1985 Davis Cup final

The 1995 Davis Cup final by Pete Sampras

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.

But the team spirit in Moscow was great, and fortunately for us, by then Russia was changing. We were well taken care of in a fine hotel with great food. Our comfort level with one another was high. And it really helped boost our morale when Andre showed up in Moscow, making the long tip at the end of a long year, even though he was destined to just sit on the bench without ever hitting a ball. We even did a little sightseeing – we went to Red Square one day, and went through the line at Lenin’s Tomb, where we posed for the usual PR pictures. I was happy to have my dad an sister Stella along on the trip. It wasn’t that Dad was fired up about Davis Cup; he was just intrigued by Russia. I was like, What am I, Dad, chopped liver? But with him around, I didn’t want to play lousy.

I opened the tie against Andrei Chesnokov, one of the era’s most dogged retrievers. Chessy was a dirt devil who loved red clay; he specialized in running down every ball and outlasting opponents. He wasn’t big but he was lean and sinewy, with great stamina. Getting him on clay was a tough assignment at the best of times. It didn’t help my cause that the red clay was not just slow, it was actually muddy. The Russians had watered the hell out of it, trying to make it as slow as possible. The only bright spot for me was that in that enormous Olympic stadium, the crowd wasn’t much of a factor. They probably had close to twenty thousand fans in there, but it felt like far fewer because they were so far from the court.

Knowing how skilled Chessy was on clay, I started pressing right from the onset. I felt obliged to win points quickly, and made some poor decisions. That I wasn’t in the best of shape also made me want to force the action. I wondered what I had gotten myself into – I wasn’t even supposed to play singles! But in spite of all that, I was mentally into the match. I figured I’d just hang in there, let the ball ride, see what the day brings. It was just a tennis match, and the fact that I had no business winning it made my life easier.
The biggest thing I had going for me probably was that I was Pete Sampras, and Chessy knew it and I knew it. He knew what it would mean to beat me, the top player in the world, with the hopes and national pride of all Russia riding on his shoulders in a Davis Cup final. Talk about pressure. Chesnokov won the first set, and I think that caused him to let down his guard and slightly lose his focus. Such things happen ask the time; they’re the mental equivalent of taking your eyes off the ball.
I made just enough winners and won just enough points on the attack to keep Chessy a little off balance, and I won the next two close sets. Chessy regrouped – overall he was a good competitor with a strong mind and will – and took the fourth set tiebreaker. But in the fifth set, I hit out a little more freely, and he got kind of stuck trying to figure out if he should force the action or let me take the initiative, hoping I might screw up, or tire.
Chessy took the latter course of action (which is always more tempting), the way baseliners often do. He basically left the matter in my hands. i didn’t hesitate to take the initiative, and poured on the heat. I got to match point, but just as I whaled on a forehand, I began to feel myself cramping up. I ran to the net behind my shot. As Chesnokov drew a bead and let his passing shot fly, I lost control of my limbs, seized up, and collapsed.
Luckily, Chessy missed the pass and it was over. […]

Sampras, 1995 Davis Cup final

Unfortunately, Jim lost the second rubber on Friday to Yevgeny Kafelnikov, leaving us tied at 1-1. When Tom decided that I would be playing singles, he penciled in Todd and Richey Reneberg as the doubles team. But the score tied, Tom had second thoughts. Tom asked me how I felt about playing the doubles. I said, “Well, I’ve had better days.. but yeah, why not?” So the next day, Todd and I went out and played a very solid match to take the doubles. The most valuable by-product of Gully’s shrewd move was that it took the Russians by surprise. Suddenly they were down 1-2, on the brink of elimination and, despite their home-court advantage, looking at having to beat two of the very top players in the world. That clay was the surface probably provided little comfort after what I had done on day one. I was the dominant number one player in the world, and I had taken personal control of the tie.

I was first up on Sunday. I felt a little heavy-legged but I knew I was one match away from a great achievement. And I was going up against Kafelnikov, a guy I always enjoyed playing – a guy who was good, and who lorded it over a lot of guys ranked lower down, but who always admired my game. Now he had to beat me to keep his nation’s Davis Cup hopes alive.
For no good reason I can name, I played a great match at the most opportune of moments. Call it fate. Call it lucking out. Call it whatever. The bottom line is that Yevgeny never had a chance. I got into the zone a little bit. Surviving that Chesnokov match had really loosened me up, made me feel anything was possible, and winning the doubles didn’t hurt. I mixed up my game against Kafelnikov. I served and volleyed a bit, stayed beck home, kept him off balance by alternately going for my big shots and then hanging back, seeing what he could bring to hurt me.
I led 6-2 6-4 and Kafelnikov’s last glimmer of hope flashed by in the third set tiebreaker. I went up 6-4, and then served an ace right up the middle to end it. Tom rushed onto the court, and he was very, very emotional. First thing he whispered to me was “I wish Tim could have been here to see that.”

It was a touching moment and seconds later the rest of the squad engulfed us, and we let it all hang out, celebrating on the court. Andre, who had borne the load with me all year, was there to share in the joy. I really appreciated that he had sucked it up and made the trip over? He could have blown it off, especially after seeing his amazing year go down the tubes after that devastating loss to me in the US Open final followed by his chest injury.

It didn’t seem like it at the time, but that Davis Cup performance would become a highlight of my career and a chapter in Davis Cup lore and legend. Yet it barely made the media radar in the United States.

Pete Sampras, 1995 Davis Cup final

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