1996 US Open: Pete Sampras’ warrior moment
The summer hard-court season leading up to the US Open was always low-key. As hectic as the Open is, the tournaments leading up to it are laid-back affairs of the heartland. Indianapolis and Cincinnati are two of the biggest events, yet you can drive from one venue to the other in an afternoon, and each one has a little bit of that air of a county fair.
Although I lost in the quarterfinals at Cincinnati to Thomas Enqvist, I won Indianapolis, improving my career record against Goran to 8-6. Going into New York, I felt good about extending my streak of winning at least one major per year to four. And the draw opened up nicely for me. The only name player I would meet before the quarterfinals was Mark Philippoussis, whom I handled in straight sets. That put me into the quarterfinals against Alex Corretja, who was known primarily as a clay-court grinder, but who also put up some good results on hard courts. I expected a tough match.
There was very little backstory going into the match. Most people, at least in the States; figured I was a shoo-in to beat Corretja. But at the quarterfinal stage, I always worried about anyone I played, and I took nothing for granted. The one thing that may have helped shape the day was the fact that I went out there low on fuel. I remember that I ate lunch in the players’ lounge, but then the match before mine went unexpectedly long. It was just about 4 PM but the time I got on court. I should have snacked more – consumed a cookie, a banana, a hunk of bread – before taking the court.
It was a pretty warm day, but nothing like the real corkers you sometimes get at the Open. I was sweating a lot, though, and Alex was bringing plenty of game. He drew me into a baseline battle and made me work very hard. Alex was using the most basic strategy a grinder can bring to the fast-court game. He was just kicking in his first serve to my backhand to keep me from taking control of the point with an aggressive return.
When he did that, I was less likely to smoke the return, and he could immediately run around his backhand and engage me in a forehand (his) to backhand (mine) rally, keeping me pinned to the baseline. If I went bold and tried to go down the line with a big backhand to his open, forehand court (remember, he was standing way over on the backhand side), he could run over there and smack a winner crosscourt with his best shot. If I attacked, he would have a good look at a passing shot. […]
Alex had imposed a template on the game, and it was making me uneasy; I was stupid to have played along for such a long time. I was a bit mesmerized. I knew I should change something, but by then I was fatigued, feeling pressured and stressed, and unsure how to get out of the rhythm I had established. And when your mind fails, all you have to fall back on is your will and character.
Midway through the fourth set, I started losing my legs. They were heavy, with little of the usual spring left in them. When that happens, your game inevitably declines. You no longer get up as high when you serve, and you don’t get that explosive first step to the ball. You don’t move corner to corner effectively, or change direction that well. And when an opponent sees that, he uses it as emotional fuel, even if he’s also tired. This was shaping up as one of those matches that I would have to find some way to save – whatever it took. […]
I hit a wall late in the fifth and felt like I was going to die. But I knew in the back of my mind that I had one chance to win – one chance at salvation. This was the US Open, and that meant that you played a fifth-set tiebreaker. I kept telling myself to hang in there and just get to the tiebreaker; the match could not go on forever. I hung on and got to the breaker, but by then my head was spinning and things were getting a little blurry around the edges. I then told myself that whatever else happened, I could get through this. It could be as short as seven points. It was just a tiebreaker, I had played a million of them before, and none of them lasted before.
At 1-1 in the tiebreaker, all the pain and distress and nervous energy got to me and I got sick. My back was cramping and my legs felt like they were made of wood, and not entirely under my own control. I remember playing a tough point and all of a sudden I had this realization: Holy shit, I’m going to throw up. I’m going to puke – in front of the whole friggin’ world! […]
We lurched along to 6-6 in the tiebreaker, with me serving. It was time to decide things. I went for broke on my first serve end and missed. My second serve went wide to his forehand and, to my everlasting good fortune, Alex guessed backhand. There was nobody home. The ace brought me to match point. By that stage, the atmosphere was totally supercharged. People were leaning over the railings in the stadium, hanging into the court, screaming encouragement at me. I didn’t know it, but all over the United States and the world, things in many places came to an utter standstill as people got sucked into the drama of it all.
And then Alex blinked. He did the one inexcusable thing, under the circumstances: he double-faulted at match point. I won without having to take that additional step – one that I might not have been capable of making.
I left the court completely spent, dehydrated, disorientated, and vaguely aware that I had made a spectacle of myself. I went right into the doctor’s office under the stands in Louis Armstrong Stadium and collapsed. They immediately hooked me up to an IV bag. […]
The Corretja match quickly became engraved in everyone’s mind as my defining moment – my warrior moment.