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.
Rafter unloaded his most valued weapon, a vicious serve kicking 91 mph to Sampras's backhand. Sampras took it high, muscling the ball along the ad-court sideline, too far for the charging Rafter to reach. The place stayed silent an instant longer, then erupted in a whirl of noise. The two men walked to their chairs. Rafter knew. Everyone knew. It was over. Sampras was about to serve for his record-breaking 13th Grand Slam singles championship, a seventh Wimbledon title, and neither night nor Sampras's sore left leg nor the spirit of Slam record holder Roy Emerson could stop him. Both men sat. Sampras felt tears coming to his eyes, two weeks of stress and a decade's worth of labor coming to a boil. "It all hit me that I was going to win, and it hit me hard," Sampras said later. "It was going to happen: the moment I've dreamed about." 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 fianc�e, 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.
Sampras wanted them all around him, win or lose, because at 28 he knows what he didn't know when he won his first Grand Slam event at 19: "You get older, and other things are more important than tennis," he said. "It was important to me that they were here, that they were part of it, because those are the memories you'll have when you're done."
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."