Men's Tennis "Rewind": Pete Sampras' First Trip to the Zone

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Men's Tennis

One has to play competitive sports to understand what it feels like to be in The Zone. On Bad Days, an athlete feels sluggish and/or under-confident, and thus has to concentrate either on limiting mistakes or on swinging away until the energy starts flowing as it should.

On Good Days, they feel self-assured, moving and swinging freely, although there are clear limits to what they can or can't do on the playing field.

In The Zone, however, those limits disappear and plays the athlete had only dreamed of in countless practice sessions become possible. He or she doesn't have to strategize, doesn't have to will his or herself to fight on; he or she needs only to believe, and then to do.

Any competitive athlete can be in The Zone for a single game, match, or bout, but it's those who train enough to ensure lots of good days, and who desire it enough to fight through the occasional bad days are the ones who find themselves in the zone most often.  

In the 1990s, Pete Sampras was in The Zone so regularly that he redefined the concept for tennis players.

The Setting

Andre Agassi, with his bright clothes, long hair and hard hitting, brought many new fans to tennis in late '80s and early ‘90s. Along with my father’s interest in the sport, Agassi was the reason I started watching and playing.

At the 1990 U.S. Open, Agassi seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. His first Grand Slam singles final earlier in the year at Roland Garros, plus his big win that spring at the Lipton all seemed like preparation for a breakthrough on the surface he liked best. The draw appeared to be opening up for him, also.

Only three players were ranked higher than him at the time: Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg, who'd been upset in round one; defending champ Boris Becker, whom Agassi himself had dispatched in the semis; and world No. 1 Ivan Lendl, who'd fallen in the quarters.

And who had taken out Lendl? Just shy of my 11th birthday and in my first full year of watching and playing tennis, I certainly wasn't familiar with the name "Pete Sampras," and I definitely was surprised to hear he’d stopped the guy who'd reached the last eight Open finals.

His win over an aging John McEnroe in the semis was less of a surprise, given that the then 30-something Johnny Mac had probably considered a semifinal showing an accomplishment in and off itself. Sampras was Agassi’s antithesis in appearance: Mostly white clothes, short hair, not a hint of spandex. His appearance was not interesting, but the high-velocity shot-making he’d used against Lendl and McEnroe certainly was. No one, however, figured Sampras was likely to beat Agassi, who was due for a big win.

The Match

However, the fact that the just north of 19-year-old Sampras had few expectations for that day, and 20-year-old Agassi had been considered a Grand Slam prospect for going on two years now actually favored the younger American.

From the beginning, he was having a good day, swinging without inhibition, while Agassi was having a Bad Day, pushing in 80 mph serves and passive ground strokes, hoping for errors. He later said that this was part of his strategy, as Sampras had a reputation for streakiness. It backfired in a big way.

Not especially tall nor built, Sampras has never matched the ideal standard of an athlete, but as a boney 19-year-old, he more resembled captain of the chess club in those days; the wallflower who couldn't get more popular classmates like Agassi to talk to him, much less play an organized sport together.

And he was not as good a player as he would be in a few years: Later his service speed would top 130 mph, and he would develop that running forehand with the velocity of 12-gauge and the accuracy of a gold medal archer.

At the time his one-handed backhand was considered the more reliable shot, less prone to error. By the time of his last major title in 2002, his volleys were like a still-deadly art only he knew how to practice, but in 1990 he was content to stay at the baseline against Agassi.

None of these deficiencies mattered on that day, because Sampras believed.

Watching as a 10-year-old, all I remember for the CBS telecast is the aces: more than a dozen in all, seemingly one in every service game, and at least one on a second serve. The announcers compared his serve favorably with the speed of the Metroliner and a Greg Norman drive.

Later YouTube videos (which are sadly unavailable at the moment) showed that Sampras was, almost unthinkably, beating Agassi as a baseliner, since his serve neutralized Agassi's best weapon, the return, while Sampras was moving better and Agassi couldn't read where his groundstrokes were going.

Sampras captured the first set 6-4, then went up a break of serve in the second set. Arthur Ashe, at courtside, was asked by a CBS commentator if he'd seen a more interesting player since McEnroe came on the scene.

"No," the living legend answered, flatly.

Agassi served to stay in the second set at 3-5, but soon was down a break and set point. On that point, he hit a medium depth shot into Sampras' backhand corner, then waited in the center of the court, expecting to rally further. The ever more confident Sampras vetoed the idea, ripping his backhand down the line to take the set.

He was now officially in The Zone. He quickly got up another break on the struggling Agassi, whose face furrowed in confusion and whose body language showed no urgency, both of which were signs he couldn't really believe what was happening. At 2-5, Sampras jumped ahead again, but Agassi fought back to deuce, and looked like he might show some signs of a contest, at least making Sampras serve it out.

It was not to be. Sampras retook the advantage, and returning on match point, pushed a backhand to right about midcourt, slightly inside the service boxes. This was the kind of ball Agassi could and often would crush, but what happened next illustrated his state of mind. Unsure of which of Sampras' wings to fire at, he chose to go right back up the middle, and in his indecision pushed the ball directly into the net.

The chess club captain had demolished the radical on a prime time athletic stage. During the trophy presentation, Agassi said was asked to explain his trouble returning serve that day. "When they're a hundred-twenty miles an hour and on the line there's not much you can do," was the gist of his response.

Not much less surprised by the result was his opponent. He later said that he'd expected his breakthrough to be in his mid-20s and at Wimbledon. "No matter what else happens to me, I can always say I'm a U.S. Open champion," he announced.

The Aftermath

Of course, describing Sampras as a U.S. Open champion now seems to be greatly underselling his achievements. He made a point of polishing the rough edges in his game, perfecting the running forehand and penetrating volleys. This made him the most complete player of the '90s, and ensured that merely Good Days would be enough to win more majors.

He did get back in The Zone on many occasions, and no one brought that out of him more frequently than Agassi, who fortunately would have many Good Days of his own on the game’s biggest stages. The 1995 U.S. Open final, the 1999 Wimbledon final, the start of the 2002 Open final: On each of those days, the great returner across the net prompted the great-server to reach even greater heights than usual.

On that day in 1990, Sampras began the process of winning me over. I continued to enjoy watching Agassi play, but nothing beat seeing Pete in The Zone.

The above photo come from SamprasFanz.org.

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