Sampras's grand run began and almost ended with the bring-a-lunch defeat of Chesnokov. When he collapsed after the final point of a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 victory, Sampras looked as if he might not play again for a long while. He was dragged off the court, arms strung over two U.S. trainers, his feet leaving tracks in the clay as if he were a four-wheel drive vehicle heading to a Vermont cabin on a snowy day. Gullikson said he never had seen anything like this. His eyes misted at the very thought of the scene. What if Chesnokov's final shot had not crashed into the net? Could Sampras have played another point?
"Everybody underrates him because he doesn't show his emotions," Gullikson said. "But after a match like this, how can you question his desire or guts?"
Amazingly, Sampras walked into the press conference a half hour later and said he felt fine. His body simply had cramped. His left groin and right hamstring went at the same time. A massage and some muscle relaxers brought him back. How far back? Less than 24 hours later, with the U.S. in trouble because Courier had lost the second singles to Kafelnikov by a score of 7-6, 7-5, 6-3, Sampras stood beside Martin and they put together a 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 doubles win over Kafelnikov and Andrei Olhovskiy. That victory put the U.S. within one match of the championship.
"We didn't know he was going to play the doubles until about an hour before the match," Gullikson said. "He showed up stiff but said he could go, so we made the change. If you have the best player in the world and he can play, you're probably going to use him. I had to give him two of my white shirts, and we had to send back to the hotel for a pair of white shorts, because it all was decided so late."
When Sampras appeared Sunday and said he felt stiff again, Gullikson said, "Great." Sampras proceeded to play what he called "the best match on clay I've ever played in my life." Usually hurt by a big hitter's characteristic impatience on clay, he picked his spots against Kafelnikov. His shots even sounded different from those hit by Kafelnikov, a louder whack to the Russian's softer thunks. Even Kafelnikov recognized the difference.
"You saw when Pete was fresh and not tired in the first two sets, his serve was flawless," he said. "In the third set, his serve shattered a little bit, but I still could not manage to keep him on the court. That was the plan—keep him on the court."
"The first two sets were as good as I've ever seen him play," Gullikson said. "He barely made an error."
The Russian crowd—a standard, standing-room-only 13,000 every day—did not seem bothered much by the results. This was not an old Russia, workers for the Motherland crowd. This was a society gathering, closer to a Las Vegas fight crowd than any old-line Party rally. Gone were the henna rinses and pink lipstick on the women and the ill-fitting suits on the men. This was an Armani crowd, Mercedes-Benzes with drivers waiting outside, politicians and fast-buck entrepreneurs and gangsters and bodyguards walking the same ground inside.
The reach of capitalism was on display everywhere, from the special "VIP Village" in the stadium to the rock music played between sets to the sponsor signs for the Our Home Is Russia political party that hopes to retain control of the parliament in the upcoming elections. This was a big-event crowd, no different from the crowd that saw Diana Ross perform in the Kremlin and will see Claudia Schiffer sell perfume at a Moscow fashion show this week.
"If you had told me six years ago it would be like this, I would have said, 'Unbelievable,' " Yuri Zakharyou, a columnist for the Russian magazine Tennis Plus said. "But now? I say this is expected. This is life."