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He lost 19 points in a row and his first serve was back at the hotel, taking the wrong day off.

He couldn't hit a forehand down the line and his choice of service-return tactics confused everyone but Andre Agassi.

Nevertheless, Pete Sampras was right there at the end, fighting Sunday to win a third-set tiebreak in the final of the Lipton Tennis Championships.

He didn't get it. Agassi whipped him, 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3). But Agassi didn't whip Sampras's behind, as he joked he would.

It was close, tense, tactically interesting tennis with superb shotmaking, and Sampras was right. "It could have gone either way."

The only whipping on this fine warm afternoon was done by the wind, which swirled around the stadium court, where a full house of 14,000 saluted both players.

It was the third showdown of the year between Sampras and Agassi, the second won by Agassi.

They come at the game with different styles and weapons. But if three finals this year have proven one thing it is that there isn't a sliver of difference separating the quality of their games.

Sampras could have been sullen and subdued after this loss. Losing 19 consecutive points at this level is a humiliation. But more than that, this ignominious run of failure turned the match around.

Agassi was serving at 2-2 and love-40 in the second set, staring gloomily up from a 20-foot hole.

He won five in a row to hold serve, then the next 14 to run out the set and take a 30-love lead in the first game of the third.

"There is nothing you can think about. You just have to try something different or take your time a little bit more. After he broke me (at 4-2), he just raised his level an extra notch. I just sort of gradually went down," said Sampras.

"But that was the turning point -- love-40. Three break points. That was the momentum switch."

Agassi would not gloat over the streak. "That doesn't happen too often, especially against a guy like Pete," he said diplomatically.

Sampras put in only 49 percent of his first serves, but showed there is much more to his game. Despite his serving problems, he never gave Agassi a break point in the final set and you can't fault his serving in the tiebreak.

The critical point came at 2-3. Sampras unloaded a 118 mph first serve and it came back just as fast -- a gorgeous piece of timing by Agassi. Sampras volleyed his second shot long.

Agassi took the lead to 6-3 and won the match when Sampras hit a backhand wide.

He is 1-8 in tiebreaks this year. "It was one of my strengths last year. I'm not having a mental problem with it. I'm just not winning them," said Sampras.

Incredibly, Sampras won only 26 of 90 points against Agassi's serve. More telling, he won only eight of 27 points against Agassi's second serve.

They may not play again for two months, but each will be waiting.

"On top of the rivalry there is also the hunt for No. 1," said Agassi, who will remain No. 2 at least one more week. "This is a great stage in tennis. It's nice to see everyone appreciating it."

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