THE LIMITS to Pete Sampras's heroics were defined in the first
half hour of his match against Andrei Chesnokov last Friday
afternoon at the indoor Olympic Stadium in Moscow. A voice came
over the public-address system and requested in English that the
crowd, "as a courtesy to the players, please shut off all mobile
telephones." The No. 1-ranked player in tennis had arrived too
late to slay any ideological dragons. They all were talking to
Facts were facts. This was the beep-beep capitalist present.
One, two, three decades ago, anytime until as recently as six
years ago, the work Sampras performed last weekend in leading
the U.S. to a 3-2 victory over Russia in this year's Davis Cup
finals would have ranked him right up there with the 1980 U.S.
Olympic hockey team in cold war competitive glory. He would have
been a homebred, well-fed testament to the virtues of the
free-enterprise system and apple pie. Instead, he was merely the
gallant warrior who refused to quit, carried off the court at
the end of his three-hour, 38-minute, five-set win over
Chesnokov, cramped and pained, yet returning the next day to
team with Todd Martin to take the doubles and yet again the next
day to be almost invincible in a 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 win over Russia's
best player, 21-year-old Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
Wouldn't Richard Nixon, sports fan and president, have smiled in
the '60s or '70s? Ronald Reagan would have immediately sent an
invitation to the White House in the Star Wars '80s for such a
triumph. But the hammers and sickles are long gone from the
walls, and the daughters of the sex-bomb double agents now
distribute free samples of Coca-Cola and vodka rather than look
for microfilm stashed behind potted plants. Detente may be good
for the world at large, but it has taken the edge off sports
"I guess we're all the same now," U.S. coach Tom Gullikson said.
"We're all out there looking for the same dollars."
Sampras, who has won more of those dollars than any other player
this year, was not even supposed to be a big part of the finals.
With the Russians choosing clay as the surface, he suggested to
Gullikson that Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, both with games
better suited to the slow surface, play the singles matches.
Sampras would play only the doubles with Martin. However, when
the chest muscle that Agassi injured during the Davis Cup
semifinals against Sweden in late September failed to heal in
time, plans changed. Sampras moved to the singles, and Richey
Reneberg was called on to team with Martin in the doubles.
"This is a team event," Sampras said. "The idea is to get three
points in the best way possible. I told Tom I would do anything
The Russians had decided that clay was their big ally. Last year
they had played host to Sweden in the finals and lost 4-1 on a
hard surface. This year they brought Chesnokov, a clay
specialist, into the singles matches with Kafelnikov, who is
ranked sixth in the world. They spread the dirt on half the
floor of the mammoth stadium, which was built for the 1980
Olympics, and went to work. Slow tennis was good. Slower tennis
was better. The Russians apparently watered down the court so
heavily the night before their semifinal against Germany that
the International Tennis Federation fined them $25,000 for
making the surface unplayable. The referee ordered the court to
be dried out, but the only drying equipment available was six
hair dryers borrowed from the Olympic Penta Hotel next door.
With no extension cords for the hair dryers and only two
electrical outlets, the court remained a lovely, slow mess.
Russia won 3-2, Chesnokov taking the final match in a five-set
marathon over Michael Stich.
That Sampras was in and Agassi was out--even though he arrived to
sit on the bench and cheer--was viewed as good news in Russia.
Kafelnikov said that the Americans had "given away" the doubles
and that the big worry was Courier. Uh-oh.
"I don't know why he would say that," said Gullikson, whose twin
brother, Tim, stricken with brain cancer, has been Sampras's
longtime coach. "I guess they don't know Pete. I would take him
on my side for one-on-one tennis, two-on-two, three-on-three,
any surface. I would take him for golf."
Sampras's grand run began and almost ended with the
bring-a-lunch defeat of Chesnokov. When he collapsed after the
final point of a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 victory, Sampras looked
as if he might not play again for a long while. He was dragged
off the court, arms strung over two U.S. trainers, his feet
leaving tracks in the clay as if he were a four-wheel drive
vehicle heading to a Vermont cabin on a snowy day. Gullikson
said he never had seen anything like this. His eyes misted at
the very thought of the scene. What if Chesnokov's final shot
had not crashed into the net? Could Sampras have played another
"Everybody underrates him because he doesn't show his emotions,"
Gullikson said. "But after a match like this, how can you
question his desire or guts?"
Amazingly, Sampras walked into the press conference a half hour
later and said he felt fine. His body simply had cramped. His
left groin and right hamstring went at the same time. A massage
and some muscle relaxers brought him back. How far back? Less
than 24 hours later, with the U.S. in trouble because Courier
had lost the second singles to Kafelnikov by a score of 7-6,
7-5, 6-3, Sampras stood beside Martin and they put together a
7-5, 6-4, 6-3 doubles win over Kafelnikov and Andrei Olhovskiy.
That victory put the U.S. within one match of the championship.
"We didn't know he was going to play the doubles until about an
hour before the match," Gullikson said. "He showed up stiff but
said he could go, so we made the change. If you have the best
player in the world and he can play, you're probably going to
use him. I had to give him two of my white shirts, and we had to
send back to the hotel for a pair of white shorts, because it
all was decided so late."
When Sampras appeared Sunday and said he felt stiff again,
Gullikson said, "Great." Sampras proceeded to play what he
called "the best match on clay I've ever played in my life."
Usually hurt by a big hitter's characteristic impatience on
clay, he picked his spots against Kafelnikov. His shots even
sounded different from those hit by Kafelnikov, a louder whack
to the Russian's softer thunks. Even Kafelnikov recognized the
"You saw when Pete was fresh and not tired in the first two
sets, his serve was flawless," he said. "In the third set, his
serve shattered a little bit, but I still could not manage to
keep him on the court. That was the plan--keep him on the court."
"The first two sets were as good as I've ever seen him play,"
Gullikson said. "He barely made an error."
The Russian crowd--a standard, standing-room-only 13,000 every
day--did not seem bothered much by the results. This was not an
old Russia, workers for the Motherland crowd. This was a society
gathering, closer to a Las Vegas fight crowd than any old-line
Party rally. Gone were the henna rinses and pink lipstick on the
women and the ill-fitting suits on the men. This was an Armani
crowd, Mercedes-Benzes with drivers waiting outside, politicians
and fast-buck entrepreneurs and gangsters and bodyguards walking
the same ground inside.
The reach of capitalism was on display everywhere, from the
special "VIP Village" in the stadium to the rock music played
between sets to the sponsor signs for the Our Home Is Russia
political party that hopes to retain control of the parliament
in the upcoming elections. This was a big-event crowd, no
different from the crowd that saw Diana Ross perform in the
Kremlin and will see Claudia Schiffer sell perfume at a Moscow
fashion show this week.
"If you had told me six years ago it would be like this, I would
have said, 'Unbelievable,'" Yuri Zakharyou, a columnist for the
Russian magazine Tennis Plus said. "But now? I say this is
expected. This is life."
It is for Sampras as well. "What happened this weekend could
have happened just about anyplace," he said. "Outside of one
trip to Red Square and a look at Lenin's tomb, my whole time
here has been either in the hotel with room service or at the
Sampras, who reportedly made $25,000 for his three days of work,
was scheduled to play in this week's Grand Slam Cup in Munich,
where he is guaranteed $100,000 for playing at least one match
and could take home more than a million dollars if he wins the
tournament. Kafelnikov was also set to go to Munich to make a
lot of money. No hammers. No sickles. No difference.
At the end of the final press conference a Russian television
journalist presented Gullikson with a goldfish in a bowl "to go
along with your silver trophy." The journalist said that the
fish was good luck and that Gullikson and everyone else on the
team should make a wish. Sampras said he wished for good health
and "maybe winning the million bucks." Other players made other
wishes. Gullikson looked at the fish and the journalist and
"Maybe a little tartar sauce?" he said.