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Lawnmower Man

In a fortnight that fans of both tennis and tabloids could love, Pete Sampras cut down Andre Agassi for a sixth Wimbledon title

By S.L. Price

Issue date: July 12, 1999

Sports Illustrated FlashbackThe end of the world came with a scream. At 4:06 p.m. local time, Pete Sampras cracked a serve and Andre Agassi flailed and missed, and before the tennis ball could smack into the thick wall surrounding Wimbledon's Centre Court, Sampras threw his hands up to the gloomy sky. "Yes!" he shrieked. Yes, he had embraced history and beaten back the specters of Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Björn Borg; yes, Sampras had crushed his greatest rival at the peak of his powers; and yes, Sampras's own power this day evoked imagery usually reserved for omnipotent gods. "His storm was too strong," Agassi said. "He walked on water."

No, a 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 victory in a tennis match -- even the Wimbledon final -- was hardly what Nostradamus had in mind when he predicted Armageddon for July 4, 1999. But nothing on earth, at least in the sports world, came closer, surely, than Sampras's galvanizing showdown with Agassi. Then again, who's to say that when the prophet mused, "From the sky will come the great king of terror," he wasn't predicting Sampras's rain of 108 aces over the fortnight en route to his sixth Wimbledon singles title? Or the spitting clouds that destroyed nearly three days of play and sent the Week 2 schedule into chaos? Who's to say that the prophesied end wasn't merely the final days of one of the most bizarre and captivating Grand Slam events in memory?

Consider: Over the fortnight, the future of Martina Hingis was called into question after a stunning first-round loss; Agassi and Lindsay Davenport seized the No. 1 singles rankings; Boris Becker retired from Wimbledon for good; and Sampras restored his lost dominance and equaled Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam men's singles titles. At the same time, a crop of heady teenagers -- Jelena Dokic, Mirjana Lucic and Alexandra Stevenson -- made scene-stealing runs late into the second week, bringing with them a freshly minted cast of overbearing parents. But amid the usual tales of physical abuse, verbal badgering and midnight escapes, nothing could top the jaw-dropping news of Stevenson's lineage. For all the sport's off-court melodrama, the words Dr. J, tennis dad still came as a shock.

 
If that weren't enough, the 23-year-old Davenport, once a confirmed grassophobe, blitzed defending champion Jana Novotna in straight sets (6-3, 6-4) in the quarterfinals and seven-time Wimbledon winner Graf (6-4, 7-5) in Sunday's final, confirming her transformation from overweight baseliner to a streamlined champion primed to do more damage. "This means everything," Davenport said, "but I want to keep going." Then Graf announced that this would be her last Wimbledon. Given her similar announcement following her victory in the French Open, it's becoming clear that Graf, who would not commit to the U.S. Open, plans to retire after this year. "She doesn't want to say it in so many words," said Davenport, "but it's over."

All these elements, not to mention Agassi's quest to become the first man in almost two decades to pull off a French Open-Wimbledon double, imbued the '99 Championships with an importance too often lacking in Grand Slam events. Suddenly, it seemed, everybody had plenty to win and lose. Yet there was even more to hold one's interest. Usually the Slams serve up either great tennis or great soap opera -- rarely equal measures of both -- but at Wimbledon the two engaged in a furious rally resembling a two-week version of Can You Top This? The day before London tabloids labeled Damir Dokic, Jelena's father, a "Dad From Hell" for his drunk and disorderly behavior at a Wimbledon tune-up in Birmingham, Becker fought off three match points with three huge first serves, erased a two-set deficit and won his first-round match. "That's the only answer I know," Becker said. "I'm not there to play halfway. It's all or nothing: That's how I've been playing all my career."

Every match won by Lucic, the buoyant, hard-hitting, 134th-ranked woman who upset Monica Seles and Nathalie Tauziat to earn a place in the semifinals against Graf, seemed to promise more revelations about her escape from her allegedly abusive father, Marinko. That getaway was planned at Wimbledon a year ago and executed last August, when she fled to the U.S. with her mother, Anjelka, and her four siblings. Yet alongside that there was always a superbly played showdown (Jim Courier-Tim Henman, Graf-Venus Williams, Agassi-Pat Rafter) to absorb. It's as if, at century's end, the sport's best and worst qualities decided to duke it out in an apocalyptic battle for preeminence. What would be the lasting memory of Wimbledon '99? The out-of-control parents and the cult of personality? Or the startling shots and compelling matchups?

Both elements merged in the case of the 18-year-old Stevenson, whose big serve and gorgeous one-handed backhand made her the first woman qualifier in Wimbledon history to make the semifinals. Trained by Pete Fischer, the guru who shaped Sampras's game, and raised in San Diego by her single mother, Samantha -- a freelance sportswriter who broke the story about Damir Dokic's arrest at Birmingham in The New York Times last month -- Alexandra graduated from high school in May and the next day boarded a plane for England to play on grass and turn pro. "This trip is going to change your life," Samantha told her daughter. "It will never be the same for you."

But even as Alexandra reeled off wins over Amy Frazier, Olga Barabanschikova and 11th-seeded Julie Halard-Decugis, Samantha sparked one controversy after another, winning a dispute with Wimbledon about prize money over Alexandra's new status as a pro, describing the tour as full of racist attitudes, and saying that Alexandra needed protecting from hazing by other women on tour. Samantha stirred the pot so furiously that on June 30, in her second major press conference in five days, Alexandra felt compelled to read a confusing statement that defended her mother's comments and said that she had been misquoted. The same day, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that Julius Erving was listed as Alexandra's father on her birth certificate. Last Friday, Samantha watched as Alexandra beat Jelena in the quarterfinals and then charmed the crowd by curtseying in all four directions. That day Erving released a statement confirming that he was Alexandra's father and adding that he had met her once, had supported her financially and wished her well.

On Saturday, after Davenport outclassed Alexandra 6-1, 6-1 in the semifinals, Samantha said Davenport had seemed "afraid" and "nervous" facing her daughter. Davenport dismissed these comments as "crazy" and said, "Because of her mom, you can't help but feel sorry" for Alexandra. After the match, Alexandra backed her mother and insisted that Erving's admission proved no distraction during her breathtaking debut. "I've been in my own bubble, so it didn't disturb me at all," Alexandra said. "I haven't read anything, and I don't really care. It's just the same as always. Nothing's going to change."

Sitting next to her, Samantha chimed in, "I've taught her that newspapers wrap fish the next day. She understands that, I think, and is just focused on her life." Then Samantha added, "I thought it was an unethical piece of journalism that forced our family into the situation we were forced into. It shouldn't have happened."

All in all, it was an appalling showing by everyone involved except Alexandra. Fortunately, by then Agassi and Sampras had begun dismantling Rafter and Henman, respectively, in a pair of hugely anticipated semifinals, priming the pump for the biggest match in men's tennis since Sampras took Agassi apart at the '95 U.S. Open final. The rivalry between the game's greatest server and its greatest returner, which reaches back to junior tournaments on the California hard courts, has always demanded much and exacted a toll: That loss in Flushing Meadow sent Agassi's career into a tailspin that left him ranked 141st in late 1997 and Sampras without a measuring stick for his extraordinary talent. "Andre brings out the best in me," Sampras said after Sunday's final. "He elevates my game to a level that is phenomenal."

Since winning last year's Wimbledon, Sampras, at 27, had stumbled into what he calls "a crossroads" in his career. He skipped the '99 Australian Open, lost early at the French and even called Agassi to congratulate him for his stunning win in Paris, something he had never done after an Agassi victory. Sampras insists he was being guileless, but it isn't hard to imagine that the wheels began spinning in both men's minds. For two weeks at Wimbledon, they dressed side-by-side in the locker room, not talking about the confrontation that loomed closer with each win. But when Sampras walked into the training room for a massage after his four-set victory over Henman on Saturday evening, he found Agassi, who had been brilliant in dismantling Rafter in three sets with the No. 1 ranking at stake. The two looked at each other and couldn't help grinning. "When I was 141 in the world, you didn't think you would ever have to go to sleep at night thinking about me, huh?" Agassi said.

"No," Sampras said. "I never thought that. I've played you too many times."

The next morning, Sampras woke up early and scared. "Just an unbelievable fear of losing," he said after the final. "How am I going to feel if I lose this match? But once I get out in the warmup and start playing, I just feel some sort of calmness. I know it's one-on-one, he's feeling the same pressure I'm feeling, and I've been in this position. Something takes over."

Agassi had no chance. Going into the final, he had been far sharper than Sampras, rightly confident that he was playing the best tennis of his career; Sampras had gotten lucky in the quarterfinals when Aussie boomer Mark Philippoussis, up a set and reading Sampras perfectly, pulled up lame with torn cartilage in his left knee. But Sampras on grass is like gasoline on fire: nearly impossible to stop once he gets going. Drilling Agassi with 17 aces -- and never allowing Agassi one winner off his first serve -- Sampras outhit the game's best baseliner from the baseline and savaged Agassi's serve with pinpoint returns. Twice he went fully horizontal and bloodied his forearm with Beckeresque lunges for volleys. The effort was well spent. In less than two hours, Sampras surpassed his idol, Laver, and Borg, both of whom won 11 Grand Slam singles titles, and left the world's new No. 1 player broken -- if only for one day.

"I want another shot at him," Agassi said. "It's the story of my career. He's established himself as one of the greatest players of all time -- if not the best -- but I want to play him on hard courts again, and I want to play him on clay. I want it, and more. I want this all to happen again for another few years: That's how good it feels. And we'll start with the U.S. Open."

Coming from two Americans on the Fourth of July, such intensity would seem more than enough to bring the recently dormant U.S. tennis scene to life. Davenport certainly gave it new life on the women's side. Growing up, she and Sampras played out of the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Palos Verdes, Calif., where there must be something in the water. Since beating then No. 1 Hingis for the U.S. Open title last September, the once toweringly insecure Davenport has grown more confident, more hungry. By the second week of Wimbledon, Graf had become the sentimental and smart-money favorite to win the title; she had never lost to a baseliner at Wimbledon. But when Davenport, having already secured a place in the final, saw Graf struggling to beat Lucic in the semis, she found herself rooting hard for the former champion.

"I told my coach, 'I want to play Steffi,'" Davenport said late on Sunday. "In past years, I would've said, 'Oh, Lucic, please win!' But I wanted to play Graf: You lose, you lose to a legend, and if you win, it's more special."

In truth, though, Graf was finished. Davenport drilled her with winner after winner from the baseline and hammered perhaps the greatest player in the game's history into submission. "I'm a little disappointed I could not play better today," Graf said. "I just wish I could've shown more."

She played like someone already gone. Her left thigh was wrapped because of a strained muscle, and all the years of injuries seemed finally to have caught up with her. Nothing, not even the prospect of winning one last Wimbledon, seemed to interest her anymore. Graf had always moved fast, on court and off, and when the trophy presentation ended, she strode away, not bothering to wave good-bye.

It was odd. The end indeed came on Sunday, but for just one person. Steffi Graf didn't seem sad, not a bit, at leaving this world behind.

Issue date: July 12, 1999


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