Skip to main content
Original Issue


Teen ace Pete Sampras and a new Gabriela Sabatini were unlikely champions in one of the most surprising U.S Opens ever

He takes three balls from the ball boy and examines each. The briefest frown may cross his face before he throws the fuzziest one back, as if it were an undersized bass. That frown is all the emotion you're likely to get from Pete Sampras, the youngest man ever to win the U.S. Open and the first American to prevail since 1984. He keeps two balls, thrusts one into his pocket, hoists the baldest one—"I like the fuzz thin," he says, "because the thinner ones go through the air quicker"—rocks, cocks and powders it toward some poor soul obliged to do something with it.

One hundred times, over the length of the tournament, the best tennis players in the world, including Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and a rejuvenated John McEnroe, could do nothing with the serve of Sampras, 19 years old, seeded 12th and now all-three-network-morning-shows famous. "I've got a heater and a changeup," he says like some phenom just up from Triple A. Sampras is so welcome to U.S. tennis precisely because he splits the difference between the pious Michael Chang and the ostentatious Agassi. His style is classic serve-and-volley, and someday this Southern California kid of Greek ancestry will win Wimbledon. But Sampras will be forever linked with the U.S. Open, just as Boris Becker and Mats Wilander are identified with the tournaments that midwifed them, Wimbledon and the French Open, respectively.

Tennyson, anyone? In Sunday's final, Agassi watched cannon to the left of him, cannon to the right of him, as Sampras thundered and volleyed. Agassi could not make reply; he could not reason why. "Why are you so slow?" he muttered to himself between points. There was an answer in the numbers that the announcer up in the Flushing Meadow press box calls "sadistics." Sampras hit 13 aces in the match. Agassi not only never had a break point in the first two sets, but he also never even forced a deuce game on Sampras's serve, which hovered around 120 mph during the final. The final arithmetic—6-4, 6-3, 6-2—had a grim progression to it.

In this Open of the Dark Eyebrows, another improbable phlegmatic, Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina, beat top-seeded Steffi Graf 6-2, 7-6 for the women's championship. Thus, 1990 became the first year in nearly a quarter of a century that the eight Grand Slam singles titles have gone to eight different players. Sabatini's victory was particularly sweet, for it repudiated a summer of Gaby-bashing. During Wimbledon the British press had pilloried her; one tabloid published a former beau's kiss-and-tell, in which he said she walked like "a fat duck." Stateside, a national magazine hit the stands during the U.S. Open with a long explanation as to why she would never win a Grand Slam.

No major annual American sporting event is held for as long as the U.S. Open, and thus it has a peculiar ability to find a groove over its two weeks of days and nights and hold on to it. The hard-edged essence of New York City was still very much a part of the scene, but this year it came with a certain laid-back topspin. The prevailing Flushing Mellow was partly the work of mayor-tennis nerd David Dinkins, who prevailed upon the air-traffic controllers at nearby LaGuardia Airport to redirect the deafening flights that usually roar over the National Tennis Center. The leftover sounds—the hum of a couple of blimps and the intermittent keening of subway car wheels in an adjacent switching yard—seemed somehow soothing.

In the stadium, Wilt Chamberlain sported a NO I'M NOT T-shirt. The MARTINA IS MY ROLE MODEL buttons— ripostes to Margaret Court and her recent criticism of the life-style of Martina Navratilova (who was a surprise fourth-round loser to Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere)—came in both red-white-and-blue and gay-rights lavender. Meanwhile, there was no truth to the rumor that you could get 3½% APR financing on the poached salmon at the refreshment stands, notorious for overpriced provender.

Perhaps the biggest menace to tennis is meddlesome and indiscreet fathers. For some reason they most often crop up around the women, and most conspicuously around the youngest ones. Take the case of French Open champion Monica Seles. Since jettisoning Nick Bollettieri as her coach six months ago, Seles, 16, has relied exclusively on the counsel of her cartoonist father, Karolj. He signed off on her switching rackets just two weeks before the U.S. Open and let her show up so ill-prepared for a third-round match with unseeded Linda Ferrando that Seles based her game plan on the erroneous notion that, as she said afterward, Ferrando "was a backcourt player that didn't come to the net." A devotee of the Rocky movies—"I took notes," Ferrando said after an enthralling 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 win—the 24-year-old Italian steadied her nerves by the end of the first set and then put Seles away from the forecourt, tactics that Seles could have easily divined from the WTA guide, which, among other things, says Ferrando "plays a serve-and-volley style" and that her "favorite surface is cement." Bollettieri couldn't help uttering a few I-told-you-sos.

As for Stefano Capriati, it seemed somewhat mercenary that after an exhausting summer, he would permit his 14-year-old daughter, Jennifer—a humbled, straight-set loser to Graf in the fourth round—to fly home to Boca Raton, Fla., after the Open only long enough to register for the ninth grade before returning to New York for three days to shoot a commercial and make a store appearance. Later this month she will zoom to Tokyo for another tournament.

Tennis's most influential and doting dad remains Peter Graf, the man who made Steffi a champion. Yet the young woman who only two years ago won the prestigious Grand Slam has been a mere husk since this spring, when the West German press first carried lurid allegations about Peter's relationship with a Playboy model. Since then Steffi has groped for an elusive peace.

By the time she lost to Sabatini last Saturday she had spent eight straight weeks in North America, using as a base her home in Boca Raton. Graf had also become convinced that her numerous physical ailments—everything from allergies to sinus problems to an ingrown toenail has bedeviled her this summer—were symptomatic of her roiling emotions. "Your body tells you in its way when you feel good emotionally," she says.

The road back has demanded that Graf come to terms with a suddenly vulnerable tennis game, too. Her mystique, always worth a couple of games a set, is gone. At the Canadian Open, her first tournament after losing in the Wimbledon semis, she talked about the need to restore her confidence. This was a watershed for the Graf camp, for Peter had always insisted that "the words nerves and confidence are not in our dictionary."

Still, for all life's vicissitudes, Graf seemed to be back atop her game in New York. She sailed into the final with a sort of Fahrvergnügen, and it's all the more to Sabatini's credit that the woman she beat for the title had been playing so well. Sabatini has always hit broad, baroque ground strokes, even as everything about her—facile hands and a physique a male athlete would envy—suggested that she could prosper as a serve-and-volleyer. It is this surfeit of athleticism that her new coach, Carlos Kirmayr, has tapped. Down 4-1 in the first set of her semifinal match against Mary Joe Fernandez, she seemed at a loss. "I was letting her play and doing nothing," Sabatini said later. "I told myself I had to do something."

She did. Relying on a steadily more adventurous net game, she salvaged the first set and brought herself to match point in the third with a diving backhand volley winner. By hitting the Deco Turf II surface just before finishing off her 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 victory, Sabatini set a tone for her strategy in the final. "I think," she said, "I'm ready to beat Steffi."

The truth of that bold pronouncement was quickly apparent in the final. Sabatini cruised through the first set and forced the second-set tiebreaker with a majestic crosscourt forehand pass. "If Steffi wins," Sabatini had said, "it will be because she wins, not because I lose." Steffi didn't win, not after Sabatini won six of the last seven points in the breaker, the last on a forehand pass that creased the line.

The book on how to beat Graf is getting thicker, and Sabatini made several contributions to it. She hit approach shots to one side or another to open the court, forcing Graf to stroke passing shots on the move. Kirmayr devised the Sabatini game plan. The two of them hooked up in June, soon after Sabatini's embarrassingly early exit from Roland Garros. "Something wasn't working," says Dick Dell, her agent. "And her relationship with [coach] Angel Gimenez was getting stale."

Late one night in Paris, after going over a short list of potential new coaches, Dell settled on Kirmayr, a carefree former touring pro from Brazil. "If he could make Gaby smarter, she would be 15 or 20 percent better," Dell said. "She had all the shots. She just didn't know how to play points."

Sabatini quit doing the weight work that had had her moving like a stevedore and spent time with tennis shrink Jim Loehr to rid her head of doubts. She also jumped rope, ran at least 45 minutes a day, and did sit-ups and footwork exercises. As the American press doted on Capriati, and the upsets of Seles and Navratilova diverted attention from Sabatini, she quietly advanced through the draw. Yet even as she moved closer to her first Grand Slam title, her father, Osvaldo, stayed in Buenos Aires. Said Sabatini, "I was winning, and he said, 'I'd better stay here for good luck.' "

Sampras's father stayed home too. For all their son's reserve, Soterios (Sam) and Georgia Sampras, who reside in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., are so emotional that they can't even watch him live on TV, preferring instead to view the matches on tape, with the outcome already known. Not that Pete believes in on-site support. He has a coach, Joe Brandi, but his spiritual mentor is none other than his victim in the quarterfinals, Lendl. Last December, to prepare for the Masters, Lendl invited Sampras to his Greenwich, Conn., home to be a workout and hitting partner. Sampras sampled the ascetic life-style—rigorous training, plenty of sleep, eat-to-win diet—that had turned Lendl into the best player in the world. Between the end of last year and the start of the U.S. Open, Sampras rose steadily from No. 81 to No. 12. Still, he had no premonition of what he would do at the tournament. Indeed, after an easy third-round defeat of Jakob Hlasek, Sampras summarized his chances thus: "Maybe in a couple of years, but I don't think it's realistic right now."

Only after he had upset Lendl 6-4, 7-6, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 did Sampras feel he could take the prize. In the final he seized breaks early in the first two sets, and by the third, Agassi's spirit was broken. Sampras went up 4-2 in the clinching set by breaking Agassi at love, and wherever he was, Robby Benson must have been bracing himself for the prospect of people stopping him in the street and saying, "Hey, aren't you Pete Sampras?"

Sampras had learned from his opponent's semifinal. "Agassi hit it in the corner for three hours," Becker had said after losing 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. But Sampras realized that Becker had let Agassi do so.

"Becker had a bad game plan," said Sampras. "He tried to outslug Andre. He should have come to the net as soon as possible."

Only five years ago Sampras was just another counterpunching junior with a two-fisted backhand. After he did poorly in the 1985 Easter Bowl junior tournament, his coach at the time, Dr. Peter Fischer, prevailed upon him to change his game. Sampras went to a one-handed backhand, improved his serve by studying tapes of Rod Laver and began rushing the net. Over the short term the switch seemed rash; he lost to players he had beaten easily, and his ranking plummeted. But the trade-off was meant to pay dividends later on. As Sampras grew into his body, the tumblers of his serve-and-volley game began falling into place. It was Agassi's misfortune to get whacked in the face as the safe door swung open. After reaching the finals of the only two Grand Slam events he played this year, drawing one guy (Andrès Gómez) who seemed too old to beat him and another (Sampras) who appeared to be too young, Andre was oh-fer.

Image may be everything, as Agassi says in a just-released camera commercial, but in the hurly-burly of real life it sometimes gets stripped away. In a second-round meeting with Petr Korda of Czechoslovakia, Agassi took issue with a line call and let forth a single-syllable Anglo-Saxon word within earshot of chair umpire Wayne McKewen, who assessed him a warning. Agassi's image, back in 1987 when he was still a newcomer on the circuit, was that of a Christian of the born-again persuasion. But before anyone could find the page of the New Testament that Brother Andre was citing to McKewen, Agassi turned away from the chair and unleashed another vulgarity. Then, during the ensuing changeover, he let fly a glob of spit in McKewen's direction.

Grand Slam supervisor Ken Farrar and tournament referee Keith Johnson were summoned to discuss whether Agassi should have been assessed the point penalty for spitting, which would have left him one misstep from a default. Agassi suddenly seemed to sense how dangerously he was living. "It was an accident," he pleaded, offering McKewen a towel.

Agassi was lucky. Farrar and Johnson, believing Agassi's protestations, decided, in Farrar's words, to "give the player the benefit of the doubt" and forgo the point penalty. The next day, after having reviewed a tape of the incident, Farrar realized he had been snookered and fined Agassi $3,000. By then, though, Agassi was safely through to the third round, and a chair ump had been left out to hang.

No disciplinary report would be complete without a reference to McEnroe. Upon hearing a woman in the front row talk during his serve in a third-round win over 10th-seeded Andrei Chesnokov, McEnroe lambasted her with a stream of vulgarities. After the woman retaliated with an obscenity of her own, abject Mac flack and USA Network commentator Vitas Gerulaitis urged us not to "make a martyr out of her."

Notwithstanding this one ugly incident, the 31-year-old McEnroe did enjoy a sublime run. In the fourth round he outlasted seventh-seeded Emilio Sànchez, six years his junior, in five sets. Then, in the quarters against a hard-serving young American, David Wheaton, he turned tennis pointillist. With the briefest of brush strokes, McEnroe won countless points by squeezing off drop volleys, while Wheaton, a lumbering 6'3", was pinned on the baseline, going down 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.

Eight weeks ago in Washington, D.C., Mac had played so poorly in losing to 113th-ranked Derrick Rostagno that he pronounced it "unrealistic" that he would do anything at Flushing Meadow, where he would be unseeded. Nevertheless, he rejoined Tony Palafox, his old coach, who persuaded him to stop trying to outslug his foes and instead attack the net at every opportunity like the McEnroe of old. The strategy worked until he met Sampras in the semis.

Mac lost the first set without so much as a whimper, and he lost the second when he failed to mount a challenge to Sampras's serve. McEnroe won the third set. The fourth, if Mac had somehow broken through, would have delivered him the crowd and perhaps an inexorable surge that could have carried him to victory. But Sampras, whose serve return was nearly as devastating as his serve, stood fast. He ended matters with an ace, his 17th of the match, a 117-mph fastball with a shimmy.

After his elimination, McEnroe, for the first time in a long time, didn't talk in the dour tones of someone reading an epitaph. "Hope springs eternal," he said, adding that Jimmy Connors won the U.S. Open at 31, and that Ken Rosewall reached the Wimbledon final at 39. "Next time, guys like Sampras and Agassi will be favored. They'll feel a different kind of pressure. I've just got to keep on pushing."

Yet even as Mac pushes, the youngsters like Sampras push too, from the bottom up. "For whatever I do the rest of my career," Sampras told the crowd as he accepted his trophy on Sunday evening, "I'll always be a U.S. Open champion."

To some, image may be everything. But Sampras—with his feet on the ground, an ace in the air and a NO I'M NOT T-shirt in his future—has proved that reality counts for something too.



Less than a year before he charged through the field at Flushing Meadow, the late-blooming Sampras was ranked No. 81 in the world.



Agassi huffed and puffed but was blown away in the first all-U.S. men's final since 1979.



Becker was no match for Agassi, who "hit it into the corners for three hours" on Saturday.



Sabatini's bold new forays to the net resulted in her first major title.



Until the final, Graf didn't waste any time eliminating most of her opponents.



Thanks to the mayor, this tournament had no jetscream.



Mac was on the attack until Sampras set him back with a dazzling display of power tennis.