Especially at this age, it doesn't take many years or months [out of action] to mean the [end of your] career," Agassi ominously said when he withdrew from the Australian Open.

* * *

FOOTBALL IS A SPORT that attracts fanatics. I was reminded of that while catching a plane Sunday from Baltimore to Pittsburgh for an NFL playoff game. I sat next to a rather large Ravens fan, who was decked out in purple jersey No. 52, that of linebacker Ray Lewis. But he reminded me more of the mammoth defensive lineman Tony Siragusa.

Robby, as we'll call him, had a dubious plan. He and his buddy had no tickets to the sold-out game, but were willing to take their chances. They were supposed to get help from a friend named Bubba, who would meet them at a joint called Froggie's just before the 1 p.m. kickoff. After the game, they would hustle back to the airport for a 5 p.m. return flight.

Yeah, right, I thought, imagining Robby and his friend stuck in hostile parking-lot territory, without tickets, and wearing enemy colors.

We parted ways at the Pittsburgh airport, and I didn't give Robby much thought until later that night, when I returned to the airport and saw a handwritten sign in a restaurant. Imitating a credit-card commercial, it said, "Air fare from Baltimore to Pittsburgh: $200. Tickets to the game: $200. Going home a loser: Priceless.

The Ravens had lost 27-10. Poor Robby.

As I checked in at the counter, however, I bumped into my old friends, and they were anything but sad. After a high-five, Robby recounted their story.

They had indeed met up with Bubba at Froggie's. Bubba took them to the game and got them in free through a ticket collector he knew. They went to the mezzanine level and found some empty luxury seats - right behind former Bears quarterback Mike Tomczak. They had made friends with the Steelers fans.

After the game, they grabbed dinner and decided to catch a later flight (mine). At the airport, they had told their story to a woman who worked for the airline, and she asked if they could put her husband in touch with Bubba before next week's game. They obliged and, in exchange, were upgraded to first-class seats.

When I last saw Robby, he was back in Baltimore. Dangling from his hand was a bag with leftovers from dinner in Pittsburgh. His team may have lost, he said, but he had had a great trip.

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