Classic Rewind: Pete Sampras vs. Boris Becker 1996 ATP World Tour Championships

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Classic Rewind: Pete Sampras vs. Boris Becker 1996 ATP World Tour Championships

In 1990 the ATP World Tour Championships moved from Madison Square Garden in New York City to Germany, home of native tennis phenoms Boris Becker and Steffi Graf.

New York City was vacated, bowing to the wishes of the German tennis hierarchy to move the year-end tournament to Frankfurt––offering more convenience to Europeans on tour. Madison Square Garden had served as home of the “Masters Grand Prix”, as it was then known, from 1977 through 1989.  

After six years, the tournament moved from Frankfort to Hanover where it was played on carpet.  Pete Sampras entered the 1996 year-end finals as the top seed while the German Boris Becker was seeded No. 6.  

No one suspected the level of drama that would unfold in the final match for the championship. The German contingent, of course, hoped that Becker would do well and make the ATP final so the stands would be packed.

So far in 1996, Sampras had lost once in nine finals, ironically to Becker in Stuttgart one month prior to this tournament. Also of note––this was during the year Sampras had captured one major––the 1996 U.S. Open.

After qualifying for seven year-end championships, Sampras was playing his fourth final in this event. The American had won in both 1991 and 1994.  Eventually the result in 1996 repeated that of the 1994 championship when Becker began by defeating Sampras in the round-robin stage, only to lose the final.

Ranked No. 6 in the world, Becker reigned as the 1996 Australian Open champion. This was the German’s eighth trip to the finals in this year-ending ATP tournament. Previously Becker won the 1988 Grand Prix Masters at Madison Square Garden. 

Craig Prentis/Getty Images

The German won twice more in 1992 and 1995 after the event moved to Germany, inaugurating the name change to the ATP World Championship.

The Draw:

White Group: (2) Michael Chang, (4) Goran Ivanisevic, (5) Thomas Muster, (8) Richard Krajicek.

Red Group: (1) Pete Sampras, (3) Yevgeny Kafelnikov, (6) Boris Becker, (7) Andre Agassi, (alt) Thomas Enqvist.

Round Robin: Becker defeated Sampras in the Round Robin and came out of the Red Group ranked No. 1 with Sampras emerging as No. 2.  Goran Ivanisevic won in the White Group, ranked No. 1 with Richard Krajicek securing the No. 2 spot.

Semifinals: Sampras d. Ivanisevic 6-7(6) 7-6(4) 7-5; Becker d. Krajicek 6-7(4) 7-6(3) 6-3.

The Match

It may rank as one of Pete Sampras’ most difficult and rewarding wins in his long, illustrious career. The list of superlatives used in describing the level of play, the skill of both players and the noise level of the Arena might stretch the boundaries of credulity looking back on this classic match.

Pete Sampras and Boris Becker offered up what many experts regard as one of the top ten matches in the modern era––perhaps of any era in the long history of the sport.

Sampras not only had to outlast a determined Becker, he had to do so assaulted by a mind-bending noise level of an arena packed with pro-Becker fans.  In the end Sampras prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-7 (11), 6-4 to win the year-end ATP Tour World Championship in Hanover, Germany. Sampras characterized the match as one of the most dramatic of his career.

Here is how it unfolded.

The big German stood at the service line with the din of the crowd stilled for the moment as he looked across the net, trying to gauge the body language of the American waiting to return his serve.

His mind visualized the path of the serve. First serve––an ace. Second serve––an ace. Becker knew this was going to be his day as he began by serving four aces, securing the first game. He felt in rare form. After all he had defeated Sampras the last two times they had played including the win in the Round Robin earlier in the week.

Of course, it was not going to be quite as easy for Becker once the blaze of aces subsided.

Sampras grew calmer as the match progressed. His focus narrowed to his opponent and the movement of the ball inside the lines. His resolve swelled as the match advanced. Sampras never quit on court inside his head. 

By the third game, Sampras saw the Becker serve coming and returned it with dividends. The American dug down deep and almost broke him––but not quite. Becker escaped holding serve. Emboldened, the German broke Sampras in the fourth game, finishing the set with a backhand winner.

The German continued to dominate the match as the second set commenced. But he could not sustain his iron grip. Becker found himself facing two break points in the sixth game of the second set as the match wound its way tensely to a second set tiebreak.

Sampras grew more determined with each hold of serve. In the subsequent tiebreak, the American managed to will his way to 7-5, winning the second set, clearly relieved to have inched his way past the German. The crowd noise abated a decibel or two as the two combatants made their way to the sidelines.

Every stroke intensified the noise level as the match continued into the third set. Each strike of the ball magnified that point’s importance. It was Sampras’ turn to get into trouble next in the third set, again in the sixth game. But the American fired aces on two break points.

The crowd was temporarily on the edge of their seats screaming for a break of serve, but sagged back, waiting for another chance for Becker to exert control. In the second tiebreak, Becker fought his way back from a 3-0 deficit, but then double faulted to go down 5-4. A service winner and a backhand passing shot clinched the third set for a vibrantly energized, fist-pumping Sampras. 

The American began to see the finish line.

The arena was rocking by now, as the crowd congealed behind their native son, Becker. Their mania festered as they waited impatiently. When Sampras came within two points of winning the match at 5-4 in the fourth set, Becker served a winner, hit a volley for another point and ended the game with an ace.

The walls threatened to crumble with the crescendo of approval roared by the pro-Becker crowd.

The ensuing tiebreak generated another heart-stopping thriller. At one point Sampras held two match points...but having grown a bit tentative with the pressure, the American wasted both with long shots. On the other hand, Becker squandered four set points.

Neither player seemed to be able to take that final step until Becker made good on his fifth set point when Sampras hit a forehand volley long. The German took the fourth set tiebreak 13-11.

It all came down to the fifth and final set. The noise became part of the environment like the walls or the court. Each player brought out his best stuff, twitching and on edge like two gunfighters ready to draw. They tested each other, rallying with marvelous gets.

During the match, Becker held serve for his first 27 service games. The German, however, found himself in deep trouble in his 28th. Becker kept fighting, saving two break points. But Sampras finally converted the third with a razor-sharp passing shot––an impeccable backhand executed by the American.

Sampras breathed deeply because finally the German had cracked at 4-4. Becker went down 4-5 in the fifth set. Sampras understood the magnitude of his shot the moment he hit it. After wasting two more match points, Sampras waited and watched as Becker hit a weak backhand into the net after a long rally.

The match was over and the resilient Sampras had won, lifting his tired arms toward the heavens and finally shuffling off the court.  

As Sampras and Becker made their way to the net, they embraced, understanding that they had given the fans much more than a tennis final. They’d produced the best match of the year––maybe of the decade and it had taken every ounce of skill and resolve at their command.

Sampras proved once again that he was exactly that––the No. 1 player in the world. It escaped neither of them just how special this match was.  

During the four-hour match, Becker scored 32 aces but it was not enough for the German to repeat as champion in this season-ending event.  Becker actually won 12 more points than Sampras––178 total points to 166.

Sampras avenged two straight losses to Becker in Germany, the last being three days ago in a round-robin match of this $3.3 million tournament.

It will go down as one of the classic matches of this event.

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