Earthquake, Flood. Tears. Sex. Baldness. The Australian Open had everything. All it needed was a sound track, starting with When the Levee Breaks. You want breakthroughs? There was Mary Pierce, displaying roundhouse strokes and lifting the first major trophy of her career, eyes welling. There was Pete Sampras, tearful as well, suffering a loss but winning the sympathy of the world. Then there was Andre Agassi, looking more like a computer virus than a tennis player in his stripes and checks but at last playing like a champion instead of a phenomenon.
It was a natural disaster saga, it was a buddy movie, but more than anything, the first Grand Slam tournament of 1995 was about coming of age. It was exactly that for Pierce, the lithe, expressive 20-year-old who showed she just may be the next dominant force in the women's ranks by flattening Arantxa Sànchez Vicario of Spain 6-3, 6-2 in only her second Grand Slam final. It was a moment of passage for Agassi, who defeated an emotionally spent Sampras 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4 for his second straight Grand Slam victory. At last Agassi has blended his talent and personality with consistency, serving notice that he will be pursuing Sampras's No. 1 ranking this season.
It was also a defining moment for Sampras, whose valiant attempt to defend his title while his friend and coach, Tim Gullikson, was hospitalized—having suffered what appeared to be a stroke in mid-tournament—ended in poignant failure. Twice in this fortnight Sampras recovered from two sets down to win matches, the most stirring rally coming against Jim Courier in the quarterfinals, when Sampras stood on the court and sobbed. Sampras won the crowds, but his fatiguing matches and worry over Gullikson (whose illness remained undiagnosed as of Monday) were too much for him. "It just broke my heart," he said of Gullikson's sickness.
The two weeks were less tumultuous for Agassi, who seemed different from the moment he stepped off the plane for his first appearance at the Australian. It was as if his decision to reduce his flowing peroxide locks to fuzz had propelled him to a moment of truth. The new 'do, which he got at a salon near girlfriend Brooke Shields's New York City apartment during the off-season, was clearly a point of departure, and Agassi didn't care a whit that it appalled his fans. What he says of his haircut could be applied to the new look of his game: 'To be honest, I think it was overdue."
Agassi was still a sight to see. Australians labeled him the Pirate King, for the 'do-rag on his head, or the Black Prince, for his dark spiky hair. But off the court he did his best to lie low, renting a two-bedroom house in the Melbourne neighborhood of Toorak. He made banana pancakes at home, haunted local Italian bistros or stopped in for a sandwich at the local Subway. His idea of a big night was to rent a slasher movie or an action film.
Agassi was determined to mount a convincing follow-up to his U.S. Open victory, which catapulted him to No. 2 at the end of 1994. Sure, he won Wimbledon in 1992, but he had never put two Grand Slam wins back-to-back, which is what it takes to be No. 1. To that end he showed up single-minded, accompanied by only his savvy coach. Brad Gilbert, and his best friend and trainer, Gil Reyes. The rest of his cadre remained at home. The time that he formerly put into his hair, he said, was redirected to his tennis. "It used to take about 27 minutes a day, now it takes 6½," he said.
The result of Agassi's decision to focus: He swept into the final without losing a set. "I've come to terms with myself, and with my tennis," he said after a practice session last week. "It used to be, I felt I had to live up to something, I had to validate what I did in TV commercials. Now I still have fun with the clothes and the commercials and stuff, but everything has its rightful place."
And, it appeared, its rightful movie. On the eve of his round-of-16 meeting with Australia's young marquee idol Patrick Rafter, a big server ranked 21st in the world, Agassi picked a Freddy Krueger movie, relishing the gore. The next day, neither the shrieking girls nor the sign that said rafter is sex disturbed his concentration as he beat the Aussie silly, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. Before his semifinal match against Aaron Krickstein, he watched Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Score: 6-4, 6-4, 3-0, before Krickstein retired with a torn groin muscle.
The night before the final it was The Exorcist. Agassi and Reyes enjoyed pasta followed by ice cream and then turned out the lights while they watched the flick. Suddenly fireworks exploded somewhere in the neighborhood, startling them. Reyes rose to take a look outside. "I'm not staying here all alone," Agassi said, creeping behind him. It was his only moment of fear during the fortnight.
Certainly he never wavered in the final. Sampras relied heavily on his serve, with 28 aces, but his limber arm could not compensate for the heaviness in his legs or in his heart. He struck an uncharacteristic 50 unforced errors, while Agassi sat back at the baseline and demonstrated that he is the best pure hitter in the game. The match turned on the third-set tiebreaker, when Sampras blew two set points—then never got another opportunity.
Agassi was one of the few players who had a peaceful run through this tournament, which will be remembered as much for events off the court as on. The earthquake in Kobe was felt on the Flinders Park grounds by Naoko Sawamatsu, who lost her family home and didn't know for days if her best friend was safe but carried on to reach the quarterfinals before losing to Sanchez Vicario.
Then came the flood. Minutes after Agassi and Krickstein finished their semifinal, a torrential rainstorm struck. The Yarra River, which runs by the stadium, overflowed, and center court was under a foot of water within minutes. The power in the stadium went out, leaving Agassi huddled in nothing but a towel in a pitch-black locker room.
Sampras's woes extended beyond the harsh natural phenomena of these two weeks. Actually Sampras has had a terrible four months. In September his pal and golfing buddy Vitas Gerulaitas died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. In October, Gullikson suffered the first of the series of unexplained collapses that have plagued him. And shortly before leaving for Melbourne, Sampras's longtime girlfriend, Delaina Mulcahy, suffered a separated collarbone and sprained wrist in a car wreck at home in Tampa.
Sampras is a shy young man who left high school and home in Palos Verdes. Calif., to travel the tour at 16. He has said that he considers his lack of "good buddies" to be one cost of his tennis career. Gerulaitas and Gullikson thus represented rare confidants, and he took their absences hard. "Tim and my girlfriend and my family, they're the people closest to me," Sampras said after the final. "It's just been very tough."
Gullikson became ill shortly after warming Sampras up for his third-round match against Lars Jonsson of Sweden. Gullikson returned to the locker room, where, according to observers, he turned pale and his breathing became labored, his speech slurred and his vision blurred. Gullikson was immediately taken to a private emergency hospital. Sampras, aware that Gullikson had been hospitalized, was a model of equilibrium in a straight-set victory over Jonsson. Afterward he rushed to Gullikson's side, where he would spend much of the next few days. At one point Gullikson requested a worst-case scenario from a physician. According to Sampras, "The worst case was not good." On the day that Sampras met Courier, Gullikson, stable enough to fly, left for the U.S. for further tests. He checked into the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center (where doctors said that preliminary tests showed his condition was not life-threatening). It was thoughts of the worst-case scenario that Sampras carried onto the court against Courier.
Sampras's casual demeanor will never again be mistaken for lack of feeling. In the fifth set, sick at heart, suffering painful blisters on his feet and staggering with emotional and physical exhaustion, Sampras burst into tears and could not stop. Shoulders heaving, he hid his face in his sleeve, pretending to wipe away sweat, and buried his face in a towel during the changeovers. But he also served ace after ace. "I started thinking about Tim, and I just broke down," Sampras said.
Mulcahy was taking a soda break in the rotunda when she saw Sampras's face on a TV monitor. She rushed back into the arena, where a guard tried to stop her because play was in session. "You can't go back in yet," he said. "The-------I can't," she said, and ran to her seat next to Paul Annacone, Sampras's hitting partner and temporary coach. They studied Sampras, aghast. "He's about to fall to pieces," she said. There was no thought of urging him to win; they simply hoped he could finish. "Come on, sweetheart, hang in there, you're almost home," Mulcahy said.
On the other side of the court Courier could not tell that Sampras was crying, only that he seemed on the verge of collapse. Courier's voice rang out. "You all right, Pete?" he said. "We can come back and do this tomorrow." The remark brought Sampras back to the task at hand. He straightened up and served an ace. Sampras did not relent again as he went on to win 6-7 (4-7), 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. Inadvertently Courier had helped Sampras. "When I heard him say that," Sampras said, "something clicked in my brain that said, Come on, you have to get yourself together and play."
That merely earned Sampras a semifinal meeting with Michael Chang, who wore him out before losing in four sets. By the final Sampras was running on fumes.
Sampras could take solace in the fact that four American men had reached the semis. Three of them—Agassi, Sampras and Krickstein—had passed through Nick Bolletieri's academy in Bradenton, Fla., as did Courier; Pierce currently trains there. Courier joined Sampras in taking Gullikson to dinner. Agassi bore a sign on his bag that said, get well soon, gully. Their courtesy to each other was an indication that a measure of maturity had been achieved. "I think maybe we're adults," Courier observed. "Our car insurance rates have gone down."
Pierce, too, has grown, judging by the way she overwhelmed all opposition. She did not lose a set in the tournament or more than six games in any match.
She had reached the finals of four tournaments in the second half of '94 and lost them all; earlier she had fallen in the French Open final to Sanchez Vicario. The difference in Australia may have been provided by a letter she received over Christmas from Bolletieri criticizing her work habits. Among other things Bolletieri was convinced Pierce was sneak-snacking on junk food. "What's under the bed, dear?" he asked. Pierce responded with a grueling six weeks of training and arrived in Melbourne ready to prove she was more than just an attractive contender. "Everybody said, 'Mary can play, but can she play well all the time?' " Pierce said. "This was important for me."
Pierce's victory forestalled Sanchez Vicario's taking over the No. 1 ranking from Steffi Graf (sidelined with injuries) by a week and raised the question, Can Pierce become No. 1? It appears so. She has unquestionably benefited from a more stable home life. She and her mother. Yannick, have settled tranquilly in a rented house in Bradenton. The woman who was previously known as the daughter of Jim Pierce, the most obstreperous of all tennis fathers, has closed that difficult chapter of her past. "Everything is how I want it now," says Pierce, who remains in touch with her father, though the two do not discuss tennis. "I'm happy, and I'm surrounded by good, honest, hardworking people. I don't know what to be ready for next. I just know I have the game."