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.

Every year in September, 50 European countries take part in the European Heritage Days, a programme that offers opportunities to visit buildings, monuments and sites, many of which are not normally accessible to the public. For the first time, yesterday, the French Federation of tennis opened up the Roland Garros stadium and museum free to the public as part of Heritage Days, and of course, I was there.

Waiting to enter the museum, you could still see the Davis Cup semifinals poster and the French and Czech flags atop Court Philippe Chatrier.

Roland Garros

Tennis museum

The permanent exhibition showcases trophies, players memorabilia, a few videos as well as some infos about tennis history and the future Roland Garros stadium expansion.
You might be disappointed if you’ve visited the Wimbledon museum, Roland Garros museum is quite small, with less content and interactivity.

Below, the trophies presented each year to the winner of the men’s singles (Coupe des Mousquetaires) and women’s singles (Coupe Suzanne Lenglen):

Roland Garros trophies

Replica of the 1991 Davis Cup captured by Henri Leconte and Guy Forget over the dream team of Sampras, Agassi and Flach-Seguso:

1991 Davis Cup replica
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Check out Get behind the scenes at Roland Garros – part 1

Ladies locker room:

The highlight of the tour is when you get to go inside the ladies dressing room. But you might be surprised at how small the locker rooms are:

Roland Garros

Roland Garros

Roland Garros

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Last Saturday I signed up for a one-hour Roland Garros guided tour. Here is the photo recap. Enjoy!

For more infos about bookings, prices and so on, check out the official website of the Museum.

Roland Garros

The gardener’s cottage:

At the end of the 60s, this English-Normandy styled cottage served as the office of Pierre Darmon, director of the Roland Garros tournament. At one time, it functioned as the caretaker’s home.

The charm of the cottage was maintained for the entry to the Roland Garros Tenniseum, that Christian Bîmes, president of the FFT (French Tennis Federation), inaugurated on May 25, 2003.
This 2,200m² underground multi-media museum assembles, preserves and presents different elements constitute the memory of tennis in France. The museum and its library are open Tuesday to Sunday from 10.00 until 18.00.

Tenniseum

Place des Mousquetaires:

The guided tour begins at the Place des Mousquetaires (Musketeers’ square), situated between the Court Philippe Chatrier and the Court Number One.

Place des Mousquetaires
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