Return Serve: Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors Lead List of Great U.S. Open Comebacks

Kate WestContributor IAugust 28, 2009


The agony and ecstasy of sport is no more beautifully captured than when there is a successful comeback.  Tennis is no exception.

A pulsating drama that has more plot twists than a season of 24, more energy than a Beyonce film clip and more passion than anything Danielle Steel can conjure up is essential viewing.

The US Open has been the scene of many dramas since the first titles were decided in1968.  Seemingly insurmountable deficits have been reeled in against all odds. 

These champions take their place amongst tournament folklore. 

The 1996 US Open quarter-final between number one seed, Pete Sampras and the unseeded Alex Corretja was an epic, probably the greatest victory of Pete Sampras’ career and sits comfortably amongst the gutsiest performances in sporting history. 

After four long sets the ledger was all square.  Corretja was playing the best tennis of his career to date and Sampras, battling a stomach ailment and severe dehydration fought on in the most dramatic of circumstances. 

Corretja, bounced on his toes looking fit and ready to cause a massive upset but Sampras was having none of that. 

Sampras twice vomited on court, and in between points was forced to use his racquet to prop up his weary body.  It was not the image of a man capable of winning.

At match-point down, Sampras would have been forgiven for falling short but a lunging, vintage volley proved that wasn’t an option. 

The fifth-set tiebreaker and subsequently, the match would be decided on serve. A Sampras second serve ace to give him an 8-7 lead and a Corretja double-fault on match point handed the American victory.

Sampras won the match 7-6 (7-5), 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (9-7) in four hours and nine minutes and it took almost half that time again for him to be rehydrated after the match.

Sampras went on to win the title in honour of his close friend and coach, Tim Gullickson who passed away earlier that year.  Sampras defeated Michael Chang 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3) on what would have been Gullickson’s 45th birthday.

Sampras broke through the pain barrier en route to his fourth US Open crown, five years earlier Jimmy Connors broke through the age barrier during his 1991 Open run that stopped a nation.

Five-time US Open champion Connors entered the tournament as a 38-year-old wild card ranked 174. 

At 4-6, 6-7, 0-3 in the first round against Patrick McEnroe, Connors appeared headed for an early exit.  But he is made of sterner stuff and rallied to win the match by taking the next three sets 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. 

After straight set victories in rounds two and three Connors faced Aaron Krickstein for a place in the quarter-finals on his 39th birthday.  This epic match was intriguing for the swings in momentum that saw Krickstein twice take a set lead, only for Connors to fight back. 

Krickstein took a 5-2 lead in the deciding set but couldn’t serve it out.  The crowd were in raptures as they sensed another memorable comeback.  Connors hit his shots and won the fifth set in a tiebreaker.

The man affectionately known as Jimbo was eventually beaten by his much younger namesake, Jim Courier in the semi-final.  But in the rarest of sporting analysis it was Connors who was revered more after the match, a celebration of a tournament that the American champion became legend.

The efforts of Sampras and Connors rank as the best comebacks in US Open history, but several others also defied the odds to rewrite the history books.

Australian Ken Rosewall at 35 years-of-age won his second title in 1970, 14 years after his first, defeating compatriot Tony Roche. Rosewall lost the first set, faced three break points at 5-6 in the third and played with a cracked frame to his favourite wooden racquet to prevail 2-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3.   

Arthur Ashe looked sure to add a second US Open title to his collection in 1972 when he led Ilie Nastase by two sets to one and a break. But it wasn’t to be when Nastase saved a fifth set break point and went on to win the match 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3.

In 1975, under lights for the first time in US Open history, Manuel Orantes pulled off one of the great comebacks in the modern era when he defeated Guillermo Vilas.  Orantes saved five match points and came back from two-sets-to-one and 0-5 before taking out the semi-final 4-6, 1-6, 6-2, 7-5, 6-4.

Ivan Lendl made his third straight US Open final when he saved a match point against Pat Cash in the 1984 semi-finals.  Lendl went on to win the match 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 but for the third year in a row he received the runners-up trophy as John McEnroe won his fourth title.

In 1989 Boris Becker defeated Lendl in the final 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 but it was taking advantage of a lucky net cord in his second round match against Derrick Rostagno on match point that saved him from an early exit.

Stefan Edberg successfully defended his title in 1992 but not without a fight.  The Swede was forced to come back from fifth-set deficits in three straight matches.  Edberg came from behind to defeat Richard Kraijcek in the round of 16, Ivan Lendl in the quarter-finals and Michael Chang in the semi-finals.

His 6-7, 7-5, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Chang lasted five hours, 26 minutes and is believed to be the longest in US Open history.

Agassi, too, won three straight five set matches on his way to the 2006 US Open final but it was his comeback from two sets down against compatriot James Blake in the quarter-finals that epitomised not only his run in the ’06 tournament but his career.  Agassi looked to be beaten but in trademark fashion rallied and defeated Blake 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6).

The greatest drama of all is due to kick off again for 2009 this Sunday, and if the draw has the plot twists, energy and passion of the past we are in for a cracker.