Pete Sampras, 1990 US Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

This was a great day for American tennis. In 1986, one American man, Tim Wilkison, had reached the Open quarterfinals. Four years later, there had been five American quarterfinalists. No American had been in an Open final since McEnroe, in 1985. Now, with Agassi having beaten Becker, the US was assured of having the men’s champion for the first time since 1974. The USTA was taking all sorts of bows for his renaissance, but it had almost nothing to do with it. None of the top young Americans were products of the USTA’s programs. One, Michael Chang, had benefited from some clay-court coaching from José Higueras, but that was it. The rest were products of their families, private coaches, and their own desires.

The crowd didn’t care about any of that. It just knew McEnroe was on court. Sampras, who had been the hero Wednesday, against Lendl, was now cast in the role of villain. He was ready for it.

“I know they’re all going to be for John,” he had said on Friday morning. “If I was sitting in the stands, I would be for John. I understand it, but I just have to shut it out. I think the match will be decided by who can come closest to keeping his level where it was Wednesday. One of us is bound to have a letdown. I hope it isn’t me.”

In truth, it figured to be Sampras. He had played the match of his life on Wednesday to beat Lendl. On Thursday morning, over breakfast at Wolf’s Delicatessen, Blumberg told him that he had concluded a lengthy renegotiation of Sampras’ contract with Sergio Tacchini. The new contract was for five years and would guarantee Sampras at least $4 million, although it could go considerably higher if Sampras continued to improve.

Having beaten Lendl, having become extremely rich, Sampras would have been excused if he had a letdown against McEnroe. It never happened, though. He came out bombing untouchable serves, and before McEnroe knew it, the first set was gone, 6-2. In the second set, McEnroe began to creep into the match. down a break, he broke back to 4-all with a miraculous scoop half volley. For the first time all day, the crowd was into the match.

If it bothered Sampras, it didn’t show. He hit two perfect returns at McEnroe’s feet to set up a break point. McEnroe , trying to avoid another return like that, went too much on a second serve and double-faulted. Sampras calmly served out the set.

What was happening there? How could McEnroe, who had played so superbly in his last two matches, be getting manhandled like this? In a sense, McEnroe was looking across the net and seeing himself, circa 1979: young and brash, supremely confident, and equipped with one weapon – the serve – that could keep any opponent off balance.
The difference, of course, was in Sampras’ demeanor. He wasn’t bratty at all. He played one point, then another. No flash, no dash, no whining or crying.

“I wasn’t always that way,” he said. “When I was fourteen and I was still playing from the baseline with a two-handed backhand, I was a real whiner. But then I saw some tapes of Rod Laver, and I said, ‘That’s the way I want to be.’ I’ve tried to act that way ever since.”

He was succeeding. Much as the crowd wanted to see McEnroe complete his miracle, it couldn’t help but marvel at Sampras. McEnroe did come back and win the third set, but even with the crowd now manic, Sampras didn’t wilt. He started the fourth set with his sixteenth ace of the day, broke McEnroe to go up 4-2, and served the match out, ending it with – what else ? – an ace.

McEnroe walked off to one last huge ovation. He was disappointed but not devastated.

“I don’t think I played badly,” he said philosophically. “His power really put me off. He served well when he had to. I think he’s really in a groove right now, and that’s a good thing. I think the guy is really good for the game.”

He smiled.

“Hope springs eternal. Rosewall played in two Grand Slam finals when he was thirty-nine. I’ll be thirty-two next year. The next time I play Sampras or Agassi, they’ll be favored. The pressure will be on them.”

Lendl had said that the key for Sampras was to forget he was playing John McEnroe. He had been able to do just that, largely, he felt, because he had played McEnroe earlier in the summer, in Toronto. Then, it had taken him a set and a half to forget who his opponent was and just play. This time, he had come out firing. He had beaten Muster, Lendl, McEnroe. The question now was, could he do it one more time?

1990 US Open champion Gabriela Sabatini

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Almost no one had picked Sabatini to be a factor in this Open. Nothing she had done prior to the tournament indicated that she could turn her year around her year around in New York.

Elise Burgin, who had played her at Wimbledon, was one person who still thought Sabatini could be a champion.

“It’s really all up to her now,” Burgin said. “There’s no doubt about the talent. The only question is, with all the money she’s made, does she really want it that badly?”

Sabatini always insisted she did. Her match against Mary Joe Fernandez was the best of the tournament. Sabatini was now committed totally to Carlos Kirmayr‘s and Dick Dell’s plan that she attack all the time. Once she got to the net she had a huge wingspan and was tough to pass. Fernandez, a baseliner all the way, stood back and blasted. Sabatini kept coming in – until she won a dramatic and gutsy three-set victory.

But it hardly seemed to matter. Graf was playing like the Graf of old and Sabatini’s 3-20 lifetime record against her was hardly encouraging. Especially since all three victories had been on clay. So it was no surprise when the first set of the women’s final was a 6-2 romp. Except for one thing: it was 6-2 Sabatini.

Graf was spraying passing shots all over, mishitting forehands that would have endangered the planes if they’d still been flying overhead. Sabatini, feeling more and more confident at the net, was in at every opportunity.

“I knew she was going to play that was, that was no surprise,” Graf said. “The way I played was a shock, though. I felt good, ready to go. Then I went out and was terrible.”

Terrible for Graf is still not bad. Also, she had lost the opening set to Sabatini in the past. In fact, Sabatini had won the first set when they played in the Open semifinals in 1989.

However, it was a different Sabatini, one who wouldn’t allow Graf to get a rhythm from the baseline. She kept pounding away and served for the match at 5-4 in the second. Here, for the first time, she got nervous. Graf, sensing vulnerability, broke and quickly held to lead 6-5. She had two points in the next game. The first one she botched with another errant forehand.
On the second one, she hit a good crosscourt backhand, only to watch helplessly as Sabatini cut it off with a superb touch volley, the kind of shot she would not have even thought to play a few months earlier.

They went to the tiebreak. Sabatini could sense now that this wasn’t Graf’s day. She kept coming, Graf kept missing. On match point, Graf clipped the top of the net with her return. Sabatini closed in on it and hit a forehand right down the line. Graf stared, as if hoping a mark might appear that would indicate the ball had gone wild.
None did. It was a clean winner. Sabatini was jumping up and down and Graf, who had won eight of nine Grand Slams coming out of Australia, had lost three in a row.

Dick Dell‘s whimsical prediction of three weeks earlier had come true: something crazy had happened at the Open. Sabatini had combined a little bit of luck, a lot of heart, and her new style, one in which she used her size and strength to best effect, to win a championship that almost no one thought she could win.

“She’s playing the right way now,” Navratilova said after watching the match. “She’s so big, you can’t pass her. I didn’t think she could win, because her second serve is so weak. But no one seemed to take advantage of it.”

Why Graf had played so poorly was a mystery. As she came off court, her father made a point of giving her a warm hug. Prior to the match, he had gotten into a scuffle with a photographer. Had his daughter known? Had that upset her?

Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, 1990 US Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

As always, the men’s semifinals sandwiched the women’s final, so Becker and Agassi had to be on court at 11 o’clock in the morning. Only at the US Open could a semifinal match start with the stadium half empty.

Those who came late missed a wonderful seventy-one-minute first set. Becker saved four set points and Agassi three. Becker finally won in a 12-10 tiebreak.
Sitting in the stands, neither Brett nor Tiriac felt overjoyed at the end of it. Relieved, yes. Perhaps, they thought, Boris would escape on his will and his guile, because, once again, he was not playing the kind of tennis either man wanted to see him play. Point after point, he stood behind the baseline exchanging ground strokes with Agassi. Only when he had too, it seemed, did he come in.

Brett and Becker had sat and talked at length after Becker’s quarterfinal victory over Aaron Krickstein. Becker had been down a set and a break in that match before he had snapped out of his lethargy to win the match in four sets. “He knows very well,” Brett said afterward, “that he can’t even think about playing that way on Saturday if he wants to win.”

And yet, here it was, Saturday, and Becker was back behind the baseline against a man he had to attack to beat. Maybe the conditions – cold and windy, a complete switch from earlier in the tournament – threw Becker off. Whatever it was, he could not keep up the clay-court style of game he was playing. Agassi’s shots began finding their mark regularly. Becker wasn’t even making him sweat to hold serve. At one point, he won six points in eight games that Agassi served? When Becker didn’t get his serve in, Agassi controlled the points.

Agassi broke Becker nine times in thirteen service games during the last three sets. No doubt, he had returned extremely well. But Becker doesn’t get broken nine times when he is coming in. It can happen only if he plays behind the baseline.

Agassi won in four sets. He ended it with a service winner and promptly knelt in a prayerful pose somewhat akin to The Thinker – remarkable behavior from someone who, a week earlier, on this same court, had spewed profanities and spit on an umpire. Becker said nothing, but he noticed.

Considering the fact a young American had just beaten the defending champion, the crowd was surprisingly quiet. The applause was a little more than polite, but not much. Becker tried too hard to be gracious in his press conference. He claimed that he had played better tennis against Agassi than he had in 1989, in the final against Lendl.

“Andre was just too good,” he said.

Later that night, Becker admitted he had gone too far in praising Agassi.

“I didn’t want to sound like a bad loser,” he said. “He did play well, but I probably went too far, saying what I did. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who just says, ‘I was bad’, as an excuse for losing.”

Pete Sampras, 1990 US Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

“I remember watching Lendl in all those Open finals,” Sampras said. “I was eleven when he played his first one, and everyone was against him. So I rooted for him.”

Six years later, when Lendl was No.1 in the world and Sampras was a brand-new seventeen-year-old pro, Lendl invited him during the week of the Masters. Lendl likes to have young players work with him. They are eager, attentive, and challenging. Sampras didn’t disappoint Lendl and Lendl didn’t disappoint Sampras.

“He taught me what it means to really be a pro,” he said. “There were times I hated him because he made me ride the bike or run until I was about to drop, but I learned from him. He also told me over and over to worry about one thing in tennis: the Grand Slams. He said he wished he had learned that when he was younger.”

As much as he respected Lendl, Sampras had a quiet belief he could beat him. Everyone in tennis knew that the Wimbledon loss had damaged Lendl’s psyche. The hunger to win every single match and every single tournament wasn’t there anymore. He had played in only one tournament prior to the Open and had lost his first match – to Malivai Washington – in New Haven.

Sampras has watch him play Michael Stich in the second round. Stich was a tall, twenty-one-year old German who was quietly moving up the computer. But he certainly wasn’t a match for Lendl on hard court. And yet, Stich kept Lendl on court for four difficult sets.

“It wasn’t like the difference was huge,” Sampras said. “The guy was still great. but he wasn’t quite at the same level as I remembered in the past.”

Sampras was hyper the day of the match, wandering from the locker room to the players lounge to the training room and back to the players’ lounge. Lendl sat quietly in the locker room with Tony Roche, waiting to play. Remarkably he had been to eight straight Open finals. This was not new to him.

The match was a roller coaster ride. Sampras, coming up with huge serves at all the key moments, won the first two sets. But Lendl didn’t roll over at this stage of his career, not in a Grand Slam. He came back to win the next two sets. Sampras felt tired, frustrated. Lendl seemed to be getting stronger. But, down 0-4 in the fourth, Sampras found a second wind. He came all the way back to trail 5-4 and even two break points to get to 5-5. Lendl saved those and served out the set, but Sampras felt as if he was in the match again.

Lendl, having come back to even the match, felt pretty good about his chances, too. But, serving at 1-2, he got into trouble – with his thirteenth double fault. Sampras had returned so well that Lendl felt he had to make his second serves almost perfect and, as a result, had missed a few. Lendl saved that break point and had two game points of his own. Sampras kept coming, though. He got to break point again and bombed a crosscourt forehand that Lendl couldn’t touch. Lendl swiped his racquet angrily at the ground. He was down 3-1 and knew that breaking Sampras again would be difficult.

Sampras was trying hard to stay in the present.

“I just had this feeling I was going to win the match, that it was meant to be,” he said. “I really felt that way. But I didn’t want to think about any of that before it was over.”

He had one scary moment when Lendl had a break point with Sampras up 4-2. Sampras took a deep breath and served a clean winner. He followed that with an ace – his twenty-third of the match – and closed the game with another service winner. With a chance to get back into the match, Lendl hadn’t put a ball in play for three straight points. The look on his face told the story. Six points later, it was over. Sampras hit one more solid backhand. Lendl chased it down and threw up a weak lob. As Sampras watched it float toward him, he felt chills run through his body. “Just hit the ball,” he told himself. He did, cleanly, and his arms were in the air in triumph.

It was another four-hour marathon and another stunning upset. Sampras was the young American most fans hadn’t heard of, but they knew who he was now.

Like it or not, Sampras’ life had just changed for ever. He was no longer a prospect or a rising young American. He was now a star, a just-turned-nineteen US Open semifinalist – one who had beaten Ivan Lendl to get there.

Andre Agassi, 1990 US Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Two men took center stage during the first week of the Open. Andre Agassi was expected to win his matches and move on to the second week, and he did – but not without a fire storm of controversy. No one knew what to expect from John McEnroe – controversial or otherwise – and what he did produce was entirely unexpected.

But not quite as unexpected as the performance Agassi put on during his second-round match, against Petr Korda. Agassi had gone home after Indianapolis to rest (and get stronger) prior to the Open, and he showed up for his first-round match, against Grant Connell, in a new outfit that looked like something designed to glow in the dark. It was some sort of lime-green, black-and-white concoction, with a shirt that hung down long in the back but was cut short in the front. Agassi had insisted that it be designed this way so his stomach would be revealed for all to see every time he hit a forehand.

Basking in the attention given his new clothes, Agassi seemed to be well past the funk he had been in during August. But Korda was not the easiest of second-round matches. No one on the tour could figure him out. He was Czech, left-handed, and, according to everyone, nuts. He could be brilliant, as against Brad Gilbert in Davis Cup when he had wiped him out in three sets, or awful, depending on his mood. He had gotten as high as twenty-second on the computer but had slipped back to thirty-third after a mediocre summer.

The match was at night – the USTA making sure TV got its Agassi fix – and was taut and tense for two sets. Agassi won the first, but late in the second he exploded in a manner that brought back memories of McEnroe at his worst.
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1978 US Open

1978 was the first year the US Open was played at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows after having been organized at the West Side Tennis Club venue in Forest Hill since 1915. It was also the first time the tournament was played on hard courts: it was originally played on grass until Forest Hills switched to Har-Tru clay courts in 1975. Jimmy Connors is the only player to have won the US Open on all three surfaces.

Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison:

By late August, summer weighs heavily on the city of New York; each day seems like one long tepid breath drawn until dusk, then exhaled slowly through the night. The US Open is about to begin.

The USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, Queens, has been completed just in time to host the tournament that will henceforth call it home. A boardwalk leads from the subway to the new facility, which is adjacent to Shea Stadium, the sprawling home of the New York Mets and Jets. This boardwalk crosses over a subway yard, where hundreds of cars sit idle, covered with graffiti. The walk is lined with flags: American flags. Over seventy of them, counting those on top of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. There isn’t a foreign standard in sight, because the USTA is bullish on the American role in international tennis.

The Americans leaped on the treadmill of professionalism faster than their international counterparts. As part of its massive attempt to popularize the sport, the USTA abandoned the West Side Tennis Club in nearby Forest Hills, a site redolent of tradition and all the genteel qualities associated with tennis. Although the stadium at Forest Hills held 13,500, the USTA deemed it to small. The hordes that descended on the 10.5 acres of the West Side Tennis Club created impossibly crowded conditions. Besides, parking facilities were inadequate, and this meant a great deal to some people. When the club rejected expansion proposals in 1977, USTA president Slew Hester decided to move the tournament to a newer, bigger home.

Louis Armstrong Stadium, the centerpiece of the National Tennis Center, is a bowl of epic proportions; its sheer sides give over 20,000 spectators a dizzying view of the main court. But the finest court at the site is in the grandstand, which nestles against one side of the stadium in much the same way that the Number One Court nestles against the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Sunken about ten feet below ground level, the court is surrounded on three sides by seats for about 6,000 spectators, who lean in over the players like aficionados around a bullring.
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