Pete Sampras, 1990 US Open

1990 US Open QF: Pete Sampras defeats Ivan Lendl

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

“I remember watching Lendl in all those Open finals,” Sampras said. “I was eleven when he played his first one, and everyone was against him. So I rooted for him.”

Six years later, when Lendl was No.1 in the world and Sampras was a brand-new seventeen-year-old pro, Lendl invited him during the week of the Masters. Lendl likes to have young players work with him. They are eager, attentive, and challenging. Sampras didn’t disappoint Lendl and Lendl didn’t disappoint Sampras.

“He taught me what it means to really be a pro,” he said. “There were times I hated him because he made me ride the bike or run until I was about to drop, but I learned from him. He also told me over and over to worry about one thing in tennis: the Grand Slams. He said he wished he had learned that when he was younger.”

As much as he respected Lendl, Sampras had a quiet belief he could beat him. Everyone in tennis knew that the Wimbledon loss had damaged Lendl’s psyche. The hunger to win every single match and every single tournament wasn’t there anymore. He had played in only one tournament prior to the Open and had lost his first match – to Malivai Washington – in New Haven.

Sampras has watch him play Michael Stich in the second round. Stich was a tall, twenty-one-year old German who was quietly moving up the computer. But he certainly wasn’t a match for Lendl on hard court. And yet, Stich kept Lendl on court for four difficult sets.

“It wasn’t like the difference was huge,” Sampras said. “The guy was still great. but he wasn’t quite at the same level as I remembered in the past.”

Sampras was hyper the day of the match, wandering from the locker room to the players lounge to the training room and back to the players’ lounge. Lendl sat quietly in the locker room with Tony Roche, waiting to play. Remarkably he had been to eight straight Open finals. This was not new to him.

The match was a roller coaster ride. Sampras, coming up with huge serves at all the key moments, won the first two sets. But Lendl didn’t roll over at this stage of his career, not in a Grand Slam. He came back to win the next two sets. Sampras felt tired, frustrated. Lendl seemed to be getting stronger. But, down 0-4 in the fourth, Sampras found a second wind. He came all the way back to trail 5-4 and even two break points to get to 5-5. Lendl saved those and served out the set, but Sampras felt as if he was in the match again.

Lendl, having come back to even the match, felt pretty good about his chances, too. But, serving at 1-2, he got into trouble – with his thirteenth double fault. Sampras had returned so well that Lendl felt he had to make his second serves almost perfect and, as a result, had missed a few. Lendl saved that break point and had two game points of his own. Sampras kept coming, though. He got to break point again and bombed a crosscourt forehand that Lendl couldn’t touch. Lendl swiped his racquet angrily at the ground. He was down 3-1 and knew that breaking Sampras again would be difficult.

Sampras was trying hard to stay in the present.

“I just had this feeling I was going to win the match, that it was meant to be,” he said. “I really felt that way. But I didn’t want to think about any of that before it was over.”

He had one scary moment when Lendl had a break point with Sampras up 4-2. Sampras took a deep breath and served a clean winner. He followed that with an ace – his twenty-third of the match – and closed the game with another service winner. With a chance to get back into the match, Lendl hadn’t put a ball in play for three straight points. The look on his face told the story. Six points later, it was over. Sampras hit one more solid backhand. Lendl chased it down and threw up a weak lob. As Sampras watched it float toward him, he felt chills run through his body. “Just hit the ball,” he told himself. He did, cleanly, and his arms were in the air in triumph.

It was another four-hour marathon and another stunning upset. Sampras was the young American most fans hadn’t heard of, but they knew who he was now.

Like it or not, Sampras’ life had just changed for ever. He was no longer a prospect or a rising young American. He was now a star, a just-turned-nineteen US Open semifinalist – one who had beaten Ivan Lendl to get there.

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