By the summer of 2000, Pete Sampras seemed a sure bet in the finals of a Grand Slam.
Not only was he the newly-minted record holder for Grand Slam titles with 13, but he’d won all but two of the major finals he’d contested.
Think about this: Roger Federer currently holds 13 major titles and is almost certain to break Sampras’ record, but he has lost in the finals of four majors.
That means that the next time he appears in a Grand Slam final, his opponent can go into the match knowing that Federer has lost nearly 24 percent of the championship matches he’s played in.
When Sampras reached the final of the 2000 U.S. Open, however, he went in having lost only about 14 percent of the Grand Slam finals he’d reached. The pressure of the all-time haul for major titles having dissipated, the great Californian now looked to put some distance between himself and Roy Emerson, the previous record holder.
In his way was the 20-year-old Marat Safin of Russia. Safin was having a breakthrough season, with three tournament titles, including a Masters Series win just a couple months prior in Canada. This was a couple of years after Safin had started making waves on the ATP Tour, scoring wins over Andre Agassi and Thomas Muster in the major events of 1998.
Just a couple of months before the 2000 Open, I had watched Agassi defeat the huge-serving Australian Mark Philippoussis at Wimbledon. Against a guy who could blast aces seemingly at will, and do something very similar with forehands, Agassi had resorted to ceaselessly attacking the Philippoussis backhand. Watching that match, I wondered: What if Philippoussis had a really good two-hander, in addition to the skills he already possessed?
If Safin wasn’t quite the answer to that formula, he was a good estimate. He served and hit the forehand nearly as big as the Aussie, and was nearly as comfortable at net; however, he moved considerably better and his backhand was his best shot of all. Physically, he had all the makings of a Grand Slam champion.
Though he’d struggled early in the tournament, pushed to five-setters against Gianluca Pozzi and Sebastien Grosjean, he had overcome them, indicating that he was starting to develop the mental makings of a champ, as well.
But in a U.S. Open final against Sampras? Wouldn’t that be asking a lot? True, the American was 29, near Social Security recipient age for tennis players, and had needed to expend considerable energy against Lleyton Hewitt just one day before. Still, there seemed little doubt that he’d raise his game in the final, just as he had so many times before.
The First Set
Sampras opened his first service game with an ace, followed by three more first serve winners. Safin didn’t even get the ball back into play, indicating that he’d have a tall hill to climb that day. In his own service game, he also started with an ace, before proceeding to hold as both men struggled to find the range on their groundstrokes.
Soon, both men were launching bullets off their serves, with Sampras doggedly following his into the net to test his young opponent’s passing shots. Safin, by contrast, hugged the baseline, rallying with Sampras until the older man made an error.
I could see the match unfolding in my head: It will be a serving contest, possibly reaching a tiebreaker in the first set, before Sampras’ greater experience allows to exploit a mistake in the younger man, and once he has the lead he won’t let go.
Then, at 3-3, there was a turning point. Safin started reading Sampras’ serve, making him hit his volleys or half-volleys in front of mid-court, which then gave the Russian a look at a passing shot. He nailed a beauty of a backhand up the line for 0-15. He caught Sampras at midcourt and again tagged a forehand into Sampras’ forehand corner for 15-30. He did nearly the exact same thing on the next point, despite the 122-mph serve Sampras fired at him.
Down 15-40, Sampras brought the thunder with the serve, saving one break point. He did so again on the next point, only to see Safin rifle back his 124-mph serve at an angle that defied credulity. Safin was now up a break.
Fired up, Sampras began launching forehands in an effort to impose his will from the back court. Safin, however, served his way out of trouble, and soon had wrapped up set number one.
The Second Set
Though down a set to a hot opponent, there was not yet reason to panic. As Dick Enberg pointed out, he had an 8-2 record after losing the first set. Besides, if Safin’s grip slipped at all, Sampras would be ready to jump on the opportunity.
But in Safin’s first service game of the set, he was still crushing first serves and threading the needle on passing shots. Then, up 30-15, he sent a message: Sampras jumped on a second serve, using his forehand to jerk Safin off court, then hitting a drop volley. The 6-4, nearly 200-pound Safin, starting from behind the doubles alley on his forehand side, raced to the net just beside the alley on his backhand wing, then flicked a one-handed backhand past Sampras (at about 6:50 in this clip).
He didn’t have to make that shot: It would’ve been 30-30 had he not, and his big serve could’ve carried him through the game. In making it, though, he showed Sampras that nothing would be easy on that day. He won the next point with a 134-mph serve, followed up with a drop shot.
The two men exchanged service holds until, once again, it was 3-3. Again, Safin came up with a series of great returns and then passes, especially on the backhand wing. He broke again to lead 4-3.
“I just don’t like the body language on Pete Sampras at all right now,” said commentator Mary Carillo. Being down a set was one thing, but two?
In the next game, Safin again jumped on the Sampras serve, this time forcing the American to half-volley at midcourt, and forcing misses. At 30-all, he lifted a backhand topspin lob over Sampras’ head. On the next point, the American double-faulted, giving the Russian a two-set lead.
The Third Set
“It’s almost like he knows right now that Sampras can’t hurt him, and that’s a scary thought,” said commentator John McEnroe, who began suggesting that Sampras should stay back on second serves. At courtside, Pam Shriver asked Sampras’ coach, Paul Annacone if his man had an injury problem.
“No, he’s fine, he’s just being outplayed right now,” the coach admitted. “We’ll see if (Safin) can do it for the rest of the match.”
Safin opened with a love-hold, then hit another pass to open Sampras’ first service game. Energy lagging after the prior day’s match, he tossed in a double fault. Safin hit another pair of great returns, and suddenly Sampras had been broken three service games in a row. On a fast hard court. In a major final.
The man who’d redefined domination in men’s tennis was now being roughed up by a guy whom the announcers weren’t entirely sure of the pronunciation of his last name (it was either “Saf-en” or “Saf-een,” depending on who said it and at what time). This was not an upset; it was a paradigm shift.
A junior journalism major, I was watching from the student center of my university, my eyes getting wider with every passing shot winner. A friend and fellow tennis player came by, asking, first of all, who Sampras was playing, and secondly, how the match was going.
“Have you ever seen Rocky IV?” I asked.
“Yeah!” my friend replied, before affecting a burly Russian accent. “I must break you …”
“That’s who Pete’s playing right now,” I said. “Freaking Ivan Drago.”
Sampras went down a break point in his next service game, but somehow found the energy to hold and stay in the match. On the service game after that, I began to silently urge him to go with the heater: his big bomb of a first serve down the tee. At 30-30, he did just that – only to have Safin hit a backhand return winner (at 2:53 in this clip).
I was raised in a very religious home, and taught never to take the Lord’s name in vain, but I couldn’t help it: “Oh my g--!” I cried, as everything I thought I knew about my favorite sport seemed to change before my eyes.
In retrospect, it seems almost valiant the Sampras held in that game, and eventually forced Safin to serve out the match at 5-3. It appeared his efforts might pay off, as Safin double-faulted in the first point – only his second of the match. A later forehand error, then a forehand winner from Sampras, and the American suddenly had his first break point. The New York crowd came alive, sensing an opportunity – one Safin quickly dashed with another big serve and an unreturnable swinging volley.
Match point progressed in a manner fitting of the contest that had come before it: Sampras charged the net, and Safin mowed him down with a backhand winner. The Grand Slam king had been dethroned in the most stunning way I could’ve imagined.
Sampras was not at the top of his game on that day, but hadn’t been during his losses at the 1998 and 1997 Opens, either. In both of those cases, his opponents, Patrick Rafter and Petr Korda, both slam winners with some serious artillery, had needed five sets to beat Sampras, whereas Safin had allowed him only 10 games.
Safin finished the match with 37 winners to Sampras’ 32—a misleading stat, considering that Sampras was playing the aggressive net-rushing style that usually produces more highlights.
The match wasn’t just an indicator of the state of Sampras’ game, but of net-rushing play in general. Returners were gaining more ground on servers, and volleys were no longer the main weapon in tennis, as groundstrokes could now be hit just as hard and without putting the player in a risky position.
Sampras’ loss was the start of a long slide for him, as he would not win another title for two years. In the Open of 2001, he faced a near mirror-image situation—this time overcoming Safin in three tight sets, then not having enough the next day against Hewitt.
Fortunately for him, in 2002 he finally provided a fitting coda for his career. Against Agassi, a player even older than himself, having played the finals and semifinals on back-to-back days did not prove fatal to his chances.
After beating Sampras that day, Safin was asked during the trophy ceremony how he’d handled the Sampras serve with such ease. He replied, in his charmingly bungled English, “You think I am know?”
Safin had vanquished Sampras in a manner eerily similar to Sampras’ win over Agassi in the Open 10 years earlier, surrendering only one more game than the American had in 1990. Both Sampras, who’d been only a little older than 19 in his first win, and Safin said they were mentally unprepared for the pressure that followed their maiden slam wins. Sampras, who’d been groomed by coaches in his early years to become the best in the world, later adapted to those expectations.
Safin, unfortunately, never did. For much of his career, he seemed to approach tennis as a more glamorous, better-paid version of a job where you show up, punch the clock and then go home. Though he captured one more major at the 2005 Australian Open, he never put forth the effort required to win majors time in and time out.
Such a pity. On that day in 2000, he changed the tennis paradigm, and it was incredible to watch.
The above photo comes from TennisReporters.net.