There's nothing sweet in the sound of greatness going down. It echoes the wear of too many years, the realization that time has chipped away the best part of your talent until, one day, there isn't enough left. Until one Saturday in July, you are Martina Navratilova standing, for the 22nd consecutive year, on the patchy grass you love most, in the embrace of 13,118 people and Wimbledon's Centre Court. And you are grunting. The ball drops over the net, you run but have no chance and gasp "Eeeeungghh!" You rap a forehand crosscourt to draw even in one game and bark "Come on!" because, at 37, you need pushing. You break Conchita Martínez with a rare forehand pass, bellow "Yes!" and frame your face with your fists. You talk to the air. You lose.
Greatness rising? Sometimes, it makes no sound at all. There is no need. Body, mind and talent mesh noiselessly as if designed at MIT. Here is a Sunday in July, and you are Pete Sampras gliding upon a second straight devastating run through Wimbledon. Goran Ivanisevic has spoken all week about his new mental strength but in the third set you have made that a lie. You drill an ace and merely nod, with no surprise in your eyes, because, at 22, you stalk history. You stroke a soft voiley past him and turn away. He doesn't bother swinging. He seems ready to cry.
"He's just too good," Ivanisevic said afterward, over and over.
"In my book Pete Sampras is the best player after Rod Laver," said Ion Tiriac, Ivanisevic's manager and a tour fixture since 1959. "He's the most complete player in the world."
So it was that the 1994 Championships at Wimbledon, which began as an upset-fest and almost became a daily seminar or rules and on-court behavior, ended as a changing of the alltime guard. On Saturday the 22-year-old Martínez halted Navratilova's hope for a 10th Wimbledon singles title, continuing the new Spanish conquest by becoming the first woman from Spain to win tennis's premier tournament. While Navratilova twice double-faulted on break point in her final set of her final Wimbledon and kept netting her once flawless volley, Martínez burned one dazzling passing shot after another by the helpless legend to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
It was her first Grand Slam final, Wimbledon no less, but the implacable Martínez played as if an earthquake wouldn't disturb her. Only at the end, after she had flung her racket into the gray English sky and Navratilova had hugged her, did Martínez begin to know what she had done. "She was going lower and lower—I was holding her up," Navratilova said. "I remember how that first one felt. The first one is the best. It's such a pure feeling."
The second isn't bad, either. By becoming the first man since Boris Becker in 1985 and '86 to win back-to-back Wimbledons—and by nailing his fourth Grand Slam title in his last five attempts—Sampras cemented his stature as the preeminent men's player of his generation. Sampras has already opened the largest gap between No. 1 and No. 2 in the history of the ATP computer rankings, and he's only getting better. He dropped only one set in seven matches, and he lost his serve just three times. Against Ivanisevic, a Wimbledon finalist in 1992 and now the world's No. 2 player, he faced only two break points and saved both. After winning the first two sets in tiebreakers, Sampras raised his game further. He brilliantly dismantled Ivanisevic's biggest weapon—a serve clocked at 136 mph—in the third set's second game, and from there it was only minutes to a 6-0 beheading.
Sampras has long been motivated by the low-key examples of two Australian tennis legends, Laver and Ken Rosewall, and he has now reached that place that few athletes reach—he is within striking distance of his idols. "I'm getting closer," Sampras said. "I'm getting there. The Grand Slam wins I've had have proven to people and to myself that I can go down in the history books."
So it wasn't all that shocking to see Sampras treat Centre Court like an Aussie beer hall after Ivanisevic chipped wide on match point. Sampras flung a racket into the crowd, stripped off his shirt a la Agassi and tossed that in, and then threw in one more shirt. "I should've taken all my clothes oil," he said, "because I won two in a row."
The less-experienced Martínez approached her final-round appearance on Centre Court with a bit more decorum. "I was nervous," she said. "I was thinking, Oh, my god, what am I going to do? I have to make a curtsy there and a curtsy there. I was thinking, What if I don't do it well?"