Skip to main content
Original Issue

Rockets on the 4th

With his booming serve, Pete Sampras launched 22 aces to beat Jim Courier in an all-American Wimbledon final on Independence Day

There was perfection and order at Wimbledon this year. For the first time since 1977 not a drop of rain fell during the fortnight, and the crowds enjoyed a seemingly endless reverie of sunbathing and stargazing. A numerical symmetry began to take shape when the top four men's seeds—Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier and Boris Becker—reached the semifinals, something that hadn't happened since 1927. On the Fourth of July, in the first all-American men's final since 1984, the No. 1 player in the world, Sampras, defeated the No. 2 player, Courier. The day before, the No. 1 women's player, Steffi Graf, won the 100th Wimbledon women's title.

Though many luminaries, including Barbra Streisand and Princess Diana, made cameo appearances at the All England Club, the leading role in the Wimbledon drama was played by the tournament's famed lawn, which gradually changed from a lush green dell to a dust bowl. Indeed, the ground became so dry that it cracked in places. Among those too delicate for the hard, sunbaked terrain were Andre Agassi, the defending champion, who despite the cheering of his pal Streisand was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Sampras, and Jana Novotna, the women's finalist who suffered one of the more memorable collapses ever witnessed on Centre Court.

In fact, the only moisture at Wimbledon this year fell shortly after the women's final, which Graf won 7-6, 1-6, 6-4 to gain her third straight Wimbledon championship and fifth overall. After taking a 4-1 lead in the third set, the eighth-seeded Novotna committed a series of mortifying errors, including four double faults in her last three service games. She maintained her composure when she shook hands with Graf, and when she accepted the runner-up plate from the duchess of Kent. But when the duchess consoled her by saying, "Jana, I believe you will do it," Novotna burst into tears and laid her head for a moment on the royal shoulder. "I said to myself, O.K., you lost and you have to handle it, it's an occasion," Novotna said later. "But I just lost it."

Graf, who was waiting to accept the winner's plate, also began to cry. Because her victory had come at such an emotional cost to her opponent, Graf's initial elation evaporated. "I was very happy in the first few moments after the match," she said, "but once I saw her face. I knew exactly what was going through her mind. We've all been in that situation. So I really felt bad."

Graf was so dissatisfied with the match that an hour later she made an unusual gesture. She sent Rennae Stubbs, a fellow player and good friend, to Martina Navratilova's rented house, which adjoined the grounds of the All England Club, to deliver a message: Graf wanted to meet Navratilova in a private match later that afternoon. However, only Navratilova's coach, Craig Kardon, was at home. Navratilova, still pained by her 6-4, 6-4 loss to Novotna in the semifinals, had gone to play golf rather than watch the final.

Many observers, including Graf, had assumed that the 36-year-old Navratilova, a nine-time champion and the second seed this year, would make it to the final. "I'm disappointed she's not there," Graf said before the championship match.

Indeed, Navratilova's chances of collecting her 10th title had seemed better than good on Thursday when she met Novotna, who had not beaten her in seven tries. But Navratilova suffered lapses that often plague older players: Her arms and legs simply didn't show up for the match. She seldom seemed to hit the ball cleanly, and her racket often emitted a muffled sound that mystified her. "I never felt the ball," she said. "I don't know what else I could have done." Navratilova, incidentally, also had a celebrity friend in attendance: Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson.

Navratilova denied that her loss to the 24-year-old Novotna was the result of age or that it pushed her closer to retirement. Although she has not won a Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 1990, she has won nine other tournaments and is a solid No. 4 in the world rankings. After losing to Novotna, she left Centre Court with a finger raised, promising at least one more visit. "I'll be back," she said.

It is telling that Novotna was just 3-16 against Graf coming into the final, despite having extended her to three sets in five of their last six meetings. Still, Novotna refused to acknowledge that she had collapsed under the pressure, claiming that she had gone for her shots and simply missed. "It was just a sad ending," she said. "I believe more than ever I have potential to win a Grand Slam."

Before that sad ending the Czech-born Novotna put three winners of Grand Slam events on the run. In the quarterfinals she dispatched 1990 U.S. Open champion Gabriela Sabatini. Then Navratilova fell, and she had Graf dead to rights by playing some of the most graceful tennis Centre Court had ever seen. She alternately cut Graf to the quick with volleys or lured her to the net with deft chips and slices, and then lobbed over her or passed her.

Graf won only seven points in the first five games of the second set, and Novotna remained in control through the first five games of the third. But with a game point for a 5-1 lead, she suddenly made three ghastly errors in succession. She mishit a second serve, which leveled the score at deuce, blew a high forehand volley to give Graf a break point and netted an overhead to yield the break. From then on, Novotna visibly retreated, and all the momentum returned to Graf's side of the court. Novotna proceeded to win only one point in the last two games.

Afterward, Graf pointed out that she deserved some credit for having hit a couple of winners and for having kept the ball in play. "I felt bad," she said. "It's disappointing in a way for me, because she played well, and she didn't make it. I just couldn't believe it, really. The thing that disturbed me was that I didn't play very good tennis."

If nothing else, though, Graf was resilient. She entered the tournament with an extremely sore right foot and shaky nerves, the result of the April stabbing of Monica Seles, who was ranked No. 1 at the time. What's more, Graf had to endure a heckler who turned up at the All England Club during the first round of play to unnerve her. After the heckler was escorted from the grounds, Graf traveled the club surrounded by security guards.

Graf trailed by dangerous margins in each of her last three matches. In the quarters she trailed Jennifer Capriati 5-3 in the first set before recovering to win 7-6, 6-1, and Conchita Martinez of Spain took a 4-1 lead in the first set of their semifinal match before losing her confidence and Graf prevailed 7-6, 6-3. Give Graf credit for this, too: The champions who endure are the ones who are alert enough to pocket not just the titles they win with scintillating play, but also those that their opponents throw away. Only six women have won more Wimbledon singles titles than Graf: Navratilova, Helen Wills Moody (8), Dorothea Douglass Chambers (7), Blanche Bingley Hillyard (6), Suzanne Lenglen (6) and Billie Jean King (6).

Sampras has only one Wimbledon title, and it is a significant step forward for him. It proved to him and the world that he deserves the No. 1 ranking he took from Courier in April. In fact, Sampras may be the most complete player in the game, though an emotionally fragile one.

He quietly cut through the tournament like scissors through silk, moving so softly that he was labeled uninteresting by the British tabloids. PETE's A BORE read one headline. In a whimsical radio survey in which 1,000 Brits responded to the question: Whom would you most like to share strawberries and cream with at Wimbledon? Sampras received only one vote. (Chris Bailey won, followed by Agassi, Henri Leconte and Fred Perry.) Told of the outcome of the poll, he shrugged and said, "I let my racket do the talking. That's what I'm all about, really. I just go out and win tennis matches."

Sampras was also called a hypochondriac. He moped and winced through several matches, moaning over the tendinitis in his right shoulder that, he said, was so painful he nearly withdrew from the tournament. He said that on the Wednesday before Wimbledon began, "the pain was so bad I couldn't brush my teeth." When he got a nosebleed during his third-round match against Byron Black of Zimbabwe, the gimpy label stuck.

Whether Sampras really suffers from constant ailments, or whether most of his aches are in his mind, no one knows for sure, not even Sampras. He admitted that his aching shoulder was "50 percent mental and 50 percent physical." At last year's U.S. Open, in which he lost in the final to Edberg, he complained of shin splints, cramps and the aftereffects of a stomach virus. This much was sure: If Sampras wanted to win Wimbledon, and thus fulfill the potential he displayed in winning the 1990 U.S. Open and the destiny predicted for him by no less than Perry, he was going to have to suck it up.

For all of the pained expressions he made. Sampras did just that. In the fourth round he dispatched Britain's last hope, Andrew Foster, and gave the hostile crowd a clenched fist and a snarled epithet as he left the court. When asked later what he had mouthed to the British fans, Sampras facetiously replied, "I said. 'Have a nice day. God bless you.' "

Next he defeated the most popular man in town, Agassi. For 10 days Agassi had captivated the public with his showboating, his relationship with Streisand and his valiant efforts to repeat as champion. Streisand has been an admirer of Agassi's ever since he called to tell her how much he admired The Prince of Tides. Streisand had promised to come to Wimbledon if Agassi reached the quarterfinals. When he did, she flew to London from Greece, where she had been vacationing. Her arrival electrified Fleet Street. She appeared for his quarterfinal in a sailor suit and nautical cap. She bobbed and cheered for Agassi and annoyed Sampras's supporters in the friends' box by clapping whenever Sampras made errors.

Agassi appeared to be on the verge of victory when Sampras called for a trainer midway through the fifth set to massage his aching shoulder. But it was Agassi whose serving arm had flagged. He dropped his serve twice in a row and fell behind 4-2. Sampras then easily held serve twice to close out a 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4 win that would turn out to be his most difficult test of the tournament. He also had the private satisfaction of knowing that he, too, had a celebrity friend. Sampras had played tennis with Elton John at John's palatial Windsor home the week before the tournament began. So there, Andre.

Sampras never lost his serve in his 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 defeat of Becker in their semifinal. Said Becker, "Sometimes I think he forgot the difference between his first serve and his second serve." Becker himself had won all 27 of his service games in a five-set quarterfinal victory over fellow German and 1991 Wimbledon winner Michael Stich, but he couldn't maintain that constancy against Sampras, who hit his best shot of the tournament to create match point. Becker unfurled a down-the-line backhand that seemed bound to be a winner. Sampras, however, twisted and caught the ball with a diving forehand volley that curled across the net so sharply that Becker couldn't reach it. Sampras yanked his fists toward his body in triumph and yelled to his coach, Tim Gullikson. It was perhaps the most emotion Sampras had ever displayed on a tennis court.

As for Courier, his performance was a total surprise, especially to him. "I thought I'd be playing golf tomorrow," he said last Friday, after defeating Edberg in the other semi.

Courier's strength is his thorough preparation. As a result, he has reached the final of all four Grand Slam tournaments and has won both the French and Australian Opens twice. Once Courier gained the measure of the greensward, he became a pulverizing force from the baseline. Witness his 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 triumph over Edberg, a two-time Wimbledon champion who supposedly possessed a far superior grass-court game. After a tight first set, Courier commanded all the authority in the match. "I had it, then I lost it and never got it back," Edberg said.

Courier was an ugly American during the fortnight, grim and quarrelsome, but that attitude served him well. He was nearly defaulted for allegedly swearing at the umpire during his third-round victory over Australia's Jason Stoltenberg. He appeared to swear again during his semifinal with the gentlemanly Edberg. Although that epithet went unpenalized, the British press jumped on him for it. "Nobody's perfect in this world," said Courier at a press conference after the match. "If we were, it'd be pretty boring." He then invited writer David Miller of The Times of London to step outside.

No amount of feistiness, however, could overcome Sampras's howitzer serve in the final. En route to his 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 victory, Sampras delivered 22 aces, many with his second serve, which averaged 97 mph and burned the lines. Sampras lost only eight points on his serve in the first set and four in the second.

Thus, even though he had not lost his own serve, Courier found himself trailing by two sets. His fate was decided when he could not convert a set point in the second-set tiebreaker. Sampras hit a forehand volley that barely caught the baseline.

In the third set Sampras suffered an adrenaline lag. His shoulders drooped, and so did his game. He became careless, and Courier won the set with something approaching ease. In the fourth, though. Sampras came back with a vengeance. He broke Courier for a 4-2 lead by winning a lengthy baseline rally. When Sampras held for 5-2, the match was all but over.

Sampras knew it when he took his chair for the changeover. He put his head in his hands and placed some ice on his neck, and he breathed slowly and deeply. For a moment, nearly everyone at Centre Court had the impression that Sampras was sick or injured—and that he might not make it through a fifth set should Courier force one. Sampras returned to the court looking pale. "I told myself to stay calm," he said later.

Courier easily held serve, and suddenly Sampras was serving for the title. "I knew he was tired," Courier said, "but when you serve at 125 miles per hour, you don't have to move much. I still had to break serve."

Courier won a spectacular first point, and Sampras sagged. But three huge serves later, he held double match point. "The biggest point in the world for me," he would say.

Courier saved one with a searing forehand return that Sampras half-volleyed into the net. Sampras crouched at the baseline for a moment and then rose to his feet. He drilled one more serve. Courier popped it up, and Sampras knocked off an easy backhand volley. Then he raised his arms in exultation.

It was the second time within a month that Courier had lost in a Grand Slam final: Sergi Bruguera of Spain had upset him at the French Open. "It stinks," said Courier. "It stinks twice."

Afterward, Sampras was so relaxed that he fed a line to the tabloids. When asked if he had noticed that the princess of Wales was rooting for him from the royal box, Sampras smiled and said, "maybe she has a crush on me."

Courier, too, couldn't help mocking the tabs' preoccupation with the players' love lives. When he was asked about his relationship with Sampras, he smiled coyly and murmured Agassi's standard reply to the Streisand question: "We're friends, just friends."

Sampras has often remarked that his U.S. Open victory had an clement of luck to it, and that back then he was just an unconscious 19-year-old kid riding a hot streak. This time he was so conscious of the occasion that he almost fainted on court. "You can't take this title away from me," he said. "I don't think there will be any more controversy [about my No. 1 ranking]."

As Sampras raised the championship chalice above his head on Centre Court, he heard a new, rewarding sound. The British were applauding him. "I think they've grown to like me," he said later and smiled.



Courier (right) pushed the final to four sets, but in the end he succumbed to Sampras's high hard one.



[See caption above.]



As Sampras hoisted the hardware on Centre Court, Courier mulled what might have been.



Graf was so dissatisfied with her victory that she tried to arrange a match after the final.



After Novotna (left) came a cropper late in the decisive set, the victor expressed her gratitude, and the victim broke down on a royal shoulder.



[See caption above.]