Different Strokes

WHILE ANDRE AGASSI WAS shuttling to his beloved Las Ve gas, La Cosha and Palm Springs in his private JetStar last week, Pete Sampras was wedging himself into the tiny, overcrowded shop called Crumpets down the road from Buckingham Palace to order a ham-and-cheese. "Best sandwiches in London," he said out of earshot of his pal, the owner, who's also named Pete. "Except for this. . . Hey, Pete," called out Pete. "Hold the butter. Arid put it on the tab."

Hey, different strokes for different folks. Except for this: in their furious, simultaneous pursuit of excellence, major championships, the No. i ranking--and especially each other-- Agassi and Sampras have created the hottest sporting rivalry of the sea-son. They're a mutually admiring odd couple, Agassi's Glitz Grunge Pirate and Sampras's Neighborhood Boy Nice. And as they join their delicious battle again on the green lawns of Wimbledon, the question remains which is greater: the stylistic and personality differences between the two or their Similar brilliance with a racquet?

For two years the Agassi-Sampras rivalry has not only dominated tennis but nearly transcended it. A Nicklaus-Palmer, Ali-Frazier kind of thing. A contest, in Agassi's own words, "with all the ingredients of the Yankees-Dodgers, Lakers-Celtics.

Between them, Agassi and Sampras have won the last two Australian Opens, the last two U.S. Opens, the last three Wimbledons. In the '90s they've won three of the five ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) World Championships; since the summer of '93, they've won six of the last eight Grand Slams.

Last year, though Sampras won 10 tournaments to retain his No. 1 ranking, a foot injury rendered him helpless through the summer. Agassi roared into the breach, winning his first U.S. nationals and rising to No. 2. Then this season came nirvana in triplicate: the rivals exchanged victories in three big-time tournament finals. Agassi won the Australian Open, after which Sampras said, "I can't wait to boat his brains the next time." He did, at Indian Wells, Calif., upon which Agassi vowed, "I'll kick Pete's ass next week," which he also did, in Key Biscayne, Fla.

By April 10, the No. 1 ranking had switched racquets to Agassi for the first time. Pending the Wimbledon final on July 9, the soonest they can rendezvous again, Sampras has won 8 of their 15 head-to-head matches (7 of which have been in either Grand Slam or World Championship events). But Agassi has actually won 23 of the 42 sets-it's that close. Their career win-loss records are also nearly identical: Agassi's is 385-126; Sampras's, 384-118. But, save their work ethics, self-confidence, hunger for titles and their ugly Nike tent-shorts, that's their only recurring sameness.

The Agassi of old was a shallow, labor-challenged guy with peroxide tresses-he was Kato long before Kato had a house to guest in. But last week there he was, actually grinding away for hours on a grass court in the 109-degree desert heat of the Indian Wells resort in the 'Springs. Recovering from the hip injury he suffered in the French Open, Agassi was transhoning his game from the slow red day of Paris and training with the new, low-pressurized balls that will be used on the blistering-quick greensward of Wimbledon. He's "running his ass off, slugging those babies from around his ankles," said his coach Brad Gilbert. "But on the great courts at Wimbledon Andre will get the true bounce for his returns-they'll be right up in his strike zone."

Back in London at the Queens Club tournament, an annual Wimbledon run-up, Sampras was recovering from his own lost spring on the European clay--eight matches, five defeats- with the help of those very same spheres. Using the heavier, slower balls, all Sampras did was whack 75 aces in five matches. Because of a rain delay, he played the semifinal and final singles at Queens plus a doubles match on the same day, 111 games total, and won all three. "I'm ready," Sampras said of Wimbledon (or of Agassi). "I don't care what kind of ball it is. Give it to me on a grass surface and I'm going to hit aces."

The contrast that makes the Agassi-Sampras rivalry so riveting begins with looks and personality. But it also extends to the styles of their games. Sampras, 24 in August, is tall and stately with darkish, Greco-Kennedy killer looks. He is quiet, laid back, normal to the point of boredom, with the classic serve-and-volley game to match. His is not the most powerful serve on tour but he's the best at picking his spots and disguising the placements. Before his coach, Tim Gullickson, was sidelined by a brain tumor, Gully taught Sampras how to play on grass -- shortening his swing with blocks and slices to keep him in the point. He had always hit the ball on the run better than anybody alive; now Sampras has won two Wimbledons running.

Agassi is different--way different. He got his infamous Van Gogh-goes-to-prison haircut at the Oribo salon at Elizabeth Arden in New York, and says he designed his street-punk outfits with Mixmaster stripes so people could "go skateboarding" in them. But beyond the glitter and the psychobabble, Agassi, just turned 25, may boa born tennis genius. He has incredibly quick hands, sublime in touch and feel. He's the best counter puncher since Jimmy Connors (only faster, stronger). If the serve is the most significant shot in tennis, the return is a dose second--and that's what Agassi lives off. He's a natural belter who with legendarily sparse practice "sees" the ball like a great baseball hitter, nails it early, on the rise, and forces even the most secure server to cringe at the thought of having to face his replies. Everyone raves about Agassi's laser forehand, but it's his double-fisted backhand (enabling him to control the low ball) that makes him so dangerous.

"That's his equity shot, the liquidator," says Gilbert, a savvy tour veteran who joined Agassi after wrist surgery threatened to end the star's career in late 1998. "Beej" motivated the former Slackassi to think and strategize, to exploit his power by dosing to the net and to use his serve as a weapon. "Winning Ugly," the title of Gfibert's autobiography, is a fair description of the results. "I made the commitment, but Brad directed the effort," Agassi says.

Nike is playing off the competition with an ad showing Agassi and Sampras in a guerrilla match in a packed San Francisco intersection. But the best (or, if you are a sleazy British tabloid, the worst) aspect of the rivalry is that the men, who played together on the junior circuit, sincerely get along. "These guys show it's possible to have a great rivalry without hating the other guy," says Tom Gullickson, Tim's twin brother and their Davis Cup captain. "For too long in tennis we never had that,"

He's referring, of course, to the sport's historic altercations, like those among Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg and John Mc-Enroe and Ivan Lendl. Connors once said menacingly of Borg, "I'll follow the s.o.b. to the ends of the earth," and he called Lendl "a chicken." McEnroe uttered sweet nasties about Borg upon his early retirement and always ridiculed Lendl. Jimbo and Mac tried to meld on a Davis Cup team and the fortunate outcome was that nobody got killed; in a recent seniors event the two were still snarling at each other.

"I could never get mad like that at Pete," says Agassi, who did once crack that his compare looked like he "had swung down from a tree." Immediately, he faxed Sampras an apology. The worst Sampras has done is mock-describing for David Letterman how Andre's former friend, Barbra Streisand, cheered him on at Wimbledon, calling him" 'Dre. Let's go, 'Dre, c'mon, 'Dre."

What stands out now is their mutual respect and a recognition that they may be facing a struggle for the ages, a testosterone version of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. That marathon came to define both players-and prolonged their careers. "The excrement and intensity between Pete and me is way beyond anything I experience playing the other guys," Agassi said as he arrived in Wimbledon village last Thursday. "He's the one guy I feel gives me no say in the match. Just knowing he's out there inspires me."

Et tu, Pete? "It's special playing Andre," Sampras said, pausing between trips to Crumpets. "He's the one guy who, even if I'm playing well, can take me down. But I think we both hope the other reaches the finals in all the Slams. That's what this is all about, To go down in history as one of the great rivalries in tennis. . . that would be the ultimate."

Of course, if they could keep exchanging victories and remain the same people-which is to say so vastly different-that would be even better.

23 years old, 6 feet one, 170 pounds

Professional since 1988

Career earnings: $14,602,863

Endorsements: Nike, Movado, Ray-Ban, Wilson

Ranked No. 1 for 82 consecutive weeks until April 10, 1995

Grand Slam victories: 3

25 years old, 5 feet 11, 175 pounds

Professional since 1986

Career earnings: $8,587,956

Endorsements: Canon, Head, Nike

Ranked No. 1 since April 10, 1995

Grand Slam victories: 3

SOURCE: U.S. TENNIS ASSOC., INT'L MANAGEMENT GROUP