Work in Sports
For the Ages
The past and the future met in a stirring Wimbledon fortnight as Pete Sampras his record 13th Grand Slam title and Venus Williams her first
By S.L. Price
All day the gloom had come and gone, bringing rain delays and the threat of a washout, but now it was settling in for good: darkness falling over Wimbledon's Centre Court. The rich whiteness of the tennis shoes, the net-cord tape, the shirts and shorts and even the court's chalk lines had begun to dissolve into the dusk. It was 8:55 p.m. Pete Sampras and the crowd of 13,812 and the NBC executives in America and everyone who had flights booked and families waiting needed just one more break. One more break to keep the match from spilling into Monday. One more break for Sampras to bury Australia's Patrick Rafter and serve for history. Everyone kept glancing at the sky. Could Sampras get it in time? He had Rafter pinned against a wall -- a two-sets-to-one lead and up 4-2, 40-15 with Rafter down to his second serve -- but everything depended on this moment.
The clock ticked to 8:56 p.m. Chair umpire Mike Morrissey called out the most important word of the 2000 Wimbledon championships. "Time," he said.
For that is what Sunday's final, and the entire tournament, came down to: time, and Sampras's race against it. Time, and the need to hold off its ravages until he could secure his most lasting achievement. Time, and the way it changes a man's perspective. On Sunday all the faces of Sampras's life came together. His parents, Sam and Georgia, the first ones to put a racket in his hand, had flown from their home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., to see Sampras play a Grand Slam final for the first time since the 1992 U.S. Open. Sampras's fiancée, Bridgette Wilson, to whom he had proposed the night before leaving for England in June, was there, as was his best friend, John Black; his agent, Jeff Schwartz; and his coach, Paul Annacone. Even the face of his most influential coach, the deceased Tim Gullikson, made it, in the person of Tim's twin brother, Tom. "Timmy would've been proud," Tom would tell him.
Time is closing in. Sampras knows that, because he'll celebrate another birthday next month, and the past year has been a battle against his body. A herniated disk in his back knocked him out of the 1999 U.S. Open and left him unable to walk for days. A torn hip flexor cost him an epic semifinal against Andre Agassi at the 2000 Australian Open. Tendinitis in Sampras's left shin hit after his first-round Wimbledon match two weeks ago and left him unable to practice until the day before the final. Had this been any other tournament, Sampras said following the final, he would have pulled out. He said he considered defaulting after the second round. But always, dangling before him, was the most alluring draw he had seen -- before Sunday's match with the 12th-seeded Rafter, the highest-ranked player Sampras faced was No. 56, Jan-Michael Gambill -- played on grass courts, where points are short and his serve is its most dominating. Emerson's record was there for the taking. Who could say when Sampras would get another chance like this?
For two weeks his confidence had been shot. He submitted his shin to acupuncture, massage, icing, anti-inflammatories, painkillers. He underwent hours of daily treatment and entered every match "completely out of sorts," he said. "The racket didn't feel good in my hand." On Sunday the rain made things worse, delaying the start of the final by an hour, then causing two midmatch delays lasting a total of nearly three hours. When Rafter, who won the first set, went up 4-1 in the second-set tiebreaker, Sampras thought he was going to lose. But then Rafter crumbled in a flurry of unforced errors, and he admitted afterward, "I knew I was screwed."
Sampras took the breaker, and the match was even. Rafter's nerve and serve never recovered, and Sampras's stayed as strong as ever. When he came out to serve at 5-2 in the fourth set, a series of flashbulb explosions began in the now dark stands. Two quick serves and a backhand volley later, Sampras stood poised at championship point. His final serve bombed in at 122 mph. Rafter had no chance. "It's the most difficult Slam I've ever won," Sampras said after the 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory, and "the most satisfying."
Sampras raised his arms. He shook hands with Rafter, put down his racket, took a step, bent over at the service line and began to cry. He is the greatest men's champion Wimbledon has seen. His serve-and-volley game and shy demeanor have always been the perfect fit for the All England Club but never more so than on Sunday. Sampras prides himself on being a throwback, and in a stadium with no light stanchions, on a day when rain made critics again call for a retractable roof, Sampras and Centre Court created a surreal and quaint tableau. There was Sampras, clambering up the thick, wide steps to hug his father and mother in the stands. The couple, who hid from cameramen all day, looked panicked when they were approached by reporters. They had told their son that they loved him and that they were proud, and that was enough. Sam Sampras would not be dancing on the roof of any broadcast booth. "He won't be putting up any signs, either," Sampras said. "He doesn't quite enjoy the attention like Mr. Williams."
The contrast, of course, couldn't have been starker. The action on Sunday gave every nod to the past, but the day before, Wimbledon had seen the unpredictable future. While Venus Williams's father, Richard, held up his hand-lettered signs (I NEED AN ICE-COLD COCA-COLA and IT'S VENUS'S PARTY AND NO ONE WAS INVITED!, among others), she rolled to her first Grand Slam singles title with a 6-3, 7-6 win over defending champion Lindsay Davenport. The match lacked drama and featured a nerve-racking display of double faults and unforced errors by both women, but Venus's achievement was unassailable: By taking out No. 1 Martina Hingis, her sister, Serena, and Davenport en route to the title, the 20-year-old Williams finally made good on the promise she showed in having bulled her way to the 1997 U.S. Open final. After erasing Davenport last Saturday, Williams laughed and leaped about the grass, and her father stepped out on top of the NBC booth and started jumping too. "We thought the roof was coming down," said commentator Chris Evert.
It was like nothing Wimbledon had seen, but then very little the Williams clan did this fortnight went according to form. Venus had hardly been expected to win; she had played just nine matches all year and only recently returned from a curious fade. Her 18-year-old sister's victory at the '99 U.S. Open -- and her first loss to Serena three weeks later -- left Venus "worried about myself," she said late last Saturday evening. "I was like, Venus, you've got to start coming through at some point. You have to cross that line."
But recurring tendinitis in both wrists knocked her out of the Australian Open. Months passed without news, and then Richard arrived at Miami's Ericsson Open in March and declared that he was advising Venus to retire. She stayed home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., watching tennis but practicing little. "It was great," Venus said. "Serena and my mom would be gone on the tour, and me and Daddy were on the couch watching Zorro at midnight. I'd fall asleep and wake up disoriented, and my dad would put me into bed. I'd been there so long, it was strange, finally leaving home. No more Zorro."
She lost weakly to Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in the quarterfinals of last month's French Open and came to Wimbledon two weeks ago with no grass-court preparation. Still, in her one week home between the two Slam events, Venus bought a gown to wear at Wimbledon's Champions' Ball. Aside from her family, she was the only one who knew she was on the verge of a breakthrough. "She hadn't gotten past a top player in a Grand Slam," Davenport said after the quarterfinals. "She never beat anybody." Last week, though, Venus cracked the game's elite with her 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 quarterfinal win over Hingis that left the top-ranked player shaken. "Someone else probably deserves to be Number 1," Hingis said.
Richard Williams has long said his daughters would eventually battle for that spot, and that day seems inevitable. After beating Hingis, Venus looked into the stands and pointed to her father, who pointed back at her, and the two jumped up and down. Serena, sitting next to him, seemed delighted. But when her father tried to hug her, she patted him halfheartedly. Serena had also bought a gown for the Wimbledon ball. Now she would have to play her older sister in the semifinal for a chance at the dance.
It seemed that Serena should win -- she had dropped only 13 games in her previous five matches. Sampras, Andre Agassi and Martina Navratilova picked her to beat Venus. But those closer to the women's tour weren't so sure. Hingis called the outcome "a family matter," and there was a general feeling that if only because of the psychological weight of the moment, Serena would ease up enough to give Venus the edge. When they met, Serena looked like a different player, shaky and tentative, and the fact that she was up 4-2 in the second set and lost 10 straight points to allow Venus back in the match lent ammunition to anyone wishing to believe that Venus won because it was her turn. Both women denied any arrangement.
"That's a goddam shame that people come up with that bull----," Richard said last Friday. "When McEnroe and his brother played? When Chrissie Evert and her sister played? No one asked them that. But everyone comes to us with a goddam bunch of bull---- when it comes to that. You got the two best girls in tennis right here, and if it wasn't for Venus and Serena, this bull---- tennis would be dead, because Hingis and the other girls aren't worth selling. And people come with a bunch of s--- like that? That is disgraceful."
That the match took its toll on the two sisters is undeniable. When Serena smacked a double fault on match point, she stopped, held her head in her hand in disbelief, then all but staggered to meet Venus at the net. Venus never clenched a fist or smiled. Stone-faced, she put her arm around her sister and said, "Let's get out of here." She had never been sadder in winning. "It was terrible," Venus said. "No fun, to say the least. Serena believed she was going to win Wimbledon. We both believed [we were going to win]. For either of us to lose was terrible."
But when Venus was victorious on Saturday, becoming the first African-American to win the tournament since Arthur Ashe in 1975 and the first black woman since Althea Gibson in 1958, there was only joy. Venus climbed up to the family box, and the sisters put their heads together and whispered happily. "She was wearing my shirt, which I hadn't seen for years," said Venus, who teamed with Serena on Monday to win the doubles title. "I wear her pants, which I will not give back. We love each other."
Love and time. Those two words get bandied about plenty during a tennis event, but this year they resonated more than usual as Wimbledon wound down. When Sampras finished with his parents, he walked down the stairs to accept his trophy. Sampras declared his love for his parents, his fiancée and Wimbledon in the on-court miked interview he did before the crowd. He walked around the edge of the court holding up the cup, and flashbulbs popped like fireworks in the evening air. The scene had the quality of something that might have happened long ago, captured in black and white. It was 9:12 p.m. Sampras began walking toward the tunnel, and people refused to stop applauding. Women in flowered dresses slapped their hands on the concrete walls. Men pounded their umbrella points onto the cold stone floor. Sampras held the trophy. Into darkness and history he disappeared.
Issue date: July 17, 2000