Rockets on the 4th
July 12, 1993
With his booming serve, Pete Sampras launched 22 aces to beat Jim Courier in an all-American Wimbledon final on Independence Day
There was perfection and order at Wimbledon this year. For the first time since 1977 not a drop of rain fell during the fortnight, and the crowds enjoyed a seemingly endless reverie of sunbathing and stargazing. A numerical symmetry began to take shape when the top four men's seeds -- Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier and Boris Becker -- reached the semifinals, something that hadn't happened since 1927. On the Fourth of July, in the first all-American men's final since 1984, the No. 1 player in the world, Sampras, defeated the No. 2 player, Courier.
Sampras has only one Wimbledon title, and it is a significant step forward for him. It proved to him and the world that he deserves the No. 1 ranking he took from Courier in April. In fact, Sampras may be the most complete player in the game, though an emotionally fragile one.
He quietly cut through the tournament like scissors through silk, moving so softly that he was labeled uninteresting by the British tabloids. PETE'S A BORE read one headline. In a whimsical radio survey in which 1,000 Brits responded to the question: Whom would you most like to share strawberries and cream with at Wimbledon? Sampras received only one vote. (Chris Bailey won, followed by Agassi, Henri Leconte and Fred Perry.) Told of the outcome of the poll, he shrugged and said, "I let my racket do the talking. That's what I'm all about, really. I just go out and win tennis matches."
Sampras was also called a hypochondriac. He moped and winced through several matches, moaning over the tendinitis in his right shoulder that, he said, was so painful he nearly withdrew from the tournament. He said that on the Wednesday before Wimbledon began, "the pain was so bad I couldn't brush my teeth." When he got a nosebleed during his third-round match against Byron Black of Zimbabwe, the gimpy label stuck.
Whether Sampras really suffers from constant ailments, or whether most of his aches are in his mind, no one knows for sure, not even Sampras. He admitted that his aching shoulder was "50 percent mental and 50 percent physical." At last year's U.S. Open, in which he lost in the final to Edberg, he complained of shin splints, cramps and the aftereffects of a stomach virus. This much was sure: If Sampras wanted to win Wimbledon, and thus fulfill the potential he displayed in winning the 1990 U.S. Open and the destiny predicted for him by no less than Perry, he was going to have to suck it up.
For all of the pained expressions he made, Sampras did just that. In the fourth round he dispatched Britain's last hope, Andrew Foster, and gave the hostile crowd a clenched fist and a snarled epithet as he left the court. When asked later what he had mouthed to the British fans, Sampras facetiously replied, "I said, 'Have a nice day. God bless you.' "
Next he defeated the most popular man in town, Agassi. For 10 days Agassi had captivated the public with his showboating, his relationship with Streisand and his valiant efforts to repeat as champion. Streisand has been an admirer of Agassi's ever since he called to tell her how much he admired The Prince of Tides. Streisand had promised to come to Wimbledon if Agassi reached the quarterfinals. When he did, she flew to London from Greece, where she had been vacationing. Her arrival electrified Fleet Street. She appeared for his quarterfinal in a sailor suit and nautical cap. She bobbed and cheered for Agassi and annoyed Sampras's supporters in the friends' box by clapping whenever Sampras made errors.
Agassi appeared to be on the verge of victory when Sampras called for a trainer midway through the fifth set to massage his aching shoulder. But it was Agassi whose serving arm had flagged. He dropped his serve twice in a row and fell behind 4-2. Sampras then easily held serve twice to close out a 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4 win that would turn out to be his most difficult test of the tournament. He also had the private satisfaction of knowing that he, too, had a celebrity friend. Sampras had played tennis with Elton John at John's palatial Windsor home the week before the tournament began. So there, Andre.
Sampras never lost his serve in his 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 defeat of Becker in their semifinal. Said Becker, "Sometimes I think he forgot the difference between his first serve and his second serve." Becker himself had won all 27 of his service games in a five-set quarterfinal victory over fellow German and 1991 Wimbledon winner Michael Stich, but he couldn't maintain that constancy against Sampras, who hit his best shot of the tournament to create match point. Becker unfurled a down-the-line backhand that seemed bound to be a winner. Sampras, however, twisted and caught the ball with a diving forehand volley that curled across the net so sharply that Becker couldn't reach it. Sampras yanked his fists toward his body in triumph and yelled to his coach, Tim Gullikson. It was perhaps the most emotion Sampras had ever displayed on a tennis court.
As for Courier, his performance was a total surprise, especially to him. "I thought I'd be playing golf tomorrow," he said last Friday, after defeating Edberg in the other semi.
Courier's strength is his thorough preparation. As a result, he has reached the final of all four Grand Slam tournaments and has won both the French and Australian Opens twice. Once Courier gained the measure of the greensward, he became a pulverizing force from the baseline. Witness his 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 triumph over Edberg, a two-time Wimbledon champion who supposedly possessed a far superior grass-court game. After a tight first set, Courier commanded all the authority in the match. "I had it, then I lost it and never got it back," Edberg said.
Courier was an ugly American during the fortnight, grim and quarrelsome, but that attitude served him well. He was nearly defaulted for allegedly swearing at the umpire during his third-round victory over Australia's Jason Stoltenberg. He appeared to swear again during his semifinal with the gentlemanly Edberg. Although that epithet went unpenalized, the British press jumped on him for it. "Nobody's perfect in this world," said Courier at a press conference after the match. "If we were, it'd be pretty boring." He then invited writer David Miller of The Times of London to step outside.
No amount of feistiness, however, could overcome Sampras's howitzer serve in the final. En route to his 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 victory, Sampras delivered 22 aces, many with his second serve, which averaged 97 mph and burned the lines. Sampras lost only eight points on his serve in the first set and four in the second.
Thus, even though he had not lost his own serve, Courier found himself trailing by two sets. His fate was decided when he could not convert a set point in the second-set tiebreaker. Sampras hit a forehand volley that barely caught the baseline.
In the third set Sampras suffered an adrenaline lag. His shoulders drooped, and so did his game. He became careless, and Courier won the set with something approaching ease. In the fourth, though, Sampras came back with a vengeance. He broke Courier for a 4-2 lead by winning a lengthy baseline rally. When Sampras held for 5-2, the match was all but over.
Sampras knew it when he took his chair for the changeover. He put his head in his hands and placed some ice on his neck, and he breathed slowly and deeply. For a moment, nearly everyone at Centre Court had the impression that Sampras was sick or injured -- and that he might not make it through a fifth set should Courier force one. Sampras returned to the court looking pale. "I told myself to stay calm," he said later.
Courier easily held serve, and suddenly Sampras was serving for the title. "I knew he was tired," Courier said, "but when you serve at 125 miles per hour, you don't have to move much. I still had to break serve."
Courier won a spectacular first point, and Sampras sagged. But three huge serves later, he held double match point. "The biggest point in the world for me," he would say.
Courier saved one with a searing forehand return that Sampras half- volleyed into the net. Sampras crouched at the baseline for a moment and then rose to his feet. He drilled one more serve. Courier popped it up, and Sampras knocked off an easy backhand volley. Then he raised his arms in exultation.
It was the second time within a month that Courier had lost in a Grand Slam final: Sergi Bruguera of Spain had upset him at the French Open. "It stinks," said Courier. "It stinks twice."
Afterward, Sampras was so relaxed that he fed a line to the tabloids. When asked if he had noticed that the princess of Wales was rooting for him from the royal box, Sampras smiled and said, "Maybe she has a crush on me."
Courier, too, couldn't help mocking the tabs' preoccupation with the players' love lives. When he was asked about his relationship with Sampras, he smiled coyly and murmured Agassi's standard reply to the Streisand question: "We're friends, just friends."
Sampras has often remarked that his U.S. Open victory had an element of luck to it, and that back then he was just an unconscious 19-year-old kid riding a hot streak. This time he was so conscious of the occasion that he almost fainted on court. "You can't take this title away from me," he said. "I don't think there will be any more controversy [about my No. 1 ranking]."
As Sampras raised the championship chalice above his head on Centre Court, he heard a new, rewarding sound. The British were applauding him. "I think they've grown to like me," he said later and smiled.