Rewind 1996: Pete Sampras' Plot Twist

Rob YorkSenior Writer IAugust 25, 2009


If he won, it would just seem...right.

How many tennis fans have said or thought this during a Grand Slam event? It’s what I was thinking during the second week of Roland Garros in 1999, as Andre Agassi sought to resurrect his career by winning the one major he was missing. I had a similar idea during this year’s RG, as Roger Federer seemed destined to finally complete his collection of slams.

You see, I like to believe that somewhere out there a great Tennis Scriptwriter is plotting these results, and happenings such as the ones above serve as evidence that he’s there.

If he is, he’s done a great job; there certainly have been results in this favorite sport of mind that I never would’ve dreamt up.

A year of misfortune

“Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.’
—Kurt Vonnegut

If it were up to me, I would’ve had Pete Sampras win Roland Garros in 1996. He wasn’t even my favorite player at the time—Agassi most definitely was—but it seemed like the right time for that result. The absence of rain during that fortnight had made the French clay play faster than usual, and Sampras had shown unusual resolve and comfort on the dirt during the early rounds, beating Jim Courier and Sergi Bruguera—two-time champions each—both in five sets.

This, coming after the spring death of his coach Tim Gullikson from brain cancer seemed fitting, as it would’ve completed his collection and made his case for GOAT all the more compelling.

My belief was shaken by the result, because I really couldn’t grasp why it would be better from a storytelling perspective to have The Pistol stumble two hurdles from the trophy, ailing against Yevgeny Kafelnikov and suffering an embarrassingly one-sided loss. What I didn’t know then was that the Tennis Scriptwriter was employing a literary device known as foreshadowing.

After that disappointment, I surely would have written a Wimbledon victory into the screenplay for Sampras. Since he’d fallen so painfully short in Paris, he at least deserved the consolation of being the first person to win four Wimbledons in a row since the last GOAT candidate, Bjorn Borg.

My belief was shaken again, because from a literary standpoint that tournament also made little sense. Sampras certainly has his critics, but to my knowledge no one has ever complained that The Pistol doesn’t serve hard enough and has too much charisma. If such grievances existed, though, Richard Krajicek would certainly have been their answer, as he blasted Sampras off the court, went on to hoist the Wimbledon trophy on the first Sunday in July, and yet somehow managed to retain his anonymity.

I didn’t see it that way at the time, but the Tennis Scriptwriter was following Vonnegut’s advice, and heaping indignities upon the down-on-his luck champion so that the viewers would grow to understand him better.

The convergence

"Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.”
—Stephen King

And so Sampras went into the 1996 US Open as the defending champion, but having lost out on the first three majors of the year. In fact, he’d only won a couple of titles total, and was only hanging on to the No. 1 ranking thanks only to the previous Open victory and the lack of a clear successor.

Michael Chang was close, though, and a Sampras slip-up in New York would have all but certainly meant that the smaller American would take the No. 1 ranking.

From a storytelling perspective, I thought it made the most sense for Sampras to face Agassi—who had been slumping during the year but had rebounded to win the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics—in a high-profile final. Or, maybe it would have made sense for Sampras to lose the final, along with the No. 1 ranking, to Chang.

And virtually everyone thought Sampras’ match with Mark Philippoussis in the fourth round would be the tennis equivalent of a page-turner. The towering Australian had helped to start The Pistol’s year on such a sour note, overpowering him in the third round of the Australian Open, and many wondered if even Sampras could overcome Philippoussis when the Aussie was having a good serving day.

To understand just how that match’s result compared to the expectations ahead of it, try to imagine Darth Vader tripping and spraining his ankle right before his climactic duel with Ben Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith. The Pistol recognized that overpowering The Scud had not worked in the previous encounter, and so he sought placement rather than pace on his serves, blocked back Philippoussis’ cannon blasts, and watched the Australian implode. Philippoussis made less than 40 percent of his first serves that night, was broken four times, and flailed at service returns like a trout on land.

Sampras had survived what appeared to be his biggest test before the final round; what we didn’t know then was that the Tennis Scriptwriter was reaching into his top hat to employ a bit of misdirection.

While we weren't watching, Alex Corretja had advanced through the draw and would face The Pistol in the quarters.

Corretja was one of many Spaniards who drew attention during the ‘90s, all of them playing a variation of the same style: They were speedy movers who defended well and had heavy topspin forehands.

From Bruguera to Albert Costa to Felix Mantilla to Alberto Berasategui, each of these names represented dreadful clay court assignments, but Corretja also had a superb one-handed backhand that could be driven or sliced, plus a surprisingly big first serve, making him a threat on firmer surfaces.

A year earlier he had faced Agassi in the early rounds of the Open, and had taken two of the first three sets from Double-A before succumbing to cramps.

On that night in 1996 Corretja had no fitness issues, matching Sampras ace-for-ace and pushing him deep into a fifth set.

But in truth, the match wasn’t that special until late in the fifth set. It might not have even gone that far had Sampras’ game-changing running forehand not been misfiring that day, and had he not stubbornly attempted to outplay the Spaniard from the baseline.

"I was playing into Alex’s hands and I knew it, but I was holding my own, and I was determined to beat the guy at his own game,” Sampras later wrote in his autobiography.

With his whole year at stake, Sampras probably would not have approached the match with such machismo had he properly internalized the lessons of his Paris misadventure.

For, while born with the agility of a big cat and the shoulder of a Cy Young winner, The Pistol inherited another, not so beneficial trait: thalassemia minor, a condition found in many of Mediterranean descent that can lead to a sudden state of weakness. 

In the late-‘90s it would be speculated that Sampras, the son of Greek parents, had this condition, but he wouldn’t admit it until he had broken the Grand Slam record in 2000, as he refused to confirm such a weakness for the benefit of those on the other side of the net.

It contributed to his loss in Paris, and was about to come together along with other unrelated factors to create the most intriguing story of Sampras’ career.

Four hours after they began, they entered the final set-tiebreaker. The Pistol's posture began to slump, and his movement became labored.

He would’ve lacked the strength and the energy to complete menial household tasks; but he did have two decades’ worth of muscle memory ingrained by the practice courts, and he had the motivation left by the memory of Tim Gullikson.

The limits of description

"Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
—George Orwell

It’s a real challenge to describe what happened next in keeping with Orwell’s advice; which is to avoid saying something the readers have already heard. How can you describe it without bandying about phrases like "clutch play," "heart," and "giving 110 percent?"

The best thing is probably to just tell it as it happened, which should be enough; being well-versed in the work of Orwell, Vonnegut and King, I doubt any of them could have imagined what was about to unfold.

On the first point Sampras finally connected with his running forehand to set up a winning net approach. But as he attacked the net at 1-0, Corretja drilled a pair of forehands of his own, the second of which the American could not return.

As Sampras prepared for the next point he began to retch. During the first three episodes the cameras couldn’t quite catch it, but as he walked in front of the bleachers behind the baseline the microphones could detect the crowd’s gasps.

Finally, the fourth time his body seized up he was captured on-screen, vomiting in full view of TV viewers everywhere.

On the opposite side of the court, Corretja was bouncing on his feet to prepare for the next point, but his concern for his ailing opponent could not be hidden, particularly in the direction of his eyebrows.

In the era of Nadal/Djokovic it might not have become an issue, but here the umpire had the unpopular duty of enforcing the time limit between points.

"Delay of game warning, Mr. Sampras,” he announced, earning the scorn of seemingly all of New York.

With some of the nausea still dangling from his face, the American reached the baseline and rolled a first serve into play. When the point began adrenaline lent his groundstrokes the weight they needed, though, eventually forcing a miss from the Spaniard.

From then on, it seemed neither man could win two unanswered points. Finally at 6-5, Sampras had a match point, which Corretja saved by pushing The Pistol behind the baseline and out of position, prompting a forehand in the net. Afterwards, Sampras bent at the waist, seemingly holding himself upright with just his Wilson.

Corretja launched several ballistic groundstrokes on the next point, finally finishing with a forehand winner to give him a match point of his own.

After bunting in another weak serve, Sampras drove a forehand approach, attacking the net in desperation. Corretja did the smart thing and sliced the ball low, forcing Sampras to hit the volley at his feet.

The American volleyed it wide to Corretja’s forehand, leading the Spaniard to attempt to pass him in the opposite direction, but a lunging stab from the American kept him in the match. There was no force behind the volley, but the Spaniard was too far out of position to reach it.

At 7-7 Sampras bounced the ball repeatedly, his hand only inches above the asphalt, hoping to gather enough strength to hit a serve.

Knowing his time was almost up, and that another delay warning would result in a lost point, he finally raised up to push a 76 mph delivery over the net.

It landed long of the service box. With a few extra seconds purchased by that near miss, Sampras bounced the ball some more, reached back...and found a sharply angled 90 mph delivery that spun away from the surprised Spaniard: a second serve ace.

“Where did that come from?” shouted Robinson.

At 8-7 the American awaited his opponent’s first serve, but Corretja pushed it long. On the second, Corretja, out of respect for his ill opponent’s resolve, strove for depth.

Hawkeye sounded fractions of a second after his serve landed just north of the box, and immediately all of Louis Armstrong was on its feet, cheering the greatest win of Sampras’ career.

There was no celebration from the American; his shoulders sank even as his head tilted back: the expression of a man relieved that he no longer has to be strong.

A career-defining moment

You remember a couple of days ago I said we hadn’t really had that match ... that defined the Open this year? This may have been the match that defined the Open in the ‘90s.
—Ted Robinson

The only unsatisfactory element of this story is that there was no villain to receive comeuppance: Alex Corretja, in fact, won several awards for his sportsmanship during his lengthy career.

He sank to his knees after committing that final double-fault, then rose to embrace Sampras at the net. During this, the fans in Louis Armstrong Stadium were applauding nearly as much for him as they were for their victorious countryman, but one wonders if Corretja heard any of it.

Several long minutes after Sampras had been carried away to receive medical treatment, Corretja remained seated in his chair on the court, his head buried in his towel.

He’d been only a point from the biggest win of his career, and one can only imagine how he might have fared in the rest of the tournament.

As it happened, the closest he ever came to Grand Slam glory was a pair of final-round appearances later at Roland Garros.

His ultimate fate was to join Gottfried von Cramm and James Blake as men better known as good guys than great tennis players.

For Sampras, this match was the denouement of the story the Tennis Scriptwriter had dreamt up for him in 1996. His four-set semifinal win over Goran Ivanisevic and straight-set finals win over Chang (who’d vanquished Agassi in the other semi) seemed little more than an extended epilogue.

Of course, Sampras had many more stories in which to act the protagonist until his retirement in 2003. After winning the Open, he dominated for the next year and a half, and then coasted by, winning seven Wimbledons, 14 Grand Slam singles titles and finishing six years as the world’s No. 1 player.

One can only imagine how his career might have been different had he won a major earlier that year, and taken an easier road to his successes.

I can’t imagine that path, but I can tell you what I, a just-shy of 17-year-old tennis fan expected to see that night, and what I did not.

I expected to go home from school that September evening to see a clinical, well-executed victory; I didn’t expect to see the most memorable sporting event I’d ever witness.

I expected a display of prowess from the most gifted champion of the era; I didn’t expect a lesson on what a champion does when his talent isn’t enough.

I expected to see the sport I loved being played by a man I greatly respected; I didn’t expect that this match would make him my favorite athlete in all of sports, a designation I suspect he’ll always retain.

And that’s the mark of a timeless story: You can’t see that last plot twist coming, but once you’ve seen it you can’t imagine the story any other way. It just seems...right.

The Rewind series

And now, a message from our Rewind coordinator, Long John Silver:

This has been one of the most successful ‘Re-Wind series so far, when I started it I never envisioned it would take off this well, very similar to how Rob’s ‘Zone’ is loved by almost everyone in here. Although I did feel gutted that I zoned the one match that he probably would love to not reminisce, after all he is indeed a Pistol fan.

The different thing about this edition of Re-Wind is we got so many new participants to contribute, and it was intriguing to read all of the editions this time around. I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them.

For your top-notch contributions I owe a very honest note of appreciation for each one of your contributions (in the same order of articles): Rajat, Rohini, Sud, Joan, Frankie, Clara and Anti-Matter.

I decided not to write one this time. Rob completes the series in his chisel-like precision style. I absolutely appreciate each of your time and effort and I am very glad to have an opportunity to talk tennis and work with each of you.

I am very inclined to include our resident expert Picasso (the one with a certain Swiss spelled backwards) in the next edition of Rewind. I asked her this time around too, but she felt she wasn’t ready. A little public pressure might help...can you all convince her to join the party next time around?



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