Wimbledon 1996: Richard Krajicek upsets Pete Sampras
“When Paul (Annacone) and I arrived in England a few days after losing in the French, I appreciated the cool climate and those beautiful grass courts. It was like deleting every recent file on my mental hard drive and starting over. I really needed to regroup after the shocking collapse in Paris. The year was halfway over and, like most years, I would just a success or failure depending on whether or not I won a major.
I skipped all the warm-up tournaments for Wimbledon in 1996, hoping to regain my stores of stamina and energy. Things started to click for me when the tournament began, and although I lost a set to my Davis Cup buddy Richey Reneberg in the first round, pretty soon I was firing on all cylinders. I hammered Mark Philippoussis in straight sets in the round of 16. I rolled through Cédric Pioline, losing just ten games.
In the quarterfinals, I would be playing Richard Krajicek, the rangy, tall, hard-serving Dutchman who was always a threat on fast surfaces. He could pop up at any time and win a tournament, looking like the second coming of Pancho Gonzalez. At other times, he was just another big guy with a good serve who didn’t seem to have the confidence or drive to win, week in, week out.
I felt that Richard was a little nervous as we warmed up under leaden skies. But he held his own through the first seven or eight games, each of us taking care of his serve. Everything was fine, in my book. I was making him work on his service games, and I was getting pretty good looks at his second serves. I had break points here and there, which was encouraging even when I didn’t convert them. I had played many matches like this before on grass. The trick was to stay alert, focused, and confident, because my chance would come. I was getting to him, I felt pretty sure about that? It was just a matter of time.
But before we could finish the set, the rains came. We had a break of a few hours, and that gave both of us a little time to think and regroup. When we returned to the court, he was a different player. He was suddenly going for his shots, especially his second serve. Whether he knew it or not, he was taking me into the territory I least liked to visit. My m.o called for me to approach even the most lethal serve-and-volleyers with the expectation that I’ll get a good look at some second serves. If that happened, I could beat them. The strategy worked against Goran Ivanisevic, it worked against Boris Becker, and it worked against Stefan Edberg. But when it became harder for me to get a sniff at a second serve, it created a chain reaction. If I couldn’t get to his serve, that put more pressure on mine. I think Richard sensed that, and his own excellent serving freed up the rest of his game, especially his return game. And that’s how it almost always works.
Krajicek won the first set 7-5, breaking me once. It emboldened him, and suddenly he was getting hold of my serves with his backhand return? Plus, his passing shots were impeccable. I lost the second set 6-4, and was relieved when it started to sprinkle again, because the light was fading. I knew we would never finish the match that day, and I really needed to regroup.
Yet instead of thinking, Tomorrow’s a new day, I’ll get back on track – no way he can stay hot like that… I had a strange sense of foreboding. I didn’t feel good about the way the match was going, and knew I was in a big, big hole. Paul worked double time that night to get me back up, to restore my confidence, but he couldn’t pull me out of it. Although I was still in the match I was feeling negative.
When we returned to play the next day, we just continued where we left off. Richard came out bombing away, and I immediately got discouraged, thinking, Hey this is what I do to people on grass. Long story short, he closed me out. All the credit to Richard for getting the job done. He played a great match, technically and mentally. And it was some balm for me to see him go on to win the tournament – if you’e going to lose, you may as well lose to the guy who’s going to run the table. I’ve never watched that match on tape, but I’d be curious – just to see if Richard’s game really did change as much as I believe it did after the rain delay.