Extract from Tennis’s strangest matches by Peter Seddon:
‘It was hard to tell whether Andre Agassi looked more like the Pirate King, Sinbad the Sailor or Popeye,’ wrote Alan Tengrove in Australian Tennis Magazine in 1995 after he had seen the Las Vegas-born 24-year-old bludgeon his way through the field to win the Australian Open at his first attempt.
Maybe Agassi knew something nobody else did because in his semifinal against fellow American Aaron Krickstein, his newly adopted seafaring style certainly ended up looking more appropriate than anyone could possibly have predicted.
Turning up at Melbourne’s magnificent Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park) wearing gold earrings in both ears, a bandana and sporting a goatee-stye beard certainly made Double ‘A’ look like something that had wandered in from the set of a Peter Pan movie, but the high-seas look hardly seemed appropriate for an antipodean summer at a stadium where play had been known to have been suspended on the grounds of it being too hot.
That’s not to say that the Australian Open hadn’t known rain before. Indeed when the pressure built up, heavy tropical storms were apt to erupt, but that sort of natural phenomenon couldn’t scupper the organizers at Flinders Park because they had a major secret weapon of their own up their sleeve.
Their famous retractable roof over the stunning centre court meant not even the heaviest rain could damper their spirits.
As the crowd settled for the start of the Agassi-Krickstein semi on Friday 27 January 1995 they had every reason to believe they’d see a full-length match with no unforeseen weather problems. In the event they were wrong on both counts.
Some rain had already been forecast so the roof was closed prior to the start of play. Agassi captured the first set 6-4, a set in which Krickstein tweaked a groin to add to the hamstring injury he was already carrying. Obviously affected but hanging in there, Krickstein again limited Agassi to 6-4 in the second as rain began drumming down relentlessly on the roof above.
As the crowd willed Krickstein to keep going as he trailed 3-0 in the third, the fact that they had been denied a classic was at least balanced by the knowledge they’d cheated nature, so often the tennis killjoy. If the Agassi game finished quickly there would surely be another match scheduled.
Five minutes later hopes were shattered on both fronts. As the sky was lit an almighty lightning flash and the faintest trickle of water had begun to creep into one corner of the court, Krickstein decided he could no longer carry on because of the injury. Maybe he foresaw the deluge that followed.
As the crowd applause rippled and the players began to leave court, ripples of a more watery kind seemed to be getting larger. Had the unbreachable roof failed? No. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.
The elements decided to attack from below and seep up from underneath the court. Within five minutes of the players’ departure the entire court was under water and play was abandoned fir the day.
‘It soon rose to knee-height,’ stated The Times under the masterful headline ‘AGASSI TIDE ROLLS ON AS KRICKSTEIN REACHES LOWEST EBB’.
‘Dozens of people, including Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez, went paddling in the instantly created pool,’ added the Guardian.
There have been tennis floods but never one quite so unexpected or impossible as this one. All was revealed to the equally soggy press shortly afterwards as many reporters perched atop desks marooned in the state-of-the-art pressroom which had also meekly succumbed.
The lighting had caused a partial power failure which shut down the pumping equipment that usually conveyed surplus stem water into the River Yarra adjacent to the grounds. As pressure in the drains intensified a number of them simply blew and opted to disgorge themselves on Centre Court.
‘You would think that with a roof over the stadium, you’ve got all the angles covered,’ mused Agassi, ‘but I hope the court is dray for Sunday and it’s going to be fun.’
It was and it was. Pistol Pete Sampras was made to walk the plank as Agassi triumphed in four sets.
Photo credit: Clive Brunskill / Getty Images Sport / Getty
[…] Before the match was the worst I’ve ever felt by far. After I finished practising, I ate in the locker room. The guys went up to get some food and I found myself alone for 20 minutes, feeling sick with nerves and worry. A lot of people said that winning the olympics would mean the pressure was off, but they had no idea. I was sitting there and feeling really ill. I got up and moved around and tried to think about other stuff, which is why it’s useful to have people around me. They might be talking aout something else and though I’m still going to be thinking about the match, at least there’s a distraction. The more I started thinking about how big the match was for me, the more nervous I became.
Novak doesn’t usually stay in the locker room and seems to go elsewhere, although I don’t know where. There as no one else there apart from a couple of the attendants, and the physiotherapy room was closed because there was nobody left to treat. There were no doubles players in there, no mixed teams and the only sound was coming from the TV. The guy on there was saying that no one had ever lost their first five Grand Slam finals. I knew that, of course, but to hear it in those circumstances just added to my nerves.
I had spoken to Ivan about nerves before and he said that he found it especially hard before the US Open final, because you have the whole day to kill beforehand. He would go in, warm up, leave, play a round of golf, come back, warm up a little again and then play. He did say that he felt nervous before each of his finals, which I suppose is reassuring. Some people say that pressure is a privilege and you ought to enjoy it, but when you haven’t won one of those events it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Ultimately, you have to believe that it’ll be fine win or lose, but because of the way that Wimbledon finished, a loss in this final could have been very tough?
When Novak and I finally walked out onto court, the wind was blowing strongly into our faces. The Bedych match had been ridiculous because the wind was going every which way, but at least this time it was coming consistently from one direction. It’s nomally good to play with the wind, but that day it was so strong. The balls are pretty light and from the President’s Box it was hard to keep the ball in court.
It felt like no time until we were involved in a first set tiebreak. Maybe it was one of those classics from the sidelines, but to actually play in it was a lot more trying, especially because both of us found that it was so much harder to execute the shots we wanted to. Novak had the odd chance, but it would have been tough to lose after having so many set points. I needed to win to have a realistic shot at winning the match. In the end, I took the tie-break 12-10. We’d already been playing for more than an hour.
At two sets to love up, I was elated but I couldn’t let myself relax. By the beginning of the third set, the wind had settled completely, ut when the wind calmed, I had the sense that it calmed him too. By that stage, I was just one set away from victory and feeling that with the conditions the way they were, they’d been a big help. He had been getting frustated, so when the wind died and the air stilled, he started to hit out on his shots with more confidence. He was more comfortable and moving better and that made me nervous.
Those nerves and Novak’s confidence changed the way I had to play the match. He won two sets, and I recall shouting out that my legs felt like jelly because they wouldn’t move where I wanted them to. Once I got that out of my system, I was OK again.
At the end of the fourth set, I decided to take a toilet break. There’s a toilet right there at the side of the court and I knew that by taking a break, all the people would be thinking: ‘He’s blown this one.’
When I was walking off, I was pretty down. We had been playing for four hours but what matters most is how much you’ve run, because you’re not moving for the entirety of the time. The temperature had dropped and even though there were long points, I was making him do most of the running. At the end of the fourth, I think he was struggling physically more than I was.
In the bathroom, I looked at myself in the mirror and said: ‘I’m not going to lose this’ (well, something along those lines – I can’t remember the exact words). For me, it was about going back out ot gine 100 per cent and leave nothing behind. No regrets.
I came out and looked over at Ivan in the box. That fired me up because I wanted to win so badly, maybe more than him, if only because I’d never won before. I wasn’t going to let myself lose that match from that position, the way Wimbledon had gone.
I secured a break in the first game, when Novak missed a forehand after a net cord at 30-40. Then I made it a double break to put myself 3-0 up. He then got a break back. I haven’t watched much of the match on DVD, but I do remember that I had a great service game to love to lead 4-2 and then backed that up with a break to lead 5-2.
I had build it up so much in my head that it would be a big thing to serve for a Grand Slam, but when it came to it I didn’t feel that nervous. I had two breaks and when I looked up I could see the spectators were going nuts. I was feeding off all that energy. I was actually speaking to people in the crowd – I don’t know if it made much sense, it was probably just something to get me fired up. Even though I’d never been in that position before, even though I’d spent quite a bit of time wondering how it might feel, I felt oddly calm.
The score got to 40-love and I was about to win. I’ve been in that position loads of times and, 99 times out of 100, I hold serve. With the wind in my favour, I went to the wrong side to serve because I was concentrating so hard and I didn’t realize quite where I was. On the first Championship point, he threw up a lob, I got the rim of the racket to it and he hit a winner. On the next point, he smacked his return and I knew 100 per cent that it was out, but thought he’d challenge. I heard the call, saw the ball and my reaction was pure disbelief.
It took a while to understand what it meant to win the US Open. Maybe, after everything, it wasn’t as big as I had built it up to be, but I was so relieved to have finally done it, that I felt a mix of pure elation and disbelief. The one thing I would have liked to have done afterwards, in front of the TV cameras, was to thank everyone who has supported and worked with me, but time was too short. It was in the locker room that our celebrations began. There were hugs and kisses and I just remember there being lots of banter. Ivan was smiling more than I’d ever seen him smile and he told how poud he was of what I had done. He also said that I had shown great fighting spirit and played an excellent match, which, coming from him, as exactly what I wanted to hear. He didn’t want to join the rest of the team for dinner that night, but seemed to go home very happy.
We had a great night. I slept for about an hour, having read as many stories about the match as I could online before I finally drifted off, only to be woken by an early alarm call ready for a round of media appearances.
That night, I treated myself to an upgrade on the flight home. Everyone else my asleep and I just couldn’t make myself drop off. I had a glass of champagne, which I never do, and that became four. I actually mistook the soap in the bathroom for toothpaste because I was a bit giddy. If there were any bumps on the flight home, I certainly didn’t feel them.
The two main stadiums here are called Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong. One I love, the other I have never felt comfortable on. I just don’t like Armstrong and never have. Each time I’ve played on it I’ve struggled, and the 2012 championship was a case in point. I started strongly enough, beating Alex Bogomolov and Ivan Dodig in the first two rounds on Ashe and then had to play Feliciano Lopez of Spain over on Armstrong. And the jinx almost held because I couldn’t really settle properly. It can get breezy on the big courts; on Ashe it generally blows from the President’s Box end and you get used to that, but on Armstrong, where there’s no sense of being enclosed, the wind swirls and moves in different directions. You are most exposed to the sun playing day matches on Armstrong, too, and it can be so bright that tracking the ball gets really hard.
The grandstand in the Arthur Ashe Stadium gives more shelter from the wind and it’s built so that the sun moves across early in the day, providing plenty of shadow and shade. On Armstrong the sun is on the players for the whole day and it’s really intense. That made it difficult for me to settle, but the fact is that Lopez is not much fun to play. He had Alex Corretja, a former coach of mine, in his box.
As a result, I struggled physically, but somehow it was one of those matches that I found a way to win. I didn’t feel right at all, but somehow I got through. I used to be able to do that a lot of times in all the regular tournaments I played on tour and managed to get a really high degree of consistency throughout the year. However in the Slams that wasn’t necessarily the case. Now I’ve learned how to cope in situations when the pressure is on. I think about how my opponent might be feeling. I understand it all much better than I did before.
In the fourth round, I played well against a new big gun on the tour, Milos Raonic of Canada. We were playing on Ashe at night, which I really like. The conditions seem kinder in the evening and that was one of those really good nights. I read his serve well from early on and seemed to be able to anticipate everything he was going to do. That night I was quick and in command.
For the quarter-final against Marin Cilic of Croatia, the game was back on Armstrong and the pressure was really on. Cilic made sure that I felt it from the start, taking the first set and going on to take a 5-1 lead on the second.
When I got the first break back in that second set, we both sensed how important the next couple of games would be. And I started to feel that he was getting nervous. After that, I played on pure instinct. I got to balls I hadn’t been reaching before, chased everything down and got back into the match the hard way.
Perhaps if he hadn’t got nervous I wouldn’t have won, but there were nerves for me too. If you sense the opponent is tightening up and think, ‘I can get back in here, this is my chance’, the pressure increases on you. The guys who are behind aren’t the ones who tend to rush. They have all the time in the world, which is why it was surprising to see him hurry and make mistakes. It wasn’t as if I was blasting winners all over the court, so much as making as many balls as I could. Little by little, I started to reclaim the middle of the court, and he started to miss. That was it.
The semi-final against Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic on Ashe was a freak show. There were high winds, which it’s all about who hits the ball best that day. It was about who could manoeuvre the ball around and come up with the right shots and the smartest shots. I feel like I have a bit more variety in my game than Tomas, so the conditions helped me and hindered him more than me. It was almost comical because of the wind conditions and I was laughing a little inside at how ridiculous the points were. All the same, it was semi-final of the US Open, and it was a great opportunity.
I aced Berdych when the ball bounced twice before it reached him. That has never happened the whole time I’ve been on the tour, but there was stuff taking place put there that had never happened in my entire life. If you had wanted to, you could easily have spun the ball from your opponent’s court back onto your own side because the breeze was so strong.
Playing a proper point became impossible and, in all the chaos, I managed to lose the first set. After that, I felt like I was cruising. I took the second and third sets easily and I had two break points in the fourth. Then Berdych started to serve and volley with much greater consistency, coming into the net more. After that, things changed quickly. I was 5-7 6-2 6-1 up and he had enough break points to put me 5-1 down in the fourth. That was the point when I started the fight back and ended up taking it to a tie-break.
I went 5-2 down in that and realized that I’d gone from a commanding position to win the match to one where it looked likely to go into a fifth. I’d had the momentum with me, and then I was on the verge of blowing it through my bad play and his consistency. The conditions were ridiculous, but that’s no excuse because it was the same for both of us. It was so, so difficult, but I was fought back and won, I was just pleased to get it over and done with.
My post-match conference took a surreal turn. I knew that both Sir Sean Connery and Sir Alex Ferguson had been at the match, but I wasn’t expecting to suddenly be confronted by both of them. I had spoken to Sean Connery on the phone before the game, but I’d never even met Alex Ferguson. That made it a weird situation and, to be honest, I didn’t know what to say to either of them. Both are quite intimidating presences in their own way. I’ve seen Sir Alex on TV so many times and it seems like he’s really intense. You get the feeling that if you say the wrong thing when he’s doing his job, he’s going to bite your head off.
But he came to the press conference with a massive smile on his face. He was really relaxed – I think he might have had a couple of drinks – so it was cool.
Thirty minutes before the match, I get an anti-inflammatory injection, but it’s different from the cortisone. Less effective. Against my third-round opponent, Benjamin Becker, I’m barely able to remain standing.
I look at the scoreboard. I shake my head. I ask myself over and over, How is it possible that my final opponent is a guy named B. Becker? I told Darren [Cahill] earlier this year that I wanted to go out against somebody I like and respect, or else against somebody I don’t know. And so I get the latter.
Becker takes me out in four sets. I can feel the tape of the finish line snap cleanly across my chest.
US Open officials let me say a few words to the fans in the stands and at home before heading to the locker room. I know exactly what I want to say. I’ve known for years. But is still takes me a few moments to find my voice.
The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last twenty-one years I have found loyalty: You have pulled for me on the court, and also in life. I have found inspiration: You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I have found generosity: You have given me your shoulders to stand on, to reach for my dreams – dreams I could have never reached without you. Over the last twenty-one years I have found you, and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.
It’s the highest compliment I know how to pay them. I’ve compared them to Gil [Reyes].
In the locker room it’s deathly quiet. I’ve noticed through the years that every locker room is the same when you lose. You walk in the door – which slams open, because you’ve pushed it harder than you needed to – and the guys always scatter from the TV, where they’ve been watching you get your ass kicked. They always pretend they haven’t been watching, haven’t been discussing you. This time, however, they remain gathered around the TV. No one moves. No one pretends. Then, slowly, everyone comes toward me. They clap and whistle, along with trainers and office workers and James the security guard.
Only one man remains apart, refusing to applaud. I see him in the corner of my eye. He’s leaning against a far wall with a blank look on his face and his arms tightly folded. Connors.
I makes me laugh. I can only admire that Connors is who he is, still, that he never changes. We should all be true to ourselves, so consistent. I tell the players: You’ll hear a lot of applause in your life, fellas, but none will mean more to you than that applause – from your peers. I hope each of you hears that at the end.
Thank you all. Goodbye. And take care of each other.
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.
From Jimmy Connors‘ autobiography, the Outsider:
Some of the shots that Borg and I played that day – he with his little wooden racquet and me with my T2000 – were just flat-out crazy. The crowd responded with the kind of passion that showed their appreciation for fierce competitors and great tennis.
The first set went according to plan. I came into net when I could, following up my punishing groundstrokes by taking the ball out of the air whenever possible, not letting Borg settle into a rythm. In the second set, I was hitting the ball so flat to the corners that I missed a few shots, both out wide and into the net, giving Borg a way back into the match, but I refused to let it put me off my game. I was playing to win, continuing to go for my shots.
Sitting back and letting Borg dictate the play – playing it safe like a lot of guys and hoping for the best – wasn’t an option for me. Those missed shots just made me press even harder. Keep playing your game, Jimmy. That’s what you do best. If you lose, OK, you lose, but it happens on your terms.
Going into the third set, I stuck to my game. I kept hitting flat, deep balls to the baseline, not letting Borg build on the momentum of winning the second set. It worked. The match had sapped our energy, and winning the tiebreaker in the third set proved to be the turning point. Fighting to the end is what tennis is all about for me, and with Borg you could take nothing for granted. But I got on top early in the fourth, won the title on my third match point, and added another Grand Slam to my collection.
In December 1975, I was supposedly finished – just a chubby, washed-up, fading superstar with no manager, no coach and no fiancée. By September 1976, I had my fourth Grand Slam, Mom looking after my business, Pancho in the stands, and Miss World to wake up to. Washed-up ain’t so bad.