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Alexander Wolff
September 17, 1990
Teen ace Pete Sampras and a new Gabriela Sabatini were unlikely champions in one of the most surprising U.S Opens ever
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September 17, 1990

Upset Time

Teen ace Pete Sampras and a new Gabriela Sabatini were unlikely champions in one of the most surprising U.S Opens ever

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He takes three balls from the ball boy and examines each. The briefest frown may cross his face before he throws the fuzziest one back, as if it were an undersized bass. That frown is all the emotion you're likely to get from Pete Sampras, the youngest man ever to win the U.S. Open and the first American to prevail since 1984. He keeps two balls, thrusts one into his pocket, hoists the baldest one—"I like the fuzz thin," he says, "because the thinner ones go through the air quicker"—rocks, cocks and powders it toward some poor soul obliged to do something with it.

One hundred times, over the length of the tournament, the best tennis players in the world, including Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and a rejuvenated John McEnroe, could do nothing with the serve of Sampras, 19 years old, seeded 12th and now all-three-network-morning-shows famous. "I've got a heater and a changeup," he says like some phenom just up from Triple A. Sampras is so welcome to U.S. tennis precisely because he splits the difference between the pious Michael Chang and the ostentatious Agassi. His style is classic serve-and-volley, and someday this Southern California kid of Greek ancestry will win Wimbledon. But Sampras will be forever linked with the U.S. Open, just as Boris Becker and Mats Wilander are identified with the tournaments that midwifed them, Wimbledon and the French Open, respectively.

Tennyson, anyone? In Sunday's final, Agassi watched cannon to the left of him, cannon to the right of him, as Sampras thundered and volleyed. Agassi could not make reply; he could not reason why. "Why are you so slow?" he muttered to himself between points. There was an answer in the numbers that the announcer up in the Flushing Meadow press box calls "sadistics." Sampras hit 13 aces in the match. Agassi not only never had a break point in the first two sets, but he also never even forced a deuce game on Sampras's serve, which hovered around 120 mph during the final. The final arithmetic—6-4, 6-3, 6-2—had a grim progression to it.

In this Open of the Dark Eyebrows, another improbable phlegmatic, Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina, beat top-seeded Steffi Graf 6-2, 7-6 for the women's championship. Thus, 1990 became the first year in nearly a quarter of a century that the eight Grand Slam singles titles have gone to eight different players. Sabatini's victory was particularly sweet, for it repudiated a summer of Gaby-bashing. During Wimbledon the British press had pilloried her; one tabloid published a former beau's kiss-and-tell, in which he said she walked like "a fat duck." Stateside, a national magazine hit the stands during the U.S. Open with a long explanation as to why she would never win a Grand Slam.

No major annual American sporting event is held for as long as the U.S. Open, and thus it has a peculiar ability to find a groove over its two weeks of days and nights and hold on to it. The hard-edged essence of New York City was still very much a part of the scene, but this year it came with a certain laid-back topspin. The prevailing Flushing Mellow was partly the work of mayor-tennis nerd David Dinkins, who prevailed upon the air-traffic controllers at nearby LaGuardia Airport to redirect the deafening flights that usually roar over the National Tennis Center. The leftover sounds—the hum of a couple of blimps and the intermittent keening of subway car wheels in an adjacent switching yard—seemed somehow soothing.

In the stadium, Wilt Chamberlain sported a NO I'M NOT T-shirt. The MARTINA IS MY ROLE MODEL buttons— ripostes to Margaret Court and her recent criticism of the life-style of Martina Navratilova (who was a surprise fourth-round loser to Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere)—came in both red-white-and-blue and gay-rights lavender. Meanwhile, there was no truth to the rumor that you could get 3½% APR financing on the poached salmon at the refreshment stands, notorious for overpriced provender.

Perhaps the biggest menace to tennis is meddlesome and indiscreet fathers. For some reason they most often crop up around the women, and most conspicuously around the youngest ones. Take the case of French Open champion Monica Seles. Since jettisoning Nick Bollettieri as her coach six months ago, Seles, 16, has relied exclusively on the counsel of her cartoonist father, Karolj. He signed off on her switching rackets just two weeks before the U.S. Open and let her show up so ill-prepared for a third-round match with unseeded Linda Ferrando that Seles based her game plan on the erroneous notion that, as she said afterward, Ferrando "was a backcourt player that didn't come to the net." A devotee of the Rocky movies—"I took notes," Ferrando said after an enthralling 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 win—the 24-year-old Italian steadied her nerves by the end of the first set and then put Seles away from the forecourt, tactics that Seles could have easily divined from the WTA guide, which, among other things, says Ferrando "plays a serve-and-volley style" and that her "favorite surface is cement." Bollettieri couldn't help uttering a few I-told-you-sos.

As for Stefano Capriati, it seemed somewhat mercenary that after an exhausting summer, he would permit his 14-year-old daughter, Jennifer—a humbled, straight-set loser to Graf in the fourth round—to fly home to Boca Raton, Fla., after the Open only long enough to register for the ninth grade before returning to New York for three days to shoot a commercial and make a store appearance. Later this month she will zoom to Tokyo for another tournament.

Tennis's most influential and doting dad remains Peter Graf, the man who made Steffi a champion. Yet the young woman who only two years ago won the prestigious Grand Slam has been a mere husk since this spring, when the West German press first carried lurid allegations about Peter's relationship with a Playboy model. Since then Steffi has groped for an elusive peace.

By the time she lost to Sabatini last Saturday she had spent eight straight weeks in North America, using as a base her home in Boca Raton. Graf had also become convinced that her numerous physical ailments—everything from allergies to sinus problems to an ingrown toenail has bedeviled her this summer—were symptomatic of her roiling emotions. "Your body tells you in its way when you feel good emotionally," she says.

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