Guts and Glory
Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf proved indomitable at a chaotic and poignant U.S. Open
By S.L. Price
Issue date: September 16, 1996
He took it slow, scanning the hollering crowd from left to right, section by section of ramshackle Louis Armstrong Stadium, knowing he would find the face he needed to see. Pete Sampras stood with his back to the net, looking fresh, grinning. Next to him, beaten and forgotten, Michael Chang shuffled his feet and waited. Both had said kind words about the fans and each other in the opening moments of the men's singles award ceremony of the U.S. Open, and soon some man in a suit would hand Sampras a $600,000 check and a trophy. But the 1996 U.S. Open champion and world's No. 1 player wasn't thinking of that just yet, because he had found Tom Gullikson in the crowd. The two locked eyes. Sampras nodded, Gullikson nodded back, and in that flickering exchange was merely everything important, every truth about caring and loss and letting go. "It's been very difficult for both of us, more for him -- Tim was his twin brother," Sampras said afterward. "But I knew what he was thinking and he knew what I was thinking. We just looked at each other, and I knew. Those are the moments that are about more than just tennis."
It was then that Sampras understood, maybe for the first time: It's over. For on Sunday, Sampras didn't just dominate the world's second-best tennis player, or simply win his fourth -- and most dramatic -- U.S. Open title, or merely elevate the measure of his greatness with an eighth Grand Slam championship. No, with his 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 blowout of Chang, his first win in a major since his coach and best friend, Tim Gullikson, died of brain cancer in May, Sampras also released himself from the emotionally exhausting task of living out a sports cliché: winning a Grand Slam title in Gullikson's memory. He had failed in June at the French Open, the one major he has never won, and he had failed in July at Wimbledon, and only an almost mythic, five-set performance against Alex Corretja of Spain had kept him from failing at Flushing Meadows.
Coming into this Open, those closest to Sampras could sense the strain. "He's got to get to the point where he's playing for himself," Tom Gullikson said. "It's an emotional roller coaster playing for other people, other causes. It just puts extra pressure on him. And he's had to deal with Tim's situation in such a public way."
That's the strangest part. Sampras, never given to Connors-like histrionics on the court or Becker-esque philosophizing off it, calls himself a stoic. Yet more than Steffi Graf, who amid a soap opera of personal difficulties rolled to her 21st Grand Slam title over an outclassed Monica Seles -- and perhaps more than any other athlete in memory -- Sampras has displayed his emotions to millions. At the 1995 Australian Open, he wept during a match after learning Tim Gullikson was ill; on court at the '95 U.S. Open, he dedicated his win to him; in Paris this year, he looked to the sky and sensed Gullikson looking back. The quest had a touch of the macabre, but for someone who is at his most eloquent on a tennis court, it made sense. Sampras tried to give a eulogy at Gullikson's funeral and couldn't finish. But when Sampras stands between the lines, he rarely has a problem finishing. "He does live his life out on the courts," says his coach, Paul Annacone. "He doesn't show much emotion except when he's competing."
So it was that as his game gained momentum through this fortnight, Sampras grabbed hold of a tournament that set new standards for U.S. Open chaos. Flushing Meadows has always been the most unruly of Grand Slam tournaments, a noisome melange of screaming jets, outrageously priced food, cramped facilities and rude crowds. Few players will be sorry when Louis Armstrong is replaced next year with a state-of-the-art $234 million facility under construction next door. "It would take me 100 years to get used to this place," said Thomas Muster of Austria, the world's No. 3-ranked man.
The stadium seemed determined to go out with a final, anarchic bang. Before anyone took the court, the Open was awash in controversy over an abrupt change in the men's seeding system. French Open champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov, then ranked fourth but seeded seventh, pulled out in a snit, and other players threatened to follow suit. Then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani boycotted the tournament, first because of boneheaded worries that public safety was being endangered by the rerouting of planes to and from neighboring LaGuardia Airport, and then, in protest of the high prices. Next, Muster's coach, Ronnie Leitgeb, called tournament director Jay Snyder "the head of cheating" when Muster was denied a private car, off-site security guards and preferred seating for his entourage. It continued: Graf's father, Peter, went on trial for tax evasion, the German press staked out her New York City apartment, and Steffi bulled into the final nonetheless. Andre Agassi looked and -- against Chang in the semifinals -- played like a stevedore found sleepwalking in his nightshirt and ended the '96 Slam campaign amid all the old questions about his competitive heart. Fergie showed up.
But when Sampras met Corretja in the quarterfinals, everything else faded. It was, simply, one of the most spectacular matches in tennis history. Expected to cruise over the 31st-ranked Corretja after having bulldozed Aussie phenom Mark Philippoussis in three sets, Sampras found himself on the final, steamy Thursday battling to stay on his feet. With Corretja stinging him with a superb forehand and making few errors, Sampras fell behind two sets to one and tried to revive himself and settle his stomach with a few gulps of Pepsi. By the fifth set he was severely dehydrated, and when the four-hour, nine-minute ordeal was over, he would need nearly a half gallon of intravenous fluids. Never before, Sampras said, had he felt so bad.
At 1-1 in the fifth-set tiebreaker, Sampras staggered behind the baseline and threw up. Finally, with vomit streaming from his nose, he served and won the point, but the match was far from over. Alternately sending his eyes skyward or bellowing in pain, Sampras looped his groundstrokes and served well enough to stay even. At 6-7 in the tiebreaker, he saved a match point with a desperate, full-extension forehand volley. "I didn't believe it," Corretja would say afterward.
That only set up the match's most remarkable moment. Ready to give in, Sampras popped a 76-mph first serve toward the deuce court that went just long. "After that, I wanted to get it over with," Sampras said. "I didn't want to get in a rally." So he gambled. He tossed the ball up and cracked a 90-mph second serve to Corretja's forehand at so sharp an angle that it stunned both men: ace. "I couldn't believe it," Sampras said.
Corretja couldn't recover. On his subsequent serve, at match point against him, his second ball sailed long, but Sampras wasn't sure it was out. For an instant his face crumpled. "The best sound I've heard in years was that Cyclops going off," he said.
The next best came right after, when Sampras raised his hands and the stadium shook with a girder-trembling roar. It was a defining victory for Sampras. Minutes after the match, John McEnroe found Sampras's girlfriend, Delaina Mulcahy, and blurted out, "I don't have that much guts."
Until the final moment Sampras had maintained his composure. He had even begun to believe that he could get past Gullikson's death without winning a Slam title. But that wasn't likely. From late 1991 until the '95 Australian Open, Sampras never made a move at the Slams without Tim. He won four titles with him as coach, and now, when he arrives in Melbourne, Paris, London or New York City, "it reminds me," Sampras said. "I'm in the locker room, and all the boys are around, and Tom's there, and it reminds me of Tim. It kind of rekindles the hurt."
The match with Corretja reminded him that it was Gullikson who taught him to compete this way. Afterward, as Sampras slumped in a cramped holding room with his agent, coach and trainer, Mulcahy rushed in. She saw Sampras's face and he saw hers, and all the hurt came back. As Sampras began to cry, the others hustled out, leaving him and Mulcahy. "This is for Tim," Sampras sobbed as they hugged. "This is for Tim."
Her father sits in a jail cell in Mannheim, Germany, on trial for tax evasion. Her mother, Heidi, sits across the table from her in the Open clubhouse. It is Sunday night, after the finals, and there is a glass of champagne in front of her. "You go through different emotions when you win," Graf says. "Sometimes you feel like crying. Sometimes you feel like screaming. Today I was definitely in the screaming mode. I was so happy to play good tennis. I didn't think it was possible."
Who did? Graf almost didn't enter the Open. She came into the tournament ailing from a calf injury and knowing that the pressure would mount once Peter's trial began during the second week of play. Steffi's concentration was so frayed that her coach, Heinz Gunthardt, half expected she would lose early; always, her impending return to Germany hovered. "It's going to be a not-too-pleasant time," Graf said. "That's why I treasure what I've had the last few days. It won't last so long."
But her win here should, she says, give her strength. Graf held off challenges from what Swiss sensation Martina Hingis calls "the new generation" of women's tennis, sampling and discarding both Hingis and the other teenager of the moment, Anna Kournikova of Russia. Then, before anyone could get excited about her first meeting with Monica Seles since last year's classic final, Graf had steamed past Seles 7-5, 6-4, to finish the year as the undisputed queen of the game.
"I tried to change it," Hingis said of this year's rerun of the 1995 final, "but it didn't work." She came close. Apple-cheeked and hot-tempered, she became the first 15-year-old to make the Open semis since Jennifer Capriati in '91. Hingis tested Graf throughout their first set, reaching set point five times before running out of gas. Her precocious all-court game and seeming normalcy make her the tour's hot young thing. "Martina is able to live with being that good," says her mother and coach, Melanie Zogg. "She's always been Number 1. Anything else would be funny."
In fact Hingis was able to pressure Graf more consistently than Seles was. "It was a weird ending," said Seles.
It was, indeed, one of the strangest ever in a Grand Slam final. Not only did a storm resembling the Apocalypse come churning over the lip of the stadium with Graf serving for the match, but at one point Seles had to stop Graf from serving because Seles was overcome by the giggles. The sound of a man singing Happy Birthday -- badly -- was drifting from the grandstand. There, Tom Gullikson was receiving his $9,500 check for winning, with Dick Stockton, the 45-and-over doubles title. Tom and Tim turned 45 Sunday.
Sampras didn't wake up Sunday thinking about Tim Gullikson. He woke up thinking about Chang. He also thought about how much he loves the emptiness of the locker room on the final day of a Grand Slam event. "The first week is hectic," he said. "You can't get a shower, there's no room. But each day, it's clearing out, clearing out, and the last weekend, when you walk in the locker room, no one bothers you. I love it."
He sat in the locker room early in the afternoon, the same place where Alex Corretja wept after losing to Sampras in the quarterfinals, where Goran Ivanisevic smashed and kicked his racket after buckling to him in the semis, where Chang would later come to pull himself together after the final. But Sampras was alone now, watching football, remembering. When the rain interrupted his match, Sampras moved to the same cramped room he had collapsed in after beating Corretja. He talked through the nearly three-hour wait with his coach and trainer. Finally, he walked onto the court with Chang and, one hour and 59 minutes later, walked off with a big piece of his life back.
"Tim's still with me," Sampras said late Sunday night, "but Tom made a good point. I can play for myself now."
Issue date: September 16, 1996