The road back has demanded that Graf come to terms with a suddenly vulnerable tennis game, too. Her mystique, always worth a couple of games a set, is gone. At the Canadian Open, her first tournament after losing in the Wimbledon semis, she talked about the need to restore her confidence. This was a watershed for the Graf camp, for Peter had always insisted that "the words nerves and confidence are not in our dictionary."
Still, for all life's vicissitudes, Graf seemed to be back atop her game in New York. She sailed into the final with a sort of Fahrvergnügen, and it's all the more to Sabatini's credit that the woman she beat for the title had been playing so well. Sabatini has always hit broad, baroque ground strokes, even as everything about her—facile hands and a physique a male athlete would envy—suggested that she could prosper as a serve-and-volleyer. It is this surfeit of athleticism that her new coach, Carlos Kirmayr, has tapped. Down 4-1 in the first set of her semifinal match against Mary Joe Fernandez, she seemed at a loss. "I was letting her play and doing nothing," Sabatini said later. "I told myself I had to do something."
She did. Relying on a steadily more adventurous net game, she salvaged the first set and brought herself to match point in the third with a diving backhand volley winner. By hitting the Deco Turf II surface just before finishing off her 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 victory, Sabatini set a tone for her strategy in the final. "I think," she said, "I'm ready to beat Steffi."
The truth of that bold pronouncement was quickly apparent in the final. Sabatini cruised through the first set and forced the second-set tiebreaker with a majestic crosscourt forehand pass. "If Steffi wins," Sabatini had said, "it will be because she wins, not because I lose." Steffi didn't win, not after Sabatini won six of the last seven points in the breaker, the last on a forehand pass that creased the line.
The book on how to beat Graf is getting thicker, and Sabatini made several contributions to it. She hit approach shots to one side or another to open the court, forcing Graf to stroke passing shots on the move. Kirmayr devised the Sabatini game plan. The two of them hooked up in June, soon after Sabatini's embarrassingly early exit from Roland Garros. "Something wasn't working," says Dick Dell, her agent. "And her relationship with [coach] Angel Gimenez was getting stale."
Late one night in Paris, after going over a short list of potential new coaches, Dell settled on Kirmayr, a carefree former touring pro from Brazil. "If he could make Gaby smarter, she would be 15 or 20 percent better," Dell said. "She had all the shots. She just didn't know how to play points."
Sabatini quit doing the weight work that had had her moving like a stevedore and spent time with tennis shrink Jim Loehr to rid her head of doubts. She also jumped rope, ran at least 45 minutes a day, and did sit-ups and footwork exercises. As the American press doted on Capriati, and the upsets of Seles and Navratilova diverted attention from Sabatini, she quietly advanced through the draw. Yet even as she moved closer to her first Grand Slam title, her father, Osvaldo, stayed in Buenos Aires. Said Sabatini, "I was winning, and he said, 'I'd better stay here for good luck.' "
Sampras's father stayed home too. For all their son's reserve, Soterios (Sam) and Georgia Sampras, who reside in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., are so emotional that they can't even watch him live on TV, preferring instead to view the matches on tape, with the outcome already known. Not that Pete believes in on-site support. He has a coach, Joe Brandi, but his spiritual mentor is none other than his victim in the quarterfinals, Lendl. Last December, to prepare for the Masters, Lendl invited Sampras to his Greenwich, Conn., home to be a workout and hitting partner. Sampras sampled the ascetic life-style—rigorous training, plenty of sleep, eat-to-win diet—that had turned Lendl into the best player in the world. Between the end of last year and the start of the U.S. Open, Sampras rose steadily from No. 81 to No. 12. Still, he had no premonition of what he would do at the tournament. Indeed, after an easy third-round defeat of Jakob Hlasek, Sampras summarized his chances thus: "Maybe in a couple of years, but I don't think it's realistic right now."
Only after he had upset Lendl 6-4, 7-6, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 did Sampras feel he could take the prize. In the final he seized breaks early in the first two sets, and by the third, Agassi's spirit was broken. Sampras went up 4-2 in the clinching set by breaking Agassi at love, and wherever he was, Robby Benson must have been bracing himself for the prospect of people stopping him in the street and saying, "Hey, aren't you Pete Sampras?"
Sampras had learned from his opponent's semifinal. "Agassi hit it in the corner for three hours," Becker had said after losing 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. But Sampras realized that Becker had let Agassi do so.