Australian Open 1995: centre court floods

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

Surviving stardom

Jennifer Capriati

By Cindy Hahn, Tennis Magazine, October 1992:

Jennifer Capriati, her ankles still encrusted with the red clay of Il Foro Italico, faces a den of crass, middle-aged sportswriters. One, an Italian journalist, will write a story tomorrow whose headline screams that she looks like a pig. The 16-year-old, sweat-soaked and exhausted, hasn’t yet suffered that cruelty, and good thing, for her heart aches enough: She has just lost in a miserable, third-round match at the Italian Open – to a player ranked 25 spots below her. Her eyes swim with tears.

A cool shower – and time alone to soothe her anguish – might have made this post-match grilling less painful. But at her father’s command, Capriati was shuttled from the Campo Centrale directly into the interview room… Do not shower, do not pass go, do not change into you favorite Grateful Dead tie-dyed T-shirt. After all, Diadora is paying Capriati several million dollars to be seen in its tennis togs. Better for her to appear before the TV cameras as a disheveled Diadora girl than as a freshly scrubbed heavy metal-head – the identity Capriati currently prefers.

“Do you think you lost because you’re overweight?”

an Italian reporter asks.
Capriati cannot hear the interrogator and asks him to repeat the question. softening his query, the reporter responds: “Do you think you lost because you’re not in good physical condition?” But Capriati suddenly compehends his original question: He has announced before a roomful of international journalists that she is … fat. New tears glisten on her eyelids as her face flushes crimson.
Mercifully, another question is asked. Capriati concentrates hard, trying to block out the notion that she is fat. The moment of tears, of truth, passes.
When the press conference ends, Capriati retreats through a door into the locker room, where she collapses onto a bench and drops her head to her hands. More moments, more tears. There was no time for a shower, but there is time for tears.

This isolated scene, played out this past May, poignantly dramatizes the tragedy of pro tennis in any season: A parent placing mercenary interests before the emotional needs of his child; a girl forced to answer to uncaring adults; and a teenager’s private problems, such as weight gain, showcased as a media event. Threaded together, these plot lines form a disturbing, if familiar, story in professional tennis.

This report is not about a person but a process; it does not focus on a single star but rather on the constellation of problems in a system that embraces talented children, and then exhausts them. Capriati is just one of the handful of tennage pros whose gifts have launched them on a shuttle-ride to success: Michael Chang, French Open at 17 … Boris Becker, Wimbledon winner at 17 … Andre Agassi, Nike’s multi-millionnaire celebrity at 18 … Steffi Graf, at 19 only the fifth person to win the Grand Slam … Pete Sampras, handed a $2 million winner’s check at 19 … Gabriela Sabatini, a 15-year-old French Open semifinalist … and Monica Seles, the youngest world No.1 at 17.

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Excerpt of Top 100 greatest days in New York City sports by Stuart Miller:

Jimmy Connors won five U.S. Opens on three different surfaces at two different places, yet he’s best remembered for a tournament in which he didn’t even reach the finals. That 1991 performance was the third and final act for Connors, who had won as the brash bully of the 1970s and as the curmudgeonly craftsman of the 1980s. This time Connors, seemingly washed up, transformed himself into a feel-good story for a society built on both a Peter Pan complex and the worship of true grit. This aging inspiration captivated even the most casual sports fans, attaining a new level of celebrity and forging an unforgettable legacy with his classic American blend of tenacity and showmanship.

That tournament, Connors said later, was “the most memorable 11 days of my career. Better than the titles.”

And he gave his growing legion of fans not one but three classic matches.

So which is your favorite? Bet you can’t choose just one.

You could select the first-round comeback against Patrick McEnroe on August 27.

Because it seemed incredible that Connors was even there. His iron man records—109 pro titles, 159 straight weeks at number one, 12 straight Open semifinals, and 16 straight years in the top 10—were in the past. Connors had played and lost three matches in 1990 before submitting to wrist surgery. He’d plummeted to 936th in the world, defaulted at the French Open in 1991 owing to a cranky back—the defining symbol of old age—and lost in the third round of Wimbledon; he was ranked just 174th by Open time and needed a wild-card berth just to gain entrance to his “home court.”

Jimmy-Connors 1991 US Open Tennis

Because he beat a McEnroe. Sure, Patrick, ranked just 35th, lacked the skill and artistic temperament of his famous older brother, but he was an Australian Open semifinalist and had beaten Boris Becker that summer.

Because this was the first time we saw Connors’s vibrant Estusa racket flashing through the night, proclaiming the return of the king.

Because he overcame the greatest deficit of all, dropping the first two sets to the steady McEnroe 6–4, 7–6, then falling behind 0–3 in the third. Connors was limping (an act, perhaps, lulling his prey or laying groundwork for an alibi), and the stadium was emptying, everyone writing Connors off. By the next game there’d be perhaps 6,000 loyalists from the original sellout crowd. According to Joel Drucker’s biography-memoir Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, even Connors’s staunchest supporter, his mother and first teacher Gloria, turned away from the television.

Then, at 0–40, one mistake from oblivion, Connors finally turned it on. And once he did, McEnroe could not finish off tennis’s Rasputin, who drew his lifeblood from the screaming, stomping, bowing fans that remained. Connors held, saved two more break points at 2–3, won five of six games for the third set, then snared the fourth set 6–2 and finished McEnroe off 6–4 in the fifth. The 4-hour-18-minute epic ended at 1:35 a.m. “The crowd won it for me,” Connors said. “The crowd was an awful heavy burden for Patrick.”
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