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Sampras vs. Agassi at SYSTEM 1

Think about what it takes to return a serve at tennis. Not just any serve either, but one struck by Pete Sampras, possibly the greatest ever tennis player on grass.

First, you’re going to have to anticipate how and where to move your feet and whether to take the racket back on the forehand or backhand side.

To do that, you’ll have to calculate the moment the ball leaves his racket roughly where it’s going to land and where your racket will intercept it.

Into that calculation must go the initial velocity of the ball, the amount that’s going to decrease and the effect of the wind and spin on the trajectory of the ball.

Then the ball bounces and everything has to be recalculated to anticipate the point where contact will actually be made with the racket.

At the same time, muscles must be instructed. A movement of feet needs to occur, the racket taken back at a certain speed and height, the face of the racket kept at a constant angle as the body and racket move forward in balance.

Contact then has to be made at a precise point depending on whether the instruction was given to hit down the line or cross-court - an order that isn’t given until after an analysis of the movement of your opponent. If it’s Sampras, he’s probably coming into net.

But if it really is ‘Pistol Pete’, that serve is coming towards you at around 130 mph. So whatever you’re going to do, you have less than half a second to do it.

The good news is you’re Andre Agassi, the greatest returner of serve of your generation.

Most people stood well behind the baseline to Sampras’s serve but Agassi used to stand inside it. He also had this short punch of a swing, especially on the backhand.

But his real gift was his ability to know where the ball was going to be. You could call it intuition. Or even System 1. Thinking fast.

The problem is no one, not even Agassi, could tell which way Sampras was going to serve - down the middle, out wide or into the body. The ball toss was the same every time. The racket moved on the same trajectory. The eyes gave no clues at all. You just had to wait and see.

Now imagine it’s the Wimbledon men’s final in 1999. The fourth of July.

Sampras is thrashing you. Everything he’s attempted has come off. It’s the purplest of purple patches. As he said after the match: “I couldn’t have played any better”.

The score is 6-3, 6-4, 6-5. He’s broken your serve and is serving for the match. It’s 40-30. Match point.

The one chink of light is he went for a big first serve and it was a fault. So what should you do?

You’d think, well, it’s a second serve on championship point. Sampras must be nervous as hell. He’s a point away from winning Wimbledon for the sixth time. Surely he’ll play it safe and just get the serve in.

So you step inside to the baseline one more time with a plan to take the ball early. Win the point. Break back. Get the third set. Then the fourth…

And what does Sampras do? Possibly the most famous second serve of all time. 110 mph perfectly placed down the T. And you can’t lay a racket on it.

Agassi later described that serve as a fiery exclamation mark at the end of a seamless performance.

And when Sampras was asked what on Earth he was thinking going for a second-serve ace on championship point, he reflected for a moment and then said: “Nothing, really”.

Game, set and match to System 1.

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