As the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi rivalry entered a bewildering emeritus stage amid the rancor of last Friday night's exhibition during the BNP Paribas Open's "Hit for Haiti," it's illuminating to contrast the two Americans with the other two who rounded out the foursome. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were like children in the back seat of a car watching their parents bicker in an old-country dialect.
Justin Gimelstob, the ex-pro and current Fox Sports/Tennis Channel analyst who tried to broker a peace between Sampras and Agassi following the exhibition, said: "Each of these rivalries is marked by mutual respect. But though Roger and Rafa have a similar relaxed philosophy off the court, Pete and Andre are quite different from one another in a great many ways. Even when flavored by respect, conflict is inevitable."
Neither the classy Spaniard nor the baronial Swiss have any understanding of the artificial and occasionally genuine trash talk that pollutes the American sporting landscape. Each instead operates under the premise that while you can chide a rival about his tennis, questioning his character in front of millions is off-limits. It's hard to imagine Nadal or Federer mocking anything the other does off the court the way Agassi did in spoofing Sampras' tipping habits. According to former U.S. top-tenner and psychologist Allen Fox, "Agassi knew what button to push."
In contrast, Nadal speaks of Federer with the reverence of a parishioner gazing up from a church pew. And though Federer is nowhere near as awestruck by the man who's beaten him 13 of 20 times, even in defeat Federer's manner is typically more gracious than confrontational, the silky-smooth Swiss usually speaking with the pearl-smooth manner of a UN diplomat.
What Nadal and Federer share is a mutual joy for battle, a hunger for excellence and even a degree of lightness and pleasure in knowing they can earn millions playing a game. It was Federer, after all, who first conceived the initial "Hit for Haiti" on the eve of this year's Australian Open.
Although Federer-Nadal emerged organically and has endured persistently, Agassi-Sampras was conceived far more in a conference room than inside the lines, amid the embers of tennis' charisma drought of 1994. That was the year when a Sports Illustrated cover story asked an unanswerable but challenging question: "Is Tennis Dying?" Titans John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors -- headline-generating rivals on a par with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis -- had retired two years earlier. Martina Navratilova quit in '94, five years after the departure of her great rival, Chris Evert. Monica Seles was sidelined after her stabbing, as was Jennifer Capriati from burnout. Boris Becker's motivation was floundering. Ditto for another recent world No. 1, American Jim Courier. Even the relentless Steffi Graf endured a hiccup that year, surrendering her No. 1 ranking not to the iconic Gabriela Sabatini but to the persistent yet prosaic Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. TV ratings and equipment sales were down. Sampras was regarded less as a racket-wielding genius and more like Warren Buffett -- a humble solo act routinely posting one quarterly profit after another.
Tennis' dynamic duo became Sampras-Agassi. Agassi had long been a tennis messiah of sorts, off-the-charts box-office platinum who in '94 was at last starting to hone his game. Nike, adroitly seeing an opportunity, stepped in with an ad campaign that once again proved sizzle is far more alluring than steak. Figuring it was worth a go in his quest for a degree of greater public appreciation, Sampras signed on. Call it a strategic alliance between Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs. Why not?
To be sure, by sheer numbers, Sampras and Agassi were the two best players of the '90s, between them winning 17 Grand Slam titles that decade (12 for Sampras, five for Agassi). But looking more closely, it's hardly accurate to say Agassi was as consistently right behind Sampras as Nadal had been with Federer. Nadal held the No. 2 ranking for more than three straight years before becoming No. 1 in August '08, and holding on to the top spot for a good deal of '09. Said Fox, "For a while Nadal and Federer each had their spheres of influence, each winning his share of big titles."
As Gimelstob noted, "That Roger and Rafa can coexist so smoothly speaks volumes to the ways each can process pressure."
Sampras-Agassi was marked by one man's unwavering focus and another's life on a roller coaster. As Sampras finished No. 1 in the world six straight years from 1993 to 1998, Agassi was only ranked second or higher from November '94 to February '96. By late 1997 he'd slumped to a career low of 141st in the world. Even in 1999, the only year Agassi ever finished ranked No. 1, he was aided by Sampras' withdrawal from the U.S. Open with a back injury -- and that year lost to Sampras four of five times, including two high-stakes finals at Wimbledon and the season-ending ATP Tennis Masters Cup.
Said Fox: "Agassi and Sampras were fighting for the same bone a lot more than Federer and Nadal. When you're from the same country, for example, only one can be top dog. The closer you are to someone, the more you want to beat them. You've got to see them all the time. And in the big matches, Sampras was the one who won constantly. You've got to think at some level Agassi resented that. Nadal-Federer is beautiful, incredibly gracious. But Sampras-Agassi is more like most rivalries -- zero-sum, emotional, uncomfortable."
Beyond the lines, for all the swoosh-concocted sizzle and expectation surrounding Agassi and Sampras, Agassi's wavering engagement with tennis undermined the rivalry's credibility as the sport's marquee act. Even as Sampras admitted Agassi was the peer he feared most, not until 1998 did Agassi commit to tennis for the duration. Even now, with one of the central messages of Agassi's recent autobiography being his hatred for the sport (which he's since revised as a "hate to love" relationship), Agassi's long-standing aptitude for prevarication and repenting has infected the intermittently sublime tennis he and Sampras played.
No such fog has clouded the Nadal-Federer wars. Another piece of good news for tennis is that while Nadal-Federer is a delightful storyline, it's but one of many. With stars like the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova, with the emergence of superb players from all sorts of new and old tennis nations -- Serbia, Great Britain, Russia, China, Argentina, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium -- the sport's global reach has never spread deeper.
Like Sampras throughout his entire career, like Agassi from 1998 on, Nadal and Federer are supremely dedicated, constantly looking to drive themselves as much as possible and leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of the game's biggest titles. If that entails coming across one another, so be it. Certainly Federer relishes the chance to earn a win over Nadal at Roland Garros. And Nadal hungers to regain his throne in Paris and compete at Wimbledon for the first time since he won there in 2008. But tennis is hardly defined by the Roger & Rafa Show the way it once so desperately craved Sampras-Agassi.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.