The 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 Bjorn 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 tide? 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 tides. 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 Hen-man, 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."