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.
There are moments which make you famous and immortal overnight.
In the match of his life against Tomas Smid, Michael Westphal played himself into the hearts of a whole nation in 5 hours and 29 minutes.
Becker triggered off the tennisboom
It was Friday, October 4th, 1985 in the Festhalle in Frankfurt. Whole Germany was having tennisfever. The German team was playing in the semifinal of the Davis Cup against the CSSR.
A few months before a 17 years old redhead named Boris Becker from Leimen had won the most famous tennis tournament in the world in Wimbledon and triggered off a boom of the previously seen as dusted and snobby “white sport” in Germany.
In the wake of Boris Becker other hopeful talents grow up to excellent players. This applied to Michael Westphal, who wanted to go alongside Boris Becker with the German Davis Cup team for the second time since 1970 into the final. In the Festhalle of Frankfurt there was laid a fast carpet especially for Boris Becker to help to implement this project. Boris Becker didn’t have much problems with Miloslav Mecir in the first single and put the German team into a 1:0 lead.
The Davis Cup has his own laws
Afterwards Michael Westphal and Tomas Smid entered the Festhalle for the second single. The 20 years old Westphal was the clear outsider against the routinier Smid, who was supposed to appreciate the fast carpet more than the curly head from Hamburg. The Czechoslovak, who would work later on as a coach for Boris Becker, was an established Top 20 player and the #1 of the doubles ranking in that year. But that the Davis Cup has his own laws proved to be true in this memorable match.
At first everything seemed to go perfectly for Smid, who won the first set with 8-6. Back then there was no Tiebreak in the Davis Cup, which was established 4 years later in 1989. So each set went to the full distance. This fact should give the match the special flair. After Smid had won the 2nd set without any problems 6-1 and was up a break in the 3rd not many people in the audience and in front of the TVs believed in Michael Westphal. But the curly head fought back into the match and was to serve at 5-5 in the 3rd set.
Carpet rest in the Festhalle of Frankfurt
What happened then probably nobody has seen before in a tennis match. What happened? Westphal served, went to the net, made a lunge with his right feet in order to volley, slipped and pulled out a whole width of the green carpet. But he hold the balance, played the point at the net and even won it. He could be glad that nothing bad happened to him and that he came through this unscathed.
The match was stopped and the carpet new sticked. This unexpected break meant the turning point of the match. The last rally got repeated, but from this on Westphal could cope better and better with Smid, who didn’t benefitted from the carpet rest. Westphal won the 3rd set 7-5 and at the latest then mesmerised the whole audience and half of the nation in front of the TV with his fighting spirit. At 4-4 in the 4th set the mishap with the carpet happened again. On the way to the net Westphal catched his foot in the carpet and pullet it oud. The match was stopped once again in order to refit the carpet.
Game, set and match Westphal 6-8 1-6 7-5 11-9 17-15
The match got more intensive minute by minute. Michael Westphal fought till he drops, won the 4th set 11-9 and forced Smid into a deciding 5th set. The audience celebrated each point of the German as it would already be the matchpoint. The 5th set was on a knife-edge and became longer and longer. The audience in the Festhalle meanwhile had lost track of time and the millions of people in front of the TV were in anticipation of the sensation from the German player.
And so it happened. Supported by the audience Michael Westphal wrestled Tomas Smid down shortly before midnight in an epic long 5th set with 17-15 and put the German team into a 2:0 lead.
Germany had a new tennis hero! With 85 games it is until today the single with the most games ever played in the history of Davis Cup world group.
In the end of the semifinal it was a 5-0 win for the German team and the second time the Germans reached the final of the Davis Cup.
Michael Westphal was luckless in the final against Sweden and lost both of his singles. Germany lost 2:3 and had to wait for the first win of the “ugliest salad bowl of the world”.
HIV virus slumbered in the body of Westphal
As heroic the performance of Michael Westphal had been against Tomas Smid, as tragic his further life went on. Barely one knew that the HIV virus slumbered in his body. When he was 16 years old he should have contracted himself with the immune disorder from a drug-addicted female classmate. His tennis career was over sooner as it had begun. His highest ranking was #49 in March 1986.
From then on it went steadily downhill in the ranking. People accused the bon vivant from Hamburg to have a lacking opinion of his job as he seemed to enjoy his private life more than his job. “I need to have fun at tennis”, Westphal defended himself towards his critics.
In 1989 the immune disorder broke out, which had a debilitating effect on him and made many comeback attempts impossible. He suffered from loss of hair, skin allergies and had to take heavy meds. The huge support in his life was his girlfriend Jessica Stockmann who later married his friend Michael Stich and accompanied him in his most difficult and last hours.
Death at the young age of 26
In the night to June 20th, 1991 Michael Westphal died in the university hospital of Hamburg at only 26 years old. Only 10 years later Jessica Stockmann revealed his HIV infection. “I promised him to be silent for 10 years and to fight against AIDS”, she said, who established after the death of Michael Westphal together with Michael Stich the Michael Stich charity, in order to campaign for children with the HIV virus and draw attention to the fate of Michael Westphal.
What will be remembered of Michael Westphal? A role model, whose fighting spirit lives on in the bestowal of the Michael Westphal Award to people who render outstanding services to tennis and the fact, that players without a tournament victory and a high ranking can be immortal in the Davis Cup.
Article by Christian Albert Barschel for sportal.de, translated by Eden.
Excerpt from Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open
Going into the 1994 US Open, I’m number 20, therefore unseeded. No unseeded player has won the US Open since the 1960s.
Brad (Gilbert) likes it. He says he wants me unseeded. He wants me to be the joker in the deck. You’ll play someone tough in the early rounds, he says, and if you beat them, you’ll win this tournament. […]
Because of my low ranking, I’m under the radar at this US Open. (I’d be more under the radar if Brooke weren’t on hand, setting off a photo shoot each time she turns her head.) I’m all business, and I dress the part. I wear a black hat, black shorts, black socks, black-and-white shoes. But at the start of my first-rounder, against Robert Eriksson, I feel the old brittle nerves. I feel sick to my stomach. I fight through it, thinking of Brad, refusing to entertain any thought of perfection. I concentrate on being solid, letting Eriksson lose, and he does. He sends me sailing into the second round.
Then I walk into a classic Chang buzz saw. He’s that rare phenomenon – an opponent who wants to win exactly as much as I do, no more, no less. We both know from the opening serve that it’s going down the wire. Photo finish. No other way to settle it. But in the fifth set, thinking we’re destined for a tiebreak, I catch a rythm and break him early. I’m making crazy shots, and I feel him losing traction. It’s almost not fair, after such a back-and-forth fight, the way I’m sneaking away with this match. I should be having more trouble with him in the final minutes, but it’s sinfully easy.
At his news conference, Chang tells reporters about a different match that the one I just played. He says he could have played another two sets. Andre got lucky, he says. Furthermore, Chang expresses a great deal of pride that he exposed holes in my game, and he predicts other players in the tournament will thank him. He says I’m vulnerable now. I’m toast.
Next I face Muster. I make good my vow that I will never lose to him again. It takes every ounce of self-control not to rub his head at the net.
I’m in the semis. […] Martin, who just beat me at Wimbledon, is a deadly opponent. He has a nice hold game and a solid break game. He’s huge, six foot six, and returns the serve off both wings with precision and conviction. He’ll cane a serve that isn’t first rate, which puts enormous pressure on an average server like me. With his own serve he’s uncannily accurate.[…]
Still, as the first few games unfold, I realize that several things are in my favor. Martin is better on grass than hard court. This is my surface. Also, like me, he’s an underachiever. He’s a fellow slave to nerves. I understand the man I’m playing, therefore, understand him intimately. Simply knowing your enemy is a powerful advantage.
Above all, Martin has a tic. A tell. Some players, when serving, look at their opponent? Some look at nothing. Martin looks at a particular spot in the service box. If he stares a long time at that spot, he’s serving in the opposite direction. If he merely glances, he’s serving right at that spot. You might not notice it at 0-0 or 15-love, but on break point, he stares at that spot with psycho eyes, like the killer in a horror movie, or glances and looks away like a beginner at the poker tables.
The match unfolds so easily, however, that I don’t need Martin’s tell. He seems unsteady, dwarfed by the occasion, whereas I’m playing with uncommon determination. I see him doubt himself – I can almost hear his doubt – and I sympathize. As I walk off the court, the winner in four sets, I think, He’s got some maturing to do. Then I catch myself. Did I really just say that – about someone else?
In the final I face Michael Stich, from Germany. He’s been to the final at three slams, so he’s not like Martin, he’s a threat on every surface. He’s also a superb athlete with an unreal wingspan. He has a mighty first serve, heavy and fast, and when it’s on, which it usually is, he can serve you into next week. He’s so accurate, you’re shocked when he misses, and you have to overcome your shock to stay in the point. Even when he does miss, however, you’re not out of the woods, because he falls back on his safe serve, a knuckleball that leaves you with your jock on the ground. And just to keep you a bit more off balance, Stich is without any patterns or tendencies. You never know if he’s going to serve and volley or stay back at the baseline.
Hoping to seize control, dictate the terms, I come fast out of the blocks, hitting the ball clean, crisp, pretending to feel no fear. i like the sound the ball makes off my racket. I like the sound of the crowd, their oohs and aahs. Stich, meanwhile, comes out skittish. When you lose the first set as quickly as he does, 6-1, you instinct is to panic. I can see in his body language that he’s succumbing to that instinct.
He pulls himself together in the second set, however, and gives me a two-fisted battle. I won 7-6 but feel lucky. I know it could have gone either way.
In the third set we both raise the stakes. I feel the finish line pulling, but now he’s mentally committed to this fight. There have been times in the past when he’s given up against me, when he’s taken unnecessary risks because he hasn’t believed in himself. Not this time. He’s playing smart, proving to me that I’m going to have to rip the trophy from him if I really want it. And I do want it.
So I will rip it. We have long rallies off my serve, until he realizes I’m committed, I’m willing to hit with him all day. I catch sight of him grabbing his side, winded. I start picturing how the trophy will look in the bachelor pad back in Las Vegas.
There are no breaks of serve through the third set. Until 5-all. Finally I break him, and now I’m serving for the match. I hear Brad’s voice, as clearly as if he were standing behind me. Go for his forehand. When in doubt, forehand, forehand. So I hit to Stich’s forehand. Again and again he misses. The outcome feels, to both of us, I think, inevitable.
I fall to my knees. My eyes fill with tears. I look to my box, to Perry and Philly and Gil and especially Brad. You know everything you need to know about people when you see their faces at the moments of you greatest triumph. I’ve believed in Brad’s talent from the beginning, but now, seeing his pure and unrestrained happiness for me, I believe unestrainedly in him.
Reporters tell me I’m the first unseeded player since 1966 to win the US Open. More importantly, the first man who ever did it was Frank Shields, grandfather of the fifth person in my box. Brooke, who’s been here for every match, looks every bit as happy as Brad.
Video and text by Mauro:
Some highlights and funny moments at the 2012 Champions Trophy in Halle, a mixed doubles exhibition among tennis legends introducing the Gerry Weber Open. Stefan Edberg and Anastasia Myskina met Michael Stich and Martina Navratilova in a show match played at the best of three sets with a Champions’ tie-break in the final set.
I was able to film some of the best moments of the day from the stands: the presentation of the players, some rallies and the on court interview to Stefan Edberg. At a moment in the clip, a little band appears on the stands of the Gerry Weber Stadion and starts playing the Italian pop song “Quando, quando, quando” during play, causing ilarity from the crowd and the players. Stich and Navratilova eventually won the match 5-7, 6-2, 10-8.
More info on STE…fans.
Do you really care about the match, after all? Well, it was really a show much more than a match, often players laughed and joked, even during rallies. You can’t expect much more from a doubles senior exhibition, when even singles matches between former champions are played with smiles on their lips. There was even a moment when music was played during the match and the players found themselves dancing at the rhythm of the Italian pop song “Quando, quando, quando”. And the 10 thousand people crowd appreciated the atmosphere of relaxation… (By the way, it was amazing to see how many people chose to renounce to watch the French Open mens’ final on tv to attend an exhibition among legends. There’s a growing demand for Champions tennis, mostly by fans who are no longer satisfied with what tennis has become today, an aspect that can’t be ignored by tournament organizers).
Myskina and Edberg started the match behind, suffering an early break, but then recovered and won the set 7-5, with a littile bit of quarrel on the set point, when the play was stopped for a presumed double bounce on a pick up from Martina. No story in the second set, when Stich and Navratilova went immediately up a break and closed 6-2.
In my opinion, the match was decided in the Champions’ tie-break, on the score of 8-7 for the German/American team, by an amazing shot from Navratilova, a wonderful forehand lifted lob that overcame Stefan Edberg on the net and died just a few centimeters away from the bottom line, getting Edberg’s applause and an ovation by all the crowd. That shot alone was worth the ticket price… that, in the end, I could even have not paid, since I received a free ticket in a shop in the centre of Halle and also one from my friend Doris, another fan of the page and our translator from German. I watched the match next to her, sitting in a much better place than the one I had booked on the website of the Gerry Weber Open.
I can’t thank her enough for giving me the chance of watching Stefan Edberg’s dancing on grass just a few meters away from the court, a show that would have even captured the eye of an alien who doesn’t know what the word “tennis” means. I was also impressed by the sliced backhand vs sliced backhand by Stich and Edberg, but, unfortunately, most of the times the German shifted to Myskina “cutting” the ball, the rally ended… The Russian showed why she was the only player on court who had never won a Slam on grass and her lack of specialization on that surface was even more evident, because compared to the smooth movements and shots by three masters of what lawn tennis used to be. At the same time, it was nice to see Martina Navratilova in such a brilliant physical shape. Her stretch on the net and her touch are just a miracle, a joy to watch for a tennis fan of any age.
Read part 1 of Mauro’s report here.
Where to start from? When you have the chance to meet your childhood idol, suddenly every word becomes foreseen. So I would like to begin from the kindness of the staff at the press office of the Gerry Weber Open. It was only thanks to them that, without any media credential, I managed to access the press conference of the Champions Trophy and, believe it or not, without really knowing how, I found myself sitting in the first row, watching the winners of 70 Grand Slam tournaments combined speak, two meters away from the man I had always only watched on tv and who was the owner of my feelings back in my teenage days.
I was there, waiting to come in at a sign of the tournament communication director after all the players had ended speaking. He, indeed, introduced me to Stefan who saw me and smiled at me, when he recognized the outfit I was wearing: «Ah… and he has a nice Adidas jacket!», he said, maybe going back with his memory to 25 years ago, when he lifted his second Australian Open trophy with that on.
I was not shaking as I thought I would be, it was such an informal situation, after all, and, no need to say, Stefan is surely not the guy who makes you feel uncomfortable or out of place. I had the chance of shaking his hand and came in with very straight words:
«Hello, Stefan, nice to meet you. My name is Mauro and I’m from Italy. I’m the admin of STE…fans, the international fan community dedicated to you. I want to give you this special screenshot of the home page of my site in memory of this day, that, for me, ranks at the very top of the best moments that I had in my life».
Stefan didn’t know of the site (secretly I hoped he would…), but nevertheless he said: «Thanks very much, I appreciate it!». Then, he came down to the space before the seats in the media room and kindly accepted to take pictures of the moment. Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to exchange more words with him. But, just the meeting itself was an extraordinary opportunity that I received from the tournament staff only thanks to the quality of my work and, maybe, to the human interest of the story of a fan who had flown to Westphalia from Italy just to hand his hero a little gift.