The circumstances surrounding Andre Agassi's return to the tennis court in Las Vegas on Saturday were far more pleasant than the last time he had played on the UNLV campus.
In 1996, Agassi had plummeted from No. 1 in the world to No. 141 and was reduced to having to resurrect his career in a Challenger Series tournament at the Fertitta Tennis Complex.
Fifteen years later and a few hundred yards away inside the Thomas & Mack Center, Agassi was welcomed as a conquering hero in his hometown, a Hall of Famer playing in the ATP Champions Series.
The 41-year-old Agassi and longtime rival Pete Sampras, 40, went head-to-head in the final, and Agassi won 8-5 after going up a couple of breaks in the winner-take-all, first-to-eight-games set.
Agassi broke Sampras in the latter's first service game, then again at 3-2 after Sampras had broken back to pull even. Both players appeared to be enjoying themselves, laughing and joking. There was none of the old tension that defined their rivalry in the 1990s and into the 21st century.
Agassi went up 6-3 and kept Sampras at bay, winning for the second time in six appearances on the tour. Agassi served well all night, beating Jim Courier in the semifinals, 6-3. Sampras ousted John McEnroe, 6-4.
"It's great to be back," Agassi said. "I have so many memories here and so much pride representing Las Vegas. I've come a long way since the back courts at UNLV."
Agassi initially was scheduled to play Michael Chang in the semis. But Chang, a former resident of Henderson, pulled out with a strained right calf muscle.
Courier, 41, who lost to Sampras on Friday in Los Angeles, was available to pinch hit for Chang. But he couldn't keep up with Agassi, who appeared fit and eager to please the fans.
"To bring 21 years of memories back here playing at home puts a ribbon on it for me," Agassi said.
Agassi, who retired in 2006 after constant back problems, has held up well physically in the Champions Series, which wraps up this week with stops in Chicago, St. Louis and Buffalo, N.Y.
"I think one of the upsides of the schedule is it allows you to recover," said Agassi, who has played in six events and is second in points behind Sampras, who will be the ultimate winner of the $500,000 first prize. "But I've hung in there pain free. My back has been fine."
Agassi's last scheduled appearance in the 12-stop tour is Thursday in Chicago. If he can hang on to second place, he'll earn $350,000.
Agassi was greeted warmly by the announced crowd of 6,400, which included his wife, Steffi Graf, and their children, Jaden and Jaz.
Agassi served effectively and used his entire bag of tricks to oust Courier in the semis. At 3-2, Agassi used a nice drop volley at the net to help him break Courier and go up 4-2. He held at 4-2 with an ace to get the game back to deuce after Courier threatened to break back.
Agassi jokingly flexed his muscles after a forehand winner in the last game.
In the first semifinal, the 52-year-old McEnroe stayed step-for-step with Sampras until Sampras broke him at 4-4. He then served it out to gain his spot in the finals.
"With Pete, something bad can happen quickly," McEnroe said. "His serve is still so big. The ball just explodes off his racquet.
"Considering I haven't played in a couple of months and who I've played this week, I thought it worked out pretty well. It's tough playing Pete one night, Andre the next, then Pete again."
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.