September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

Their second anniversary isn’t until the end of the month, but on Sept. 8 tennis ace Pete Sampras and his wife, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, got one heck of a present: his fifth U.S. Open crown. The unexpected win brought to an end his confidence-draining 26 months and 33 tournaments without a title. “This is as good as it gets,” Sampras, 31, told PEOPLE shortly after his blistering serve propelled him to an emotional victory over lifelong rival Andre Agassi. “This one feels the most special because of where I was a few months ago.”

In June, despite being armed with an inspirational note from Bridgette, Sampras found himself at “a major low point” after getting booted from Wimbledon in the second round. With commentators hinting that perhaps the aging champ should pack it in, that maybe marriage and pending fatherhood had quenched his once legendary competitive fire, Sampras admits “there was a moment I started believing all the negative stuff I was hearing.” That’s when Bridgette, 28, an actress who is expecting the couple’s first child by the end of the year, delivered her version of Adrian’s pep talk to Rocky. “She said, ‘Stop on your own terms. Just promise me that,’ ” Sampras says. “She reminded me who I am and the character that I have. That encouragement was big.”

So was the effect of Sampras’s decision to reunite with his former coach and longtime friend Paul Annacone six weeks before the U.S. Open. Says Annacone: “I told him, ‘If you’re looking for challenges, this is a great one.’ ”

At the Open, the note from his wife tucked in his gym bag, Sampras served 33 aces against Agassi. Elated after his win, Sampras climbed into the stands and hugged Bridgette. “Meeting my wife,” he says, “was the best thing that ever happened to me. She’s been my rock.”

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