Commentary

Everything OK with tennis's odd couple?

Updated: February 27, 2011, 7:43 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras will meet again Monday in a best-of-three sets exhibition, with another retro-rivalry matchup, Ivan Lendl versus John McEnroe, as the tasty appetizer. You can catch the Lendl-McEnroe match on ESPN3.com, starting at 7 p.m. ET, with Sampras-Agassi airing on ESPN2 and ESPN3.com at 9 p.m.

The question, predictably, was the first one out of the box. It came from Filip Bondy, the astute columnist for the New York Daily News -- yes, a breathless tabloid:

Andre, how would you describe your relationship with Pete Sampras?

Andre Agassi, participating in a recent conference call to promote Monday night's BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden, was typically -- comically -- unruffled.

[+] EnlargeAndre Agassi and Pete Sampras
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Despite a mutual respect for each other, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras have had their share of prickly moments.

"Our relationship," he said, pausing a subtle beat, "is strictly plutonic, I assure you. Pete and I spent a lot of weekends together -- on Sundays with a blimp in the sky."

Issue diffused, Agassi went on to provide a plausible explanation for his awkward relationship with the other great tennis player of his generation. Agassi said in the three years it took to write his best-selling book, "Open: An Autobiography," he thought a lot about Sampras.

"I realized I never really knew him," Agassi explained. "Two different guys, with different styles, who see the world differently. That was a bridge that was difficult to cross. My goal in my book was to be harder on myself than anyone else.

"As little as I knew him, I recognized him as the superior athlete and tennis player."

They were the best of their time, playing 34 times between 1989 and 2002. Sampras held a 20-14 head-to-head edge, including a 4-1 record in Grand Slam finals. Together, they won a combined 22 major titles, a then-record 14 belonging to Sampras.

Sampras, asked about his relationship with Agassi last September during a conference call with reporters, offered this brief, guarded answer: "It's fine. As competitive as we were in the '90s, we got along quite well. Obviously, he said a few things in his book and we've had a few moments here and there. It's fine and respectful and I'll leave it at that."

The most incendiary moment came well after they both retired, about a year ago at the tournament in Indian Wells. What was supposed to be a dream doubles pairing for charity -- Sampras and Roger Federer against Agassi and Rafael Nadal -- turned into a glimpse of their apparently mutual distaste for each other.

Agassi, who has always been blessed with the gift of glib, kept up a steady stream of sarcastic play-by-play through the match. Sampras, clearly unhappy, did an exaggerated imitation of Agassi's pigeon-toed walk. In "Open," Agassi went on at length about Sampras stingy tipping.

"I don't have any money," Agassi said at one point, feeling around in his shorts pockets. "Wait, I've got a dollar."

Sampras, scowling, drilled the next serve right at Agassi. The bickering -- appropriately, Agassi wore a black Adidas ensemble and Sampras was dressed in a white Nike shirt -- led to feverish Internet speculation.

Ten days ago, Agassi said, "Unfortunately … I had a microphone to my mouth for too long. That was my fault. I apologized to him directly. Hopefully, life will allow us to get to know each other better.

Sampras, six months after the fact, sounded conciliatory.

"I never felt like it was awkward with Andre," he said. "I just saw him five days ago in Costa Rica and everything's fine. We're always going to be linked, as will John and Ivan, just because of the contrast, because they were the top two players in the world. Ali had Frazier. It's sort of how the Celtics-Lakers will always be linked."

Truth be told, the two don't seem to mind each other's company any longer -- especially when there is a significant payday at hand. Last May, Sampras beat Agassi in three sets in Puerto Rico and in September, as Sampras referenced, they flew to Costa Rica, only to have their exhibition in an open-air soccer stadium rained out.

"Andre and I were so different in every way possible," Sampras said. "We sort of transcended the sport there in the '90s and we're fine. We've talked about a lot of different things over the last few months and in South America. I'm really looking forward to going back to the Garden and playing in front of an American crowd with Andre. Hopefully, we'll have a good crowd and we'll enjoy it."

New York has been good to both of them; Agassi won the 1994 and 1999 U.S. Opens, and Sampras collected a total of five, the last coming in 2002 at the age of 31 -- over Agassi in the final. It was the last match he played on the ATP World Tour.

Agassi's last official match also came in New York, when he lost to Benjamin Becker in the third round of the 2006 U.S. Open.

"You don't realize the connection you have with someone until it's over," Agassi said. "It really hit me emotionally. It tells you things don't go unnoticed over the years. I've grown up in front of them. They forced me to learn about a lot of myself.

"They used to be the most difficult crowd in the world for me to play in front of them. Then they became the greatest crowd I ever played in front of. They made my job easier, making it a lot harder for my opponent to play."

Both players say they have been working hard in the gym.

"Nobody," Agassi said, "wants to go to the Garden and be less than their best. I've been staggering a lot of tennis playing with fitness and strength training. That's the best thing for my game. Hitting the ball has never been a problem."

Said Sampras, "When the people pay good money to watch us play, you feel like you owe them a good match, good quality tennis. I feel a certain amount of -- not pressure -- but an obligation to prepare myself as best I can and, hopefully, Andre does the same.

"You feel good when you're done. You feel good when you hit for a couple of hours and accomplish something."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.