By Claude England, Maryland Match Point
At first I thought it must have been the strong capuccino I had enjoyed after ou last dinner in Melbourne that was keeping me so wide awake, but as the minutes continued to tick by, I came to realize it as the sheer excitement of the past five days at the Australian Open that was still tingling through my body.
So many talented players, great matches, and the magnificent state-of-the-art Australian Open facility. Where to begin?
Mark Philippoussis opened up the center court action with a straight victory over Nicolas Kiefer, who would have, at that time, thought he would go on to upset Pete Sampras in straight sets, only to be thrashed in the following round by fellow Australian Mark Woodforde.
Next it was defending champion Andre Agassi who basically limped onto center court after having the misfortune of hurting a tendon in his knee during a fall on his apartment steps. Andre, wearing a pathetic bandage, somehow won this match against Argentine qualifier Gaston Etlis, who at one point was serving for the match, and at another time was within two points of perhaps the upset of the decade. It was a sad sight from both ends of the court. Etlis played brilliant tennis, showing no mercy for Andre’s inability to move around the court, hitting precision drop shots that the defending champion, instead of racing towards, could only stand and watch. But when it came to winning those final points, Etlis became even more creative in finding ways not to win, and Andre hobbled to a 6-3 in the fifth victory.
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.”
“Going into the Australian Open in 2009, I felt my chances of winning were as good as they had been at Wimbledon six months earlier. I had, in other words, a good chance. The ball bounces higher than it does at the US Open, so it doesn’t fly so fast and it takes my topspin well. What I hadn’t reckoned on was a semifinal like the one I had against my friend and fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco. I won, in the end, but I had to battle so hard and was left so physically destroyed by the end of it. For most of the one and a half day of preparation I had for the final against Federer, I was convinced I had absolutely no chance of winning. The only time I’d felt like that before a Grand Slam final was at Wimbledon in 2006, but that was because I did not believe, in my heart of heats, that winning was an option.
Before the Australian Open final in 2009 it was my body that rebelled, begging me to call a halt. It didn’t cross my mind to pull out of the match but the result I anticipated, and for which I strove mentally to prepare myself, was a 6-1 6-2 6-2 defeat.
The semifinal I played against Verdasco was the longest match in Australian Open history. It was incredibly tight every step of the way, with him playing spectacularly, hitting an extraordinarily high percentage of winners. But I somehow held on, on the defense but making few erors, and after 5h14, I won 6-7 6-4 7-6 6-7 6-4. It was so hot on court that the two of us rushed to drape ice packs around our necks and shoulders in the breaks between games. In the very last game, just before the very last point, my eyes filled with tears. I wasn’t crying because I sensed defeat, or even victory, but as a response to the sheer excruciating tension of it all. I had lost the fourth set on a tie break, and that in a game so tense and in such conditions, would have devastating had I not been able to call on every last reserve of mental strength I’d accumulated over fifteen years of relentless competition. I was able to put that blow behind me and begin the fifth believing I still had it in me to win.
The chance finally arrived with me 5-4 and 0-40 up on Verdasco’s serve. That should have been it, with three match points, but it wasn’t quite. I lost both the first and second points. That was when it all got too much for me and I broke down; that was where the armor plating fell away and the warrior Rafa Nadal, who tennis fans think they know, revealed as the vulnerable, human Rafael.
The one person who didn’t see it was Verdasco. Either that or he was in even worse shape than I was. Because his nerves got the better of him too. In a moment of incredible good luck for me (and terrible luck for him), he double faulted, handing me victory without me having to hit a shot. Both of us fell flat on our backs, ready to expire of physical and nervous exhaustion, but it was me who made it up first, stumbling forward and stepping over the net to embrace Fernando and tell him it was a match neither of us had deserved to lose.
The match ended at one in the morning, and i did not go to sleep till after five. […]
“No sooner had the match got under way than the the aches began to recede. So much so that I won the first game, breaking Federer’s serve. Then he broke me back, but as the games unfolded I found, to my great relief, that I wasn’t out of breath, and while my calves still felt heavy, there were no signs of the muscle cramps I had feared. And none materialized, despite the match going to five sets. In the end, as Titin says, pain is in the mind.
If you can control the mind, you can control the body
I lost the fourth set, as I had done against Verdasco, after going two sets to one up, but I came back, my determination bolstered and my spirit enhanced by the surprise and delight I felt at having made it as far as I had without falling apart. At 2-0 up in the fifth set I turned to where Toni, Carlos, Tuts and Titin were sitting and said, just loud enough so they could hear, in Mallorquin, ‘I’m going to win’. And I did. Toni had been right. Yes, I could. I won 7-5 3-6 7-6 3-6 6-2 and I was Australian Open champion; to my astonishment I had come back to life, and there it was, my third of the four Grand Slam titles, now my sixth overall.”