Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, Australian Open 1995

1995 Australian Open QF: Pete Sampras defeats Jim Courier

The quarterfinal between Jim Courier and Pete Sampras is still remembered as one of the most dramatic match in the Grand Slam history. Prior to his quarterfinal match with Courier, Sampras found out that Tim Gullikson, his coach and friend, had terminal brain cancer. Read what Sampras had to say about his emotional comeback win in his autobiography, A champion’s mind:

The retractable roof of Rod Laver Arena was open for our match; the conditions were close to ideal. Right from the start, Jim played. He liked the court and playing conditions in Australia much more than I did, and on that night his forehands cracked like rifle shots in the still, warm air. There wasn’t mouch to choose between us, but I dug myself into an enormous hole when I lost the second of two tiebreakers and trailed by two sets to none. That’s as bad as it gets in best-of-five Grand Slam matches, especially against a player of Jim’s caliber. The dialogue in my head went something like this:

Now I’m done. I can call it a day, have a shower, write it off to bad luck in the breakers. Or I can stay out there and, if I’m lucky, fight for another two and a half hours – just to get back into it.

Something inside just drove me to keep fighting. I earned an early break in the third, and clung to the advantage to win the set. Then, in the fourth, it looked like I might be done when Jim broke me in the fifth game and held for a 4-2 lead. He was just two games from the match, but he was starting to cramp up. With a game point to go up 5-3, Jim hit a double fault – one of just two from him in the entire match. Then he made two groundstroke errors and suddenly instead of 5-3 it was 4-all and I was alive again. I held serve, and broke Jim in the next game to take the fourth set.

I served the first game of the fifth set and led for the fist time in the entire battle. The desperate straits I was in earlier had kept me distracted and preoccupied, but now that I had a bit of breathing room, things started to unravel. As I sat in my chair on the change of ends, I started thinking about Tim; I had a flashback to the hospital, and how vulnerable and sad Tim had looked. Moments later, I fell apart.

I had all this stuff pent up inside of me, all of these powerful emotions, and I had kept them bottled up. They needed to come out, they demanded to come out, yet it wasn’t like me to let things out – and certainly not during a tennis match. So I didn’t know where to go with those feelings, and what made it worse was that as I struggled to contain my emotions, I realized how proud Tim would have been about the way I’d clawed my way back into the match.

When we started to work together, I was a so-so competitor, prone to getting discouraged. I wasn’t a great come-from-behind player. But in this tournament alone, I had come back from two-sets-to-none deficits in back-to-back matches, and that had a lot to do with what Tim taught me, the work ethic he impressed on me, the pride he instilled, and the confidence he showed in my game. I could see his face, the eyes lightning up and his lips talking on this sneaky little smile as he told me – how many times he told me this – that my big, flat serve down the T from the ad side was just like the famous Green Bay Packers power sweep. […]

Something in me cracked. All these thoughts and feelings came bursting out, the way liquid under pressure eventually blows out if its natural outlet is blocked. I was sobbing on that changeover and my shoulders were heaving. And then I had a sensation that ran contrary to everything I was feeling. Suddenly, it was like I was able to breathe again – to breathe, after not being able to for a long time. It actually felt good.

By the way, there’s a myth about this entire accident, the idea that my breakdown began when a fan yelled out,

“Come on, Pete, do it for your coach!”

That isn’t true. I didn’t even hear the guy. Anyway, I stuggled the next two games, unable to control my emotions or tears. I tied to go on, as if nothing was wrong, but I couldn’t do it. I had to step back to take a little extra time, try to gather myself. I didn’t want to throw Jim off his game, but by this time he could see that something was wrong, although he didn’t know what it was.

At 1-1, after the first or second point of the game, I had another minibreakdown, taking a little extra time before getting ready to play the next point. By then, everyone in the stadium knew I was going through something unusual and emotional. It was very quiet, I was struggling to pull it together, and then I heard Jim’s voice from across the court:

“Are you okay, Pete? If you want, we can come back and do this tomorrow.”

[…]Jim’s remark threw me off and it irked me. It also snapped me out of my awful state. I had to regroup, fast. Suddenly, instead of thinking anout Tim, or struggling to fight back tears and welling emotions, I knew I needed to win the match, and I needed to win it right then and there. Jim had let me off the hook, and I sensed that his nerves were fraying; I had to stop wandering around like some sort of Hamlet, as much reason as I had to be distracted.

That was probably the longest 10 minutes of my life, all of it taking place on this stage where almost twenty thousand people, including an international television audience, could see me writhing like a bug under a microscope. It was excruciating, but Jim’s crack snapped me back into reality, and I responded well. I broke Jim in the eighth game of the set and made it stick; the match fell just two minutes short of the four-hour mark. As Jim himself said later,

“At four-three in the fifth, either one of us could have collapsed, but he was the one left standing. Pete’s pretty determined, and certainly at a Grand Slam he’s going to do whatever’s in his power to win.”

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