Wimbledon Rewind: Pete Sampras Vs. Boris Becker 1997
Growth is part of nature, technology, and economics, and what is sufficient today might not be good enough for next year.
In any business this is good for the consumers who can enjoy better services, and for the retailers who get behind the new product and reap its benefits. There are losers in most industries, but at least in most cases the obsolete goods have no opinion as to their fate.
In sports such as tennis, though, the product is a person, and what happens to him or her when their best performance is no longer good enough?
In 1985, Boris Becker exploded onto the professional tennis scene, blasting serves, forehands and overheads on his way to his first Wimbledon title. At 17 years and seven months old, Becker was the youngest Grand Slam winner ever at the time, and the first unseeded Wimbledon champion in history.
No one, even Rafael Nadal, ever seemed so mature at such an age: Becker was well over six feet tall, and carried much of his considerable weight in his legs. John McEnroe called his serve the biggest he’d ever faced, while his forehand and backhand returns boomed and his volleys were crisp
Just as important, while many others set foot on Wimbledon’s Centre Court and are overawed by the situation (David Nalbandian, anyone?), the 17-year-old was far cooler than his opponent in the ’85 final, outdueling his fellow big server Kevin Curren in four sets.
The next year, the 18-year-old dubbed Boom-Boom blew away Ivan Lendl in the final to defend his Wimbledon crown, showing very few nerves in defending his first major. Looking at the strapping German bomb-thrower, it was easy to imagine him blossoming further in his 20s, and becoming unstoppable.
He stumbled the next couple of years at Wimbledon, but by 1989 Becker was on sure footing yet again, destroying Stefan Edberg for his third victory on Centre Court, then defeating Lendl for his first U.S. Open and leading West Germany to the Davis Cup crown.
He didn’t quite accumulate enough points to overtake Lendl at No. 1 for the year, but he was the best in the minds of most tennis observers, including Tennis magazine, which tapped him for player of the year.
In 1991 he won his first Australian Open, reached the semis on Roland Garros, and finally reached No. 1 by making the Wimbledon final. On finals day, though, Becker ran into his countryman Michael Stich, who had a game just as big as Boom-Boom’s and was on fire that day, beating his famous countryman in straight sets.
In the third set, Becker revealed a temper to match his incandescent shade of hair, berating himself after every point lost, and even some that he won. The expectations of his youth were not being met, and the huge-hitting German finally revealed that he was not immune to pressure.
His results over the next four years were far less impressive than in the previous six, though he always reached the latter rounds of Wimbledon and thrived on the fall season’s fast indoor carpet. In 1995, he finally rediscovered the play he’d been missing, defeating then No. 1 Andre Agassi in the Wimbledon semis to break an eight-match losing streak against Double-A and reach yet another final on Centre Court.
At the start of 1996 he won his second Australian Open, and might have made another run in England had he not been derailed by a wrist injury. At the end of 1996 he won the Paris indoor event and reached the finals of the ATP championships.
Going into the 1997 Wimbledon, the original Pure Power Player was on target yet again, and the hunger that had carried him to six major titles was as ravenous as ever.
But Becker had a new problem.
Pete Sampras was just older than 19 when he won his first major in 1990, and he is still the youngest player ever to win there. Unlike young, fully developed Becker, the scrawny young American more closely resembled the captain of the high school chess club than a world class athlete.
Looks have rarely been more deceiving, as Sampras served just as hard as Becker with a much more minimalist motion. He could also rifle the ball with both the forehand and backhand, and prowled the court with spry, catlike movement.
In his breakthrough win he was still learning to play consistent, percentage tennis and volley well. His compatriot and friend Jim Courier once described the young Sampras as being like a puppy with paws that were too big, and he was still growing into the player he’d one day become.
By the mid-‘90s he’d fully matured into a big-serving, hard-hitting and sweet-volleying all court player, and at the time his contemporaries were calling him the most complete player in the history of the game. It was hard enough for players like Stefan Edberg, who could out-volley Sampras but not overpower him, or Agassi, who could outlast him from the backcourt but was often overwhelmed by the sheer variety of weapons Sampras had.
For Becker it was especially hard, because The Pistol had the same weapons that Boom-Boom did, and then some. Becker did defeat Sampras seven out of 19 times in their head-to-head matchups, but all of his wins over the American were on the fast European indoor courts of the fall season, where Becker was always inspired and Sampras was winding down his year.
On other surfaces it seemed Sampras could hit just as well as Becker from any part of the court, and run circles around him in the process.
Sampras’ career results can compared to that of a classic rock band: Like them, he gained attention through his bursts of sheer inspiration, when it seemed nothing he did could go wrong. His “Satisfaction” or his “Whole Lotta Love” would probably be the 1990 U.S. Open, when he blew Agassi off the court for his first major.
His “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or his “Black Dog” would probably be the 1999 Wimbledon, when he again defeated a resurgent Agassi to win Wimbledon for the sixth time and tie the Grand Slam record.
He is also known for his epic efforts, and in that context his “Sympathy for the Devil” would be the 1996 U.S. Open, and his 2000 Wimbledon would be “Kashmir.”
Those are great songs, but neither the Rolling Stones nor Led Zeppelin would be great bands had they not had dozens of lesser-known tracks demonstrating their musicianship and songcraft even on days when they weren’t quite so inspired.
And Pete Sampras would not have been a great tennis player had there not been hundreds of matches when he wasn’t in the zone or pulling off an epic victory, but was simply a better player than the other guy on the other side of the net.
In that respect, the 1997 Wimbledon campaign was for Sampras what “Bitch” was for the Stones, and what “Custard Pie” was for Led Zep; not their most inspired moments, but better than most of their competitors will ever produce.
For the entire two weeks he spent on Centre Court that year, Sampras made 66 percent of his first serves. In all seven matches he played, he was broken twice. Still, as he entered into his quarterfinal confrontation with Becker, there was a sense that the result that day was far from certain.
For one thing, Sampras had been pushed to five sets in the previous round by the often brilliant but generally erratic (and, as would later be discovered, juicing) Petr Korda. He was a three-time Wimbledon champ by that time, but had lost the prior year to Richard Krajicek, and it remained to be seen whether he could regain his crown.
Besides, Becker was playing awfully well, too. In four matches he hadn’t lost a set, and in round four he’d demolished the talented young Chilean Marcelo Rios, finally pushed to a tiebreaker in the third set after losing just four games in the first two.
McEnroe, commentating for NBC, stated on air that the aging Boom-Boom had a good chance of beating The Pistol.
But Becker had long been known as a slow starter, and on that day neither his serves nor his first volleys were winning him enough points outright. Sampras, after blocking back the German’s big serves was getting a second look at a pass, and was taking it more often than not.
There were multiple times in some of Becker's service games in which Sampras would scramble to the center of the court, rear back for a one-handed backhand, and then find an obscure corner just over the net to deposit his passing shots. These were shots most top players can't imagine, much less execute. Any of Becker’s first three opponents would have been thrilled to break the German once in the match, but the American had done so two of the first three times the German served.
Sampras ran away with the first set 6-1. Becker had a huge dilemma, or rather a pair of them; for one, when Sampras’ weaker backhand wing is firing, where do you play to? For another, when your opponent hits every shot as well as you but moves better, what's your strategy?
For the German, the answer to both of those questions was perfect execution: He had to serve as well as possible, stick those volleys and take care of his service games. He had to hold, whatever it took, no matter how many break points he faced, because in a tiebreaker it would be anyone’s game.
In the second set he did his part, holding serve all six times, and despite getting nary a sniff against Sampras’ serve he forced a tiebreaker. He attacked doggedly in the second, then late in the breaker, stuck his racket out on a Sampras serve that nearly passed him, getting it back low and forcing an error.
Just like that, he won the set, evening the match despite being outplayed for much of it.
The feeling was a short-lived one, though, because Sampras retook control in the third. Again, Becker moved well for a man of 75 inches and 190 pounds, but his opponent moved well for one a couple inches and 15 pounds smaller. This gave him a chance to hit one more ball on certain rallies, and one more shot per point was all it took to earn two more breaks.
After a quick 6-1 third set, the two champions played a tight fourth, with the American getting his nose in front yet again. He served out the match 6-4, having never been broken, and having committed only about a half-dozen unforced errors in four sets.
It was the third match between the two men at Wimbledon. In their matches in 1993, ‘95 and ’97, Becker had won just two cumulative sets from the American, both in tiebreakers. He had not once broken the Sampras serve.
And this was all the evidence Becker needed that he was no longer the prime product in the business of tennis. As he shook hands with Sampras at the net, he whispered into the American’s ear. Sampras stared back, momentarily too stunned to move to the umpire’s chair for their handshake.
Becker, the three-time champion who once described Wimbledon as his “living room,” had told Sampras he would not play there again. Would not play any other Grand Slams, in fact.
After waving goodbye to the English crowd, Becker told a press conference that he didn’t feel like he had what it took to win majors any more. Coming from the man who’d won in Australia just 18 months earlier this was hard for most to comprehend.
Apparently in Becker’s eyes the trophy he longed for the most was firmly in the hands of Sampras, and there was no further point in denying it.
Sampras did his part to prove the German correct, as he raced through the next two rounds against Todd Woodbridge and Cedric Pioline, both of them game but both of them overmatched opponents who would not take a set from the American.
It was Sampras’ fourth Wimbledon win, and it started his second streak of victories there that wouldn’t end until he’d won seven and set a new Grand Slam record. In his later years there were some signs that his hyper-aggressive game would be phased out by Marat Safin and Roger Federer, who could equal his power but play with more margin for error.
Still, he went out on top, winning the last major he ever played, the 2002 U.S. Open. Becker broke his vow temporarily, playing in the 1999 Wimbledon, winning three matches before succumbing to Patrick Rafter. In a sense, it’s best to think of 1997 as his last real Wimbledon, as it was the last time in which he brought his best game.
And it was a good game, just slightly obsolete.
(PS-Many thanks to all my fellow Bleacher Creatures for their well wishes on the birth of my son. Thanks to you this is much more than a community of sports fans, but of friends who happen to like writing about sports.)
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