Andre Agassi, 1999 US Open

With Sampras out due to injury, Andre Agassi was the man to beat at the 1999 US Open. Agassi dropped only two sets en route to the final: to Justin Gimmelstob in the third round and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semifinals. In the other side of the draw Todd Martin defeated Slava Dosedel in the quarterfinals and Cédric Pioline in the semifinals to advance to his second Grand Slam final.

From Agassi’s autobiography, Open:

I’m on the verge of being number one again. This time it’s not my father’s goal or Perry’s or Brad’s, and I remind myself that it’s not mine either. It would be nice, that’s all. […]

In the final I face Martin. I thought it would be Pete. I said publicly that I wanted Pete, but he pulled out of the tournament with a bad back. So it’s Martin, who’s been there, across the net, at so many critical junctures.
At Wimbledon, in 1994, when I was still struggling to absorb Brad’s teachings, I lost to Martin in a nip-and-tuck five-setter. At the US Open the same year, Lupica [1] predicted that Martin would upend me in the semis, and I believed him, but still managed to beat Martin and win the tournament. In Stuttgart, in 1997, it was my appalling first-round loss to Martin that finally pushed Brad to the breaking point. Now it’s Martin who will be a test of my newfound maturity, who will show if the changes in me are fleeting or meaningful.

I break him in the first game. The crowd is solidly behind me. Martin doesn’t hang his head, however, doesn’t lose any poise. He makes me work for the first set, then comes out stronger in the second, taking it in a tight tiebreak. He then wins the third set – an even tighter tiebreak. He leads two sets to one, a commanding lead at this tournament. No one ever comes back from such a deficit in the final here. It hasn’t happened in twenty-six years. I see in Martin’s eyes that he’s feeling it, and waiting for me to show the old cracks in my mental armor. He’s waiting for me to crumble, to revert to that jittery, emotional Andre he’s played so often in years past. But I neither fold nor yoeld. I win the fourth set, 6-3, and in the fifth set, 6-2, and walk away knowing I’m healed, I’m back, exulting that Stefanie [2] was here to see it. I’ve made only five unforced errors in the final two sets. Not once all day have I lost my serve, and it comes as I capture my fifth slam. When I get back to Vegas I want to put five hundred on number five at a roulette table.

In the press room, one reporter asks why I think the New York crowd was pulling for me, cheering so loudly.
I wish I knew. But I take a guess: They’ve watched me grow up.
Of course fans everywhere have watched me grow up, but in New York their expectations were higher, which helped accelerate and validate my growth.
It’s the first time I’ve felt, or dared to say aloud, that I’m a grown-up.

[1] Mike Lupica, journalist
[2] Steffi Graf. They were at the beginning of their relationship.

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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John McEnroe

Enjoy these exclusive pictures of Pat Cash and Todd Martin win over the McEnroe brothers in the Men’s Champions Doubles final:

Cash/Martin vs McEnroe/McEnroe

Cash/Martin vs McEnroe/McEnroe

Cash/Martin vs McEnroe/McEnroe

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Andre Agassi and Michael Stich, 1994 US Open

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 – after nearly choking – I beat Guy Forget, from France. That I take out Wayne Ferreira, from South Africa in straight sets. […]

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.

Sampras and Ivanisevic, Wimbledon 94

Excerpt of Pete Sampras autobiography A champion’s mind:

“During the grass-court season, Todd Martin won two tiebreakers to beat me in the final at Queen’s Club, and I moved on to Wimbledon to defend my hard-earned title. I lost just one set, to Todd, as I served and volleyed my way to the final opposite Goran Ivanisevic.

I had my hands full with Goran, as I would on grass during my entire career. A great deal of Goran’s juice at Wimbledon came from being a left-hander. That natural edge made his first serve even better and more effective than mine; I really believe it was. When Goran’s serve was on, it was pretty much unreturnable on grass. He was the only guy I played regularly who made me feel like I was at his mercy. I never felt that against that other Wimbledon icon, Boris Becker.

But my second serve was better than Goran’s, and the key to beating him for me always was getting hold of and punishing his second serve. Goran put tremendous pressure on my service games, because he usually held so easily. I felt that if I played one shaky service game against him and was broken, the set was gone. Very few people were able to make me feel that way, once I’d figured out the grass game. That was very tough, mentally. Goran’s serve also gave him a huge advantage as a returner – he could afford to take huge, wild cuts with his return. If he happened to tag two of those in a row, I was down love-30 – and from there anything could happen.

The final was incredibly fast tennis, played on a hot day, with balls flying all over the place at warp speed. It was a gunfight, both of us dodging bullets we could barely see, hoping to connect with a semiluck return here, or tease out an error there. That kind of tennis calls for a firm hand and intense focus. I proved slighly more steady in the crapshoot tiebreakers, and after I won two of them, Goran folded up. I won 7-6 7-6 6-0.

The match marked the high point in the growing debate about grass-court tennis. A growing chorus of critics charged that Wimbledon tennis had degenerated into a serving contest between two giants who almost couldn’t lose serve, but couldn’t break each other, either. Goran and I personified the trend, never mind that neither of us was the biggest guy around. Our big serves and our desire to end points quickly added up to a perfect storm of Wimbledon controversy.
Tennis at Wimbledon, some pundits said, was in danger of becoming irrelevant, because ongoing technologies had produced more powerful rackets that buried the needle on the power meter deep in the red. Even the tabloids got into it, running pictures of prominent politicians and others in the Royal Box sleeping soundly. Ostensibly, that had something to do with the way the game was being played.”