Favorite Pete Sampras Match
I've been a fan of Pete Sampras for a long time, probably almost 7 years now. I think the thing that stands out in my mind the most, aside from his unparalleled talent, is his demeanor off the court. Pete is a throwback to an earlier era of tennis, when the performance of the players mattered most. I think Pete's deliberate lack of arrogance, despite all his titles (62 and counting), Grand Slam wins (12, tying him with Roy Emerson for most ever) and his other accomplishments is noteworthy. He does not feel the need to boast about his career and even seems a bit embarrassed whenever he has to talk at length about all that he has achieved.
I think the most memorable match I have personally witnessed involving Sampras was the fourth match of the Davis Cup Semifinals vs. Australia in Washington, D.C., September, 1997. To set the stage a bit, Pete was coming off a very disappointing loss to Petr Korda in the U.S. Open and Patrick Rafter, his opponent in this particular tie, had just broken through in New York with his first Grand Slam singles title a few weeks previously.
The Davis Cup squad featured Pete Sampras, Michael Chang (then ranked # 2 in the world), Todd Martin and Jim Courier. The Aussie contingent featured Mark Philippoussis, Patrick Rafter and the legendary doubles duo of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge. Aussie captain John Newcombe decided that his best hope for winning the tie would be to win both matches against Michael Chang and take the doubles point. It did not work out that way.
In the first match of the weekend, Michael Chang rose to the occasion and won his match against Rafter in a gritty four-set effort. Chang had lost to Rafter in the semifinals of the US Open barely two weeks earlier. Pete then easily dispatched Mark Philippoussis 6-1, 6-2, 7-6. After the first day of action, The U.S. held a commanding 2-0 lead in the best of five series. The following day, Pete played with Todd Martin in a rare doubles appearance but lost in 4 sets to the famed Woodies doubles team (despite winning the first set). Sampras' appearance in the doubles tie was a gamble that U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson was willing to take in order to try and sweep the series. Although Sampras was tired, his next match vs. Rafter proved why Pete is perhaps the best player ever to pick up a racquet.
The buildup to the 4th point in the tie was incredible. Ticket scalpers were offering as much as $500 US for anyone willing to sell their seats for the last day of competition. The match had all the markings of a heavyweight title bout and the obviously partisan crowd was given it's money's worth. Sampras narrowly lost the first set in a tiebreaker (8-6) to put the U.S. in a hole and then focused his wrath on a very unsuspecting opponent. The first set had taken approximately 40 minutes and was very close. The next TWO sets were over with in 35 minutes with Pete winning by scores of 6-1, 6-1, punctuated by an "Air Sampras slam dunk overhead" that went into the second deck. The last set was academic as Pete closed out the match and the tie, 6-4. After the match, Newcombe admitted that he had never seen Pete so focused and playing in such a zone as he witnessed in those 35 minutes when the complexion of the match changed so drastically.
This illustrates one facet of Pete's play that often gets overlooked: his tendency to win the BIG matches. Everyone remembers the 1995 Australian Open match with Jim Courier after Pete had learned that his beloved coach (Tim Gullikson) was stricken with what would be fatal brain tumors. In that match, a visibly overcome Sampras came back from a two-set deficit and even served at one point through tears as his emotions got the best of him throughout play. Even Courier noticed that Pete was having difficulty performing and offered to play the match the next day but Pete coped with his feelings by playing through his emotional pain. Then there is the 1995 Davis Cup final against Russia on a clay court where Pete was stricken with leg cramps and had to be carried off the court on the first day of competition, only to team up with Todd Martin in doubles action the next day as well as win his singles match the following day. Certainly, the match against Alex Corretja bears special mention as Pete gutted out (literally, after he threw up) a tough 5-set match in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 1996.
As I write this, Pete Sampras stands on the cusp of history. If he wins Wimbledon this year, he will have accumulated 13 Grand Slam singles titles in his stellar career, more than anyone who ever played the game. With his next Wimbledon trophy, he will have tied the mark set by Willie Renshaw in the late 1800s of Wimbledon titles, but it should be noted that Renshaw played in an era where the defending champion had only to defend his title while everyone else competed for the right to replace him as champion.
I am somewhat fortunate in living in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio (USA) where the Tennis Masters series event has been held annually since the inception of the ATP Tour back in 1990. I have had the opportunity to watch a lot of high quality tennis played by the very fittest athletes in the world and I can say without reservation that Pete Sampras has been the most talented individual to have ever played the game, at least in the last 25 years. I think it is impossible to compare athletes of different eras because so much has changed in the game. It is practically a given that Rod Laver would have accumulated more than 11 Grand Slam singles crowns if he had been eligible to play in these tournaments as a professional in the 1960s. Since that time, surfaces have changed (Laver contested 3 of the Slams on grass whereas now there are four since the Rebound Ace surface in Australia is decidedly different from the Deco Turf surface used in Flushing Meadows for the US Open). The competition level has skyrocketed as jet travel has become more commonplace which enables athletes from far-flung areas of the world to get to major tournaments.
Aside from the Davis Cup victory in 1997, there are other "Pete matches" that stick out in my mind. I was fortunate to be able to attend the Ericsson Open this year and saw Pete capture his 62nd singles crown. That final pitted him against Gustavo Kuerten, the highly talented Brazilian who later captured the 2000 French Open championship. The final in Miami took over 3.5 hours to play and the atmosphere more closely resembled a Davis Cup tie than another title match. Pete played about as well as I had seen him play in winning 6-1, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8). The crowd was about evenly split between South Americans who cheered for "Guga" and the Americans, who chanted for Pete. Pete later admitted that the crowd support gave him chills up his spine as he played the final. It is unfortunate that Sampras tends to get more support from the Europeans than he does in his "home" matches within the States.
Pete's titles in Cincinnati (he has won this even three times) have also provided some memorable moments. In the 1997 final against Thomas Muster, Pete played quite well in a 6-4, 6-3 triumph over Muster. That was the year that he took Wimbledon by storm and literally blew opponents off the court with winning something like 95% of his service games. It was evident that Muster had a great deal of respect for Pete when he gave the benefit of the doubt on an ace by Pete that the linesman called wide. Muster walked up to where the ball had kissed the service line and signaled that the ball was indeed good. After the match, Muster was asked why he "gave away" that service point to Sampras and he replied that "...the ball was clearly good; I could see that it hit the line. Why should I take away a point from him that he earned?" Earlier that year, they had played in Australia and Pete was drawn off court by a wicked smash that went into the corner of the court and Pete not only managed to get to the ball but hit a screaming line drive AROUND the net post that was impossible for Muster to retrieve. In a display of mock indignation, Muster bowed several times in Pete's direction as if to say "...I'm not worthy of being on the court with you."
In the 1998 Great American Insurance Championship final (played in Cincinnati), Pete lost a hard fought three-set match to Patrick Rafter on a VERY CONTROVERSIAL overrule by chair umpire Lars Graff. In a rare display of emotion, Pete argued strenuously that the ball was out but was denied. Apparently, he also started a feud between the two players when he responded rather sarcastically to a question posed by a local sports reporter when asked what the difference was between the two players and Pete replied: "10 Grand Slams". Rafter maintained a grudge as a result in thinking that Pete did not give him enough credit for beating him. They eventually patched things up. A memorable point in the 1999 final occurred when one of Pete's serves hit 140 miles per hour and tore through the string bed of Rafter's racquet, shredding the strings and further injuring Rafter's gimpy shoulder which eventually required surgery and quite possibly might lead to his early retirement from the sport.
For more on the 1998 and 1999 Cincinnati tournament, read Vince's article on the Tennis Server.