He took it slow, scanning the hollering crowd from left to
right, section by section of ramshackle Louis Armstrong Stadium,
knowing he would find the face he needed to see. Pete Sampras
stood with his back to the net, looking fresh, grinning. Next to
him, beaten and forgotten, Michael Chang shuffled his feet and
waited. Both had said kind words about the fans and each other
in the opening moments of the men's singles award ceremony of
the U.S. Open, and soon some man in a suit would hand Sampras a
$600,000 check and a trophy. But the 1996 U.S. Open champion and
world's No. 1 player wasn't thinking of that just yet, because
he had found Tom Gullikson in the crowd. The two locked eyes.
Sampras nodded, Gullikson nodded back, and in that flickering
exchange was merely everything important, every truth about
caring and loss and letting go. "It's been very difficult for
both of us, more for him--Tim was his twin brother," Sampras
said afterward. "But I knew what he was thinking and he knew
what I was thinking. We just looked at each other, and I knew.
Those are the moments that are about more than just tennis."
It was then that Sampras understood, maybe for the first time:
It's over. For on Sunday, Sampras didn't just dominate the
world's second-best tennis player, or simply win his fourth--and
most dramatic--U.S. Open title, or merely elevate the measure of
his greatness with an eighth Grand Slam championship. No, with
his 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 blowout of Chang, his first win in a major
since his coach and best friend, Tim Gullikson, died of brain
cancer in May, Sampras also released himself from the
emotionally exhausting task of living out a sports cliche:
winning a Grand Slam title in Gullikson's memory. He had failed
in June at the French Open, the one major he has never won, and
he had failed in July at Wimbledon, and only an almost mythic,
five-set performance against Alex Corretja of Spain had kept him
from failing at Flushing Meadows.
Coming into this Open, those closest to Sampras could sense the
strain. "He's got to get to the point where he's playing for
himself," Tom Gullikson said. "It's an emotional roller coaster
playing for other people, other causes. It just puts extra
pressure on him. And he's had to deal with Tim's situation in
such a public way."
That's the strangest part. Sampras, never given to Connors-like
histrionics on the court or Becker-esque philosophizing off it,
calls himself a stoic. Yet more than Steffi Graf, who amid a
soap opera of personal difficulties rolled to her 21st Grand
Slam title over an outclassed Monica Seles--and perhaps more
than any other athlete in memory--Sampras has displayed his
emotions to millions. At the 1995 Australian Open, he wept
during a match after learning Tim Gullikson was ill; on court at
the '95 U.S. Open, he dedicated his win to him; in Paris this
year, he looked to the sky and sensed Gullikson looking back.
The quest had a touch of the macabre, but for someone who is at
his most eloquent on a tennis court, it made sense. Sampras
tried to give a eulogy at Gullikson's funeral and couldn't
finish. But when Sampras stands between the lines, he rarely has
a problem finishing. "He does live his life out on the courts,"
says his coach, Paul Annacone. "He doesn't show much emotion
except when he's competing."
September 15, 1996
So it was that as his game gained momentum through this
fortnight, Sampras grabbed hold of a tournament that set new
standards for U.S. Open chaos. Flushing Meadows has always been
the most unruly of Grand Slam tournaments, a noisome melange of
screaming jets, outrageously priced food, cramped facilities and
rude crowds. Few players will be sorry when Louis Armstrong is
replaced next year with a state-of-the-art $234 million facility
under construction next door. "It would take me 100 years to get
used to this place," said Thomas Muster of Austria, the world's
No. 3-ranked man.
The stadium seemed determined to go out with a final, anarchic
bang. Before anyone took the court, the Open was awash in
controversy over an abrupt change in the men's seeding system.
French Open champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov, then ranked fourth but
seeded seventh, pulled out in a snit, and other players
threatened to follow suit. Then New York City Mayor Rudy
Giuliani boycotted the tournament, first because of boneheaded
worries that public safety was being endangered by the rerouting
of planes to and from neighboring LaGuardia Airport, and then,
in protest of the high prices. Next, Muster's coach, Ronnie
Leitgeb, called tournament director Jay Snyder "the head of
cheating" when Muster was denied a private car, off-site
security guards and preferred seating for his entourage. It
continued: Graf's father, Peter, went on trial for tax evasion,
the German press staked out her New York City apartment, and
Steffi bulled into the final nonetheless. Andre Agassi looked
and--against Chang in the semifinals--played like a stevedore
found sleepwalking in his nightshirt and ended the '96 Slam
campaign amid all the old questions about his competitive heart.
Fergie showed up.
But when Sampras met Corretja in the quarterfinals, everything
else faded. It was, simply, one of the most spectacular matches
in tennis history. Expected to cruise over the 31st-ranked
Corretja after having bulldozed Aussie phenom Mark Philippoussis
in three sets, Sampras found himself on the final, steamy
Thursday battling to stay on his feet. With Corretja stinging
him with a superb forehand and making few errors, Sampras fell
behind two sets to one and tried to revive himself and settle
his stomach with a few gulps of Pepsi. By the fifth set he was
severely dehydrated, and when the four-hour, nine-minute ordeal
was over, he would need nearly a half gallon of intravenous
fluids. Never before, Sampras said, had he felt so bad.
At 1-1 in the fifth-set tiebreaker, Sampras staggered behind the
baseline and threw up. Finally, with vomit streaming from his
nose, he served and won the point, but the match was far from
over. Alternately sending his eyes skyward or bellowing in pain,
Sampras looped his groundstrokes and served well enough to stay
even. At 6-7 in the tiebreaker, he saved a match point with a
desperate, full-extension forehand volley. "I didn't believe
it," Corretja would say afterward.
That only set up the match's most remarkable moment. Ready to
give in, Sampras popped a 76-mph first serve toward the deuce
court that went just long. "After that, I wanted to get it over
with," Sampras said. "I didn't want to get in a rally." So he
gambled. He tossed the ball up and cracked a 90-mph second serve
to Corretja's forehand at so sharp an angle that it stunned both
men: ace. "I couldn't believe it," Sampras said.
Corretja couldn't recover. On his subsequent serve, at match
point against him, his second ball sailed long, but Sampras
wasn't sure it was out. For an instant his face crumpled. "The
best sound I've heard in years was that Cyclops going off," he
The next best came right after, when Sampras raised his hands
and the stadium shook with a girder-trembling roar. It was a
defining victory for Sampras. Minutes after the match, John
McEnroe found Sampras's girlfriend, Delaina Mulcahy, and blurted
out, "I don't have that much guts."
Until the final moment Sampras had maintained his composure. He
had even begun to believe that he could get past Gullikson's
death without winning a Slam title. But that wasn't likely. From
late 1991 until the '95 Australian Open, Sampras never made a
move at the Slams without Tim. He won four titles with him as
coach, and now, when he arrives in Melbourne, Paris, London or
New York City, "it reminds me," Sampras said. "I'm in the locker
room, and all the boys are around, and Tom's there, and it
reminds me of Tim. It kind of rekindles the hurt."
The match with Corretja reminded him that it was Gullikson who
taught him to compete this way. Afterward, as Sampras slumped in
a cramped holding room with his agent, coach and trainer,
Mulcahy rushed in. She saw Sampras's face and he saw hers, and
all the hurt came back. As Sampras began to cry, the others
hustled out, leaving him and Mulcahy. "This is for Tim," Sampras
sobbed as they hugged. "This is for Tim."
Her father sits in a jail cell in Mannheim, Germany, on trial
for tax evasion. Her mother, Heidi, sits across the table from
her in the Open clubhouse. It is Sunday night, after the finals,
and there is a glass of champagne in front of her. "You go
through different emotions when you win," Graf says. "Sometimes
you feel like crying. Sometimes you feel like screaming. Today I
was definitely in the screaming mode. I was so happy to play
good tennis. I didn't think it was possible."
Who did? Graf almost didn't enter the Open. She came into the
tournament ailing from a calf injury and knowing that the
pressure would mount once Peter's trial began during the second
week of play. Steffi's concentration was so frayed that her
coach, Heinz Gunthardt, half expected she would lose early;
always, her impending return to Germany hovered. "It's going to
be a not-too-pleasant time," Graf said. "That's why I treasure
what I've had the last few days. It won't last so long."
But her win here should, she says, give her strength. Graf held
off challenges from what Swiss sensation Martina Hingis calls
"the new generation" of women's tennis, sampling and discarding
both Hingis and the other teenager of the moment, Anna
Kournikova of Russia. Then, before anyone could get excited
about her first meeting with Monica Seles since last year's
classic final, Graf had steamed past Seles 7-5, 6-4, to finish
the year as the undisputed queen of the game.
"I tried to change it," Hingis said of this year's rerun of the
1995 final, "but it didn't work." She came close. Apple-cheeked
and hot-tempered, she became the first 15-year-old to make the
Open semis since Jennifer Capriati in '91. Hingis tested Graf
throughout their first set, reaching set point five times before
running out of gas. Her precocious all-court game and seeming
normalcy make her the tour's hot young thing. "Martina is able
to live with being that good," says her mother and coach,
Melanie Zogg. "She's always been Number 1. Anything else would
In fact Hingis was able to pressure Graf more consistently than
Seles was. "It was a weird ending," said Seles.
It was, indeed, one of the strangest ever in a Grand Slam final.
Not only did a storm resembling the Apocalypse come churning
over the lip of the stadium with Graf serving for the match, but
at one point Seles had to stop Graf from serving because Seles
was overcome by the giggles. The sound of a man singing Happy
Birthday--badly--was drifting from the grandstand. There, Tom
Gullikson was receiving his $9,500 check for winning, with Dick
Stockton, the 45-and-over doubles title. Tom and Tim turned 45
Sampras didn't wake up Sunday thinking about Tim Gullikson. He
woke up thinking about Chang. He also thought about how much he
loves the emptiness of the locker room on the final day of a
Grand Slam event. "The first week is hectic," he said. "You
can't get a shower, there's no room. But each day, it's clearing
out, clearing out, and the last weekend, when you walk in the
locker room, no one bothers you. I love it."
He sat in the locker room early in the afternoon, the same place
where Alex Corretja wept after losing to Sampras in the
quarterfinals, where Goran Ivanisevic smashed and kicked his
racket after buckling to him in the semis, where Chang would
later come to pull himself together after the final. But Sampras
was alone now, watching football, remembering. When the rain
interrupted his match, Sampras moved to the same cramped room he
had collapsed in after beating Corretja. He talked through the
nearly three-hour wait with his coach and trainer. Finally, he
walked onto the court with Chang and, one hour and 59 minutes
later, walked off with a big piece of his life back.
"Tim's still with me," Sampras said late Sunday night, "but Tom
made a good point. I can play for myself now."