Pete Sampras and Boris Becker, Hannover 1996: Unbelievable Attack

Rajat JainSenior Analyst IMay 26, 2009

It's been only three days since the commencement of Roland Garros 2009, yet it is creating a rage and mass hysteria among the tennis community. Paris seems to be the epicenter of the shock vibes received by the tennis fans all over the world. Surprisingly, it's not tennis that is the cause, but the outfits that  are on display here.

The flavour of the season seems to be PINK and BLUE.

While, Rafael Nadal has shocked the world with that bright Pink outfit; there has been an overdose of Blue at the same time, with  players  like Federer, Djokovic, Tsonga, Jankovic, Ivanovic and Sharapova proudly sporting their blue attire to match the red courts. I may be among the dumbest ever when it comes to fashion sense, but it has been plain obvious, that something has been missing.

This, in fact, reminds me of the time in late nineties, when the fashion world was going through similar rough times, especially during the indoor carpet season.

This time of the year, in those days was dominated by the likes of Pete Sampras and Boris Becker (who, along with Ivan Lendl, are considered to be among the best indoor players of all times) and the matches  which were played on the European courts  sported annoying looks—Pink and Purple.

In one word: Unfashionable. They were exclusively designed for singles’ tournaments, and hence the absence of the double alleys only alleviated their mediocre looks.

The lazy attires of Sampras and Becker did enough to make the viewing experience worse. Only a World No. 1 can sport those striped loose Bermudas with a boring T-shirt, and the less said about Becker’s attire, the better.

Anyway, the Sampras–Becker rivalry peaked during the indoor season of 1996 (after which Becker faded out). They played a match of their lifetime at Stuttgart Masters Finals, which Becker won in five exhaustive sets, but the pair managed to better this performance at the Year End Championships at Hannover.

The above clip shows some glimpses of their dominance. The carpet courts were lightening fast (which possibly will never be seen again) and supported these big servers. Boris Becker, found it much more to his liking because the indoor conditions and the uniform bounce nullified three of the German’s biggest weaknesses — high ball toss, his huge backswing and fitness.

The thrill of these matches were not in the long rallies, as is the norm today, but in the curiosity to see how these players tackled the barrage of lightening strokes.

Aces and service winners were the norm, but it is amazing how well they returned serves. They almost knew the side where the serve would land, and the time between the serve and a return was less than a blink of the eye.

Notice the point at 5:10 when Sampras would come deep inside the baseline on the second-serve of Becker. Was this really a super-fast surface?

Agassi and Connors may be called the best returners of all times, but Sampras and Becker alleviated the return of serves on indoor carpet to unattainable levels.

It's for no reason that they are called devastatingly attacking players. The consistency and accuracy with which they hit the lines in this super-fast court is just out of the world.  Sampras routinely hit those shots on the run, while Becker found himself in the right position consistently to minimize the effect of the high backswing.

Moreover, their anticipation seems to be superb at the net (so is their natural motion and ease with which they rushed to the net) which separates these cream out of the milk. The point played at 2:22 when Becker takes a superb half volley,and finds himself ready to face Sampras’ down the line pass (which he could have easily hit cross court) is worth a mention.

Add to that, the disguise they possessed at the net. The point at 3:00, when Sampras shapes up to hit a backhand cross court volley, but changes his angle at the last moment to hit it down-the-line...Match that!

They were no pushovers at the back as well. Its beautiful how they covered the entire court during the rallies, or easily opened the court with their impulsive swing of the rackets...and make the opponent look foolish.

Sure, Nadal and Djokovic play them routinely, but just factor the speed of the court and the minimal time between the returns! Fast flat ground strokes with minimal top-spin and minimal margin over the net and blitz through the point. Highly error prone game, played to perfection.

Finally, the serves.

The nonchalance of Becker and Sampras during their half-halted rush to the net while they hit an ace down the T, a shoulder shrug, and back to the service line. The echoing sound of the ball thumping the service line and beautifully bouncing off high after hitting the wall (the point at 2:38) is equally exciting. Sampras didn’t enjoy a particularly good day of serving, but managed to edge past Becker 6-4 in the fifth.

Also worth mentioning is the level of respect between the two players. Becker was devastated at the loss, as he showed with his drooped shoulders at the net, waiting for Sampras; but no love was lost, as they intimately hugged each other after a well fought, thoroughly entertaining match. As Steve Tignor pointed out, if it was not the best match ever, it had the best scoreline: 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-7 (11), 6-4.

OK, my flat-mate just pinched me and I’m back to ground reality with the French Open heating up.

P.S.: This article has partly been inspired by Steve Tignor's post, the much talked about fashion sense at Roland Garros 2009, and finally, the fact that the clip used in this article is my favorite YouTube clip.


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