1985 Davis Cup final

From Pete Sampras’ autobiography, A champion’s mind:

After the [semifinals] tie, the US team room was awash with the usual assortment of friends, family, USTA types, ITF types, and garden-variety hangers-on. At one point, I glanced across the room and made contact with Tim [Gullikson]. His face by that time was starting to hollow out and his eyes – an intense blue to begin with – were practically burning. For a second, we looked at each other, and each of us knew what the other was thinking: this should be our moment. All these other people are extraneous. This is about the two of us, and nothing can take away what we’ve accomplished, or the trust we have. I’ve never forgotten that moment or that look. It’s with me to this day as my enduring memory of Tim.

So it was on to Moscow for the November final, and I knew how much Tim wanted to see me lead the squad to a triumph. It was a tough ask, because the Russians, predictably, held the tie on very slow red clay, indoors. For them, it was th right move, even though Jim Courier and Andre Agassi could be as tough on clay as anyone. There was only one hitch – Andre was still nursing his chest injury. We hoped until the eleventh hour that Andre would be good to go, meaning that my job would be a manageable one: making sure we won the doubles, while Andre and Jim could do the heavy lifting in singles. I had confidence that we would win the doubles – I liked playing Davis Cup doubles with Todd Martin and, as ambivalent as I was about clay, I played doubles on it happily, with confidence.

We arrived in Moscow on a Saturday, six days before the Friday start. Andre had sent word that even though he couldn’t play, he would attend the tie as a show of team spirit and solidarity. That sealed the deal. Tom declared that I was going to play singles unless, of course, I felt like I was the wrong man for the job, and made enough of a fuss about the decision. How’s that for an awkard spot? What was I going to do, say, “Nah, Tom I’m not up for it. Let Todd or Richey go out there?” I could see all the makings of Lyon revisited – a full-on disaster.
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Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, Australian Open 1995

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.”

Andre Agassi defeats Pete Sampras, 1995 Australian Open

Excerpt of Andre Agassi‘s autobiography Open:

At the 1995 Australian Open I come out like the Incredible Hulk. I don’t drop one set in a take-no-prisoners blitz to the final. This is the first time I’ve played in Australia, and I can’t imagine why I’ve waited so long. I like the surface, the venue – the heat. Having grown up in Vegas, I don’t feel the heat the way others players do, and the defining characteristic of the Australian Open is the unholy temperature. Just as cigar and pipe smoke lingers in the memory after playing Roland Garros, the hazy memory of playing in a giant kiln stays with you for weeks after you leave Melbourne.

I also enjoy the Australian people, and they apparently enjoy me, even though I’m not me, I’m this new bald guy in a bandana and a goatee and a hoop earring. Newspapers go to town with my new look. Everyone has an opinion. Fans who rooted for me are disoriented. Fans who rooted against me have a new reason to dislike me. I read and hear a remarkable succession of pirate jokes. I never knew there could be so many pirate jokes. But I don’t care. I tell myself that everyone is going to have to deal with this pirate, accept this pirate, when I hoist that trophy.

In the final I run smack into Pete. I lose the first set in nothing flat. I lose it gutlessly, on a double fault. Here we go again.
I take time before the second set to collect myself. I glance toward my box. Brad looks frustrated. He’s never believed that Pete is the better player. His face says, You’re the better player, Andre. Don’t respect him so much.

Pete is serving like grenades, one after another, a typical Pete fusillade. But in the middle of the second set, I feel him tiring. His grenades still have the pins in them. He’s wearing down physically, and emotionally, because he’s been through hell these last few days. His longtime coach, Tim Gullikson, suffered two strokes, and then they discovered a tumor in his brain. Pete is traumatized. As the match turns my way, I feel guilty. I’d be willing to stop, let Pete go into the locker room, get an IV, and come back as that other Pete who likes to kick my ass at slams.
I break him twice. He slumps his shoulders, concedes the set.

The third set comes down to a jittery tiebreak. I grab a 3-0 lead and then Pete wins the next four points. Suddenly he’s up 6-4, serving for the set. I let out a caveman scream, as if I’m in the weight room with Gil, and put everything I’ve got into a return that nicks the net and stays inside the line. Pete stares at the ball, then me.
On the next point he hits a forehand that sails long. We’re deadlocked at 6. A furious rally ends when I shock him by coming to the net and hitting a soft backhand drop volley. It works so well, I do it again. Set, Agassi. Momentum, ditto.

The fourth set is a foregone conclusion. I keep my foot on the gas and win, 6-4. Pete looks resolved. Too much hill to climb. In fact, he’s maddeningly unruffled as he comes to the net.
It’s my second slam in a row, my third overall. Everyone says it’s my best slam yet, because it’s my first victory over Pete in a slam final. But I think twenty years from now I’ll remember it as my first bald slam.

Henri Leconte, Davis Cup 1991

From Pete Sampras’ autobiography, A champion’s mind:

Davis Cup didn’t mean much to me when I was growing up. I don’t remember watching it on television (and it isn’t like Davis Cup was all over the tube back in the pre-cable days). So I had no preexisting reverence for the event. This made it tough to commit to Davis Cup because, like most top players, I put the ability to perform at my peak in Grand Slams at the top of my priorities. And Davis Cup asked for a lot, timewise.

In 1991, France put together a magical run under captain Yannick Noah, a very popular former player and French Open champion. Guy Forget and Henri Leconte, two flashy lefties, carried the French squad to its first final in the Open era. And the French also had the home-court advantage over their final-rounds rivals – the United States. They chose to play the tie on fast carpet in an indoor stadium in Lyon.

When France announced the surface, US captain Tom Gorman had a stroke of genius – at least theoretically. Although I had lost my US Open title in the “ton of bricks” match, I was the best fast-court player in the nation. I was the ideal guy to have on the squad alongside Andre Agassi. But Gorman seemed to completely forget that I was a rookie on the tour, and he discounted the unique pressure for which Davis Cup is renowned. For some reason, playing for your country on a team can really get to you. Some players are inspired and react heroically; others get cold feet and feel intimidated by nationalistic pressure. Throwing a green player into the cauldron in an away final before a wildly partisan crowd was an enormous gamble.

When I arrived in Lyon, I found the anxiety and stress surprisingly high. I guess that’s partly because all the USTA officials were around, like they always are at Davis Cup, looking over the team’s shoulder. It also had something to do with the fact that this Davis Cup final was a huge, huge deal in France – it seemed like the entire French national press corps had descended on the venue (the Gerland Sports Palace) for the final, hoping to record how France won its first Davis Cup since the days of yore when the famed “Four Musketeers” – Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and René Lacoste – reigned over international tennis.

We had a team Thanksgiving dinner at the hotel in Lyon the day before the start of the tie. It was prepared by a famous chef, but even that event was slightly strained, because we were together with a bunch of tennis officials, and we all had to wear a coat and tie. I’ve got nothing against appropriate dress, but it seemed that everything was ceremonial, forced, difficult … when what we really needed as a team was to relax. All these things bore down on me extra hard, because I had been nominated as the number one singles player for the United States. It was like an NFL rookie quaterback getting his first start in the Super Bowl.

Gorman was also uptight; that became evident to me. We were always having these team meetings, and to me that didn’t make sense. They just magnified everything and added to the stress. All my life, I preferred to operate with a low profile – I’d rather be understated than dramatic, cool and aloof rather than confrontational and all gung ho. I just don’t believe in making things bigger than they need to be, even some things that may seem awfully big, like winning the Davis Cup. At the end of the day, it’s easier to take the attitude that they’re just tennis matches; you go out, do your best, let the chips fall where they may.

I was happy to talk with Gore, our veteran captain and a former Davis Cup star himself. I was glad to hear what Andre Agassi thought. But these meetings – everyone was just sitting around talking about the next day’s pratice or the upcoming pairings. Ken Flach, one of the doubles players (partnered with Robbie Seguso), looked at me in one of those meetings and asked, “You going to serve and volley on both serves, Pete?” I just looked at him, thinking, I’m one of the top players in the world, and you’re a doubles specialist who can’t even make it in singles. Where do you get off, asking how I’m going to play?
It sounds arrogant, but I was just feeling prickly and uptight. At the same time, though, I never went into a match with a cut-and-dried game plan. I knew my own strengths and the kind of game I felt most comfortable playing, and tried to be aware of what my opponents did well or badly, and how to get to their games. But I always liked to “feel” my way into a match, fine-tune what I would do based on my level of play and the feedback I was getting from across the net.

The quality of my serve on any given day often dictated how aggressively I played. My feeling for how I moved on a given surface (or on a given day), combined with the quality of my opponent’s return game, determined how often I followed my serve to the net. I operated by instinct, figuring things out as I went along. Flach’s question put me on the spot, seeking a commitment I wasn’t prepared to make. It was innocent enough, I guess; my reaction spoke volumes about how defensive and tense I was feeling.

On top of everything else, the French singles players were veterans capable of playing lights-out tennis. There were no question marks about the team; if anyone could handle pressure of playing at home, it was these guys. The adulation of the home crowd would inspire them. If the fast carpet suited my game, it suited theirs just as well.

I was our number one singles player, but the draw determined that France’s number one (Forget) would open the proceedings againt our number two, Andre. I watched from the bench, cheering Andre on as he took care of business to put us up 1-0. I was impressed and slightly intimidated by the crowd. The place held just over seven thousand, but it was sold out, so the overall effect was of a huge, deafening crowd. My moment of reckoning was rapidly approaching; I was up next, the US number one against France’s number two, Leconte.

Pete Sampras, 1991 Davis Cup final

What happened was, I froze. It was that bad. It was deer-in-the-headlights-grade paralysis. Notice that I didn’t say “I choked”. As I wrote before, there is a big difference. Freezing is worse. It prevents you from getting to that critical point where you can choke (or not).
The score just seemed to fly by, like so many of Leconte’s winners. When I was serving, I’d stand up at the line and wait, while the crowd was going nuts. I just stood there, absorbing all the karmic energy, waiting for them to quiet down. That was a big mistake – I should have asserted greater control over the situation by walking away from the service notch to wait until they calmed down. That would have represented control, and playing at my pace. It was something I learned in Lyon that would come in handy in many later matches.

I lost to Leconte in straight sets and left the court shell-shocked.

On Saturday, the French won the doubles to take a 2-1 lead. On the decisive final day, I faced Forget in the first singles match to keep the US hopes alive. I hadn’t had enough time to process what happened on Friday, or to identify the lessons from my awful first-day experience. I gave Forget only token resistance as he clinched the Cup for France in four sets.

I felt terrible afterward. I’d been overwhelmed. For all the talk about Davis Cup being a team thing, I’d felt very lonely out there – as alone as I would ever feel on a tennis court. Sure, the other guys were right there on the bench, encouraging me. And you have your captain sitting on court with you so you can talk and get advice on changeovers. But people make too much of that. It’s not like you can hand your racket off to a teammate and say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this, how about picking up the slack?”
It was a tense and miserable week. Gus, who was my roommate on the trip, tells me that the night we lost, we went to sleep pretty early. I woke some hours later, clearly in the throes of some nightmare, and screamed – at the top of my lungs – Go USA! Then I went back to sleep. I think it was a reaction to the crowd noise during the tie. I had never been exposed to anything like that, and maybe I just needed to fight back or assert myself, even if it was just in a dream and too late to matter.

The explanation for this disaster seems simple. I was the wrong man for the job. And to this day, whenever anyone brings up that tie in Lyon, I just shrug, grin, and tell them “Wrong man for the job”. I don’t want to blame Gorman, or anyone else, but the one thing that was painfully clear by the end of the final against France was that Pete Sampras, a raw youth, was completely unprepared for the demands of Davis Cup play. He was the wrong man for the job.

There was, however, a personal silver lining, Tim Gullikson, waiting in the wings to take over as my coach, saw how much I struggled against the French lefties. He felt that I stood too far to my right when I was receiving serve, exposing too much of my backhand. He wanted me to stand farther to the left to send the signal that I was looking to touch off a big forehand return. It was a cagey move, because lefties just love attacking a righty’s backhand, especially in the ad court. The results were remarkable; I think I won my next thirty-two matches against left-handers after he passed on that tip.
I shudder to think how different my rivalry with Goran Ivanisevic, another lefty, might have turned out had I not changed my receiving stance.

One month after the death of his longtime coach Tim Gullikson, Pete Sampras reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, his best result ever on the parisian red clay.

From Pete Sampras’ autobiography A champion’s mind:

When the draw came out for Roland Garros, I just looked at it and went “Wow”. It was as though as it could get. On form, I would play two recent French Open champions, starting in the second round with two-time winner Sergi Bruguera. It was time to step up; I knew that’s what Tim (Gullikson) would have wanted me to do. Paul (Annacone) wanted me to attack relentlessly, and the conditions for that strategy were good. It was hot and dry and the court would be playing fast. I might be able to attack and pressure Bruguera, although he was a great defender and could run down anything.

The Parisians are astute fans and tennis aesthetes; they like players who are stylish, daring, or flamboyant. They understood what a coup it would have been for me, a serve-and-volley player who played a relatively clean, elegant game, to win the ultimate clay-court title – and the only Grand Slam that had eluded me up to that point.
But most important, they were well aware that I had just lost Tim, and their sympathy for me was obvious. Their press, led by sports daily L’Equipe, was all over the story. Tim had just died, yet because of all the publicity and the endless questions, he was more alive in my mind than at any time since before he became ill.

Inspired by the oupouring of concern, respect, and support, I beat Bruguera 6-3 in the fifth. I know Tim would have been proud of the way I attacked and kept the pressure on. I kept my head up for the entire match and I really felt Tim – and the French crowd – pushing me through the rough parts of that battle. In the next round, I beat my friend and Davis Cup doubles partner Todd Martin, and I lucked out a bit to get Aussie Scott Draper in the fourth round – Aussie attackers just didn’t pose the kinds of problems on clay as the European grinders did.

But in the quarters, I was up against Jim Courier, who played extremely well on clay, especially Parisian clay. He was a two-time champ at Roland Garros, and a dominant guy there for half a decade.
I lost the first two sets, which was suicidal given the quality of my opponent. But I felt oddly confident and calm, as if Tim were looking over my shoulder, telling me that it was okay, everything was going to work out. And in reality, I was striking the ball well and putting myself in position to win points. I was getting my backhand to his backhand, which was always the key to playing Jim, who loved to dictate with his forehand. I felt I was outplaying him, but for one thing: I was missing a few volleys here and there, and generally failing to close.

Things changed in the third and fourth sets. I started to finish effectively, and everything else fell into place. Soon I was dominating, although I was also beginning to feel the physical toll. But emotion and inspiration pulled me through. After I won the match, I said something in the press interview about feeling that Tim was watching and helping me. I stated that as fact, and it just added to the developing story. Beating Jim gave me a semifinal berth opposite Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and I liked my chances in that one. I liked them a lot. […]

When Friday rolled around, I was scheduled to play the early semifinal match. Playing the first semi in Paris is a drag. It’s a late crowd in Paris, especially in the choice seats gobbled up by corporations. Frenchmen are not likely to pass up a long, lavish lunch in the corporate hospitality area jsut to catch the first hour or two of what is usually at least a six-hour center-court program. So in Paris, you can find yourself playing a Grand Slam semifinal that has all the atmosphere of a second-round day match in Indianapolis or Lyon. It’s a bummer to play for a place in a Grand Slam final under those conditions. […]

The lack of atmosphere threw me, and so did the conditions. It was hot, the sun was blazing in a cloudless sky, and there wasn’t the slightest breeze. Of course, a fast, sun-baked court would help my game, but the heat could also drain me in a long clay-court grind.
As it turned down, I didn’t have to worry about stamina. I served well at the start, picked my spots to attack, and made good use of my forehand to force the action. Kafelnikov hung in there without worrying me. We went to the first-set tiebreaker and it was close, but I lost it – theoretically, no big deal. And then everything just imploded. I didn’t get a game in the next set, and won just two in the third. It was by far my most puzzling and distressing Grand Slam loss, and it occured against a guy with a tendency to get tight in big matches – especially against me. […]

I was stunned. Down deep, I’d felt that it was my time at the French Open, and that was all bound up with having lost Tim. I thought it was meant to be, especially after my wins over two worthy former champions. During that entire tournament, I felt like Tim was still alive. Tim and I were going to win the French – it was going to be another team effort, like getting over the hump and winning Wimbledon. I’d even had these conversations with him in my head during my matches at Roland Garros, and they helped pull me through.

During the Kafelnikov match, however, there was nothing but a resounding, deep silence. I didn’t think about this during the match, but I guess the silence probably settled in because my attempt to hold on to Tim, my fantasy that I could keep him alive, expired. Despite having been to Tim’s funeral, I hadn’t really faced up to or accepted the fact that he was gone. Two matches too soon, I had a devastating reality check.

When I hit the wall against Kafelnikov, and felt my dream – our dream – blow up in my face, it really did sink in. Tim was gone. Our dream was gone. It was gone for good.

Extract from On this day in tennis history by Randy Walker

In the first-ever meeting between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, the 19-year-old McEnroe defeats the 22-year-old Borg 6-3 6-3 in the semifinals of the Stockholm Open in Sweden. The loss marks the first-ever professional loss for Borg to a younger player.
The McEnroe-Borg rivalry becomes one of the greatest in the sport as the two titans square off 14 times in all -each player winning 7 times. The two play in four memorable major finals, McEnroe winning 3 of 4 at the 1980 and 1981 US Open and at Wimbledon in 1981. Their epic final at Wimbledon in 1980 is regarded as one of the greatest matches of all-time, Borg winning his fifth consecutive title in a 1-6 7-5 6-3 6-7 8-6 epic.
McEnroe wins the Stockholm singles title the next day, defeating fellow American Tim Gullikson 6-2 6-2 in the final.”

Check out what McEnroe had to say about that first match. Extract from his autobiography Serious:

“Some people compare Sampras to Borg. In my mind, there’s no comparison. Even though Pete is one of the greatest players, of all time, Borg, by his presence alone, gave a lot back to the game. His story was incredible too: Who could ever have imagined such a player coming out of Sweden, a country of only eight million people, with a sub-Arctic climate?

He was the best athlete I’ve ever seen on a tennis court – I don’t think people realize how good an athlete he was. And the fact is, he had to be, because his game was bizarre, in a way: running back and forth, well behind the baseline, hitting ball after ball after ball until an angle opened up or the other guy missed. It was so side-to-side, compared to my forward-forward-forward, but Bjorn was so fast he could make up for it.

The first time we played – in the semifinals at the Stockholm Open in November 78 – was a perfect scenario for me, because it was on fast indoor, which wasn’t well suited to his game, particularly against me. I also think he felt pressure playing me in his hometown, in front of a Swedish crowd who’d gotten excited about the game because of him.

The win in Stockholm was a huge win for me – I was the first player younger than Borg to beat him – but it didn’t make me think one bit less of Bjorn. I just felt that I was with the big boys now – and this was the official coronation.”

And 34 years later, the two tennis legends still provide entertaining matches. (photos by Tennis Buzz, Optima Open 2012).

Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe

John McEnroe

Bjorn Borg