The end of the world came with a scream. At 4:06 p.m. local
time, Pete Sampras cracked a serve and Andre Agassi flailed and
missed, and before the tennis ball could smack into the thick
wall surrounding Wimbledon's Centre Court, Sampras threw his
hands up to the gloomy sky. "Yes!" he shrieked. Yes, he had
embraced history and beaten back the specters of Roy Emerson,
Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg; yes, Sampras had crushed his greatest
rival at the peak of his powers; and yes, Sampras's own power
this day evoked imagery usually reserved for omnipotent gods.
"His storm was too strong," Agassi said. "He walked on water."
No, a 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 victory in a tennis match--even the
Wimbledon final--was hardly what Nostradamus had in mind when he
predicted Armageddon for July 4, 1999. But nothing on earth, at
least in the sports world, came closer, surely, than Sampras's
galvanizing showdown with Agassi. Then again, who's to say that
when the prophet mused, "From the sky will come the great king
of terror," he wasn't predicting Sampras's rain of 108 aces over
the fortnight en route to his sixth Wimbledon singles title? Or
the spitting clouds that destroyed nearly three days of play and
sent the Week 2 schedule into chaos? Who's to say that the
prophesied end wasn't merely the final days of one of the most
bizarre and captivating Grand Slam events in memory?
Consider: Over the fortnight, the future of Martina Hingis was
called into question after a stunning first-round loss; Agassi
and Lindsay Davenport seized the No. 1 singles rankings; Boris
Becker retired from Wimbledon for good; and Sampras restored his
lost dominance and equaled Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam
men's singles titles. At the same time, a crop of heady
teenagers--Jelena Dokic, Mirjana Lucic and Alexandra
Stevenson--made scene-stealing runs late into the second week,
bringing with them a freshly minted cast of overbearing parents.
But amid the usual tales of physical abuse, verbal badgering and
midnight escapes, nothing could top the jaw-dropping news of
Stevenson's lineage. For all the sport's off-court melodrama,
the words Dr. J, tennis dad still came as a shock.
If that weren't enough, the 23-year-old Davenport, once a
confirmed grassophobe, blitzed defending champion Jana Novotna
in straight sets (6-3, 6-4) in the quarterfinals and seven-time
Wimbledon winner Graf (6-4, 7-5) in Sunday's final, confirming
her transformation from overweight baseliner to a streamlined
champion primed to do more damage. "This means everything,"
Davenport said, "but I want to keep going." Then Graf announced
that this would be her last Wimbledon. Given her similar
announcement following her victory in the French Open, it's
becoming clear that Graf, who would not commit to the U.S. Open,
plans to retire after this year. "She doesn't want to say it in
so many words," said Davenport, "but it's over."
July 11, 1999
All these elements, not to mention Agassi's quest to become the
first man in almost two decades to pull off a French
Open-Wimbledon double, imbued the '99 Championships with an
importance too often lacking in Grand Slam events. Suddenly, it
seemed, everybody had plenty to win and lose. Yet there was even
more to hold one's interest. Usually the Slams serve up either
great tennis or great soap opera--rarely equal measures of
both--but at Wimbledon the two engaged in a furious rally
resembling a two-week version of Can You Top This? The day
before London tabloids labeled Damir Dokic, Jelena's father, a
"Dad From Hell" for his drunk and disorderly behavior at a
Wimbledon tune-up in Birmingham, Becker fought off three match
points with three huge first serves, erased a two-set deficit
and won his first-round match. "That's the only answer I know,"
Becker said. "I'm not there to play halfway. It's all or
nothing: That's how I've been playing all my career."
Every match won by Lucic, the buoyant, hard-hitting,
134th-ranked woman who upset Monica Seles and Nathalie Tauziat
to earn a place in the semifinals against Graf, seemed to
promise more revelations about her escape from her allegedly
abusive father, Marinko. That getaway was planned at Wimbledon a
year ago and executed last August, when she fled to the U.S.
with her mother, Anjelka, and her four siblings. Yet alongside
that there was always a superbly played showdown (Jim
Courier-Tim Henman, Graf-Venus Williams, Agassi-Pat Rafter) to
absorb. It's as if, at century's end, the sport's best and worst
qualities decided to duke it out in an apocalyptic battle for
preeminence. What would be the lasting memory of Wimbledon '99?
The out-of-control parents and the cult of personality? Or the
startling shots and compelling matchups?
Both elements merged in the case of the 18-year-old Stevenson,
whose big serve and gorgeous one-handed backhand made her the
first woman qualifier in Wimbledon history to make the
semifinals. Trained by Pete Fischer, the guru who shaped
Sampras's game, and raised in San Diego by her single mother,
Samantha--a freelance sportswriter who broke the story about
Damir Dokic's arrest at Birmingham in The New York Times last
month--Alexandra graduated from high school in May and the next
day boarded a plane for England to play on grass and turn pro.
"This trip is going to change your life," Samantha told her
daughter. "It will never be the same for you."
But even as Alexandra reeled off wins over Amy Frazier, Olga
Barabanschikova and 11th-seeded Julie Halard-Decugis, Samantha
sparked one controversy after another, winning a dispute with
Wimbledon about prize money over Alexandra's new status as a
pro, describing the tour as full of racist attitudes, and saying
that Alexandra needed protecting from hazing by other women on
tour. Samantha stirred the pot so furiously that on June 30, in
her second major press conference in five days, Alexandra felt
compelled to read a confusing statement that defended her
mother's comments and said that she had been misquoted. The same
day, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that Julius
Erving was listed as Alexandra's father on her birth
certificate. Last Friday, Samantha watched as Alexandra beat
Jelena in the quarterfinals and then charmed the crowd by
curtseying in all four directions. That day Erving released a
statement confirming that he was Alexandra's father and adding
that he had met her once, had supported her financially and
wished her well.
On Saturday, after Davenport outclassed Alexandra 6-1, 6-1 in
the semifinals, Samantha said Davenport had seemed "afraid" and
"nervous" facing her daughter. Davenport dismissed these
comments as "crazy" and said, "Because of her mom, you can't
help but feel sorry" for Alexandra. After the match, Alexandra
backed her mother and insisted that Erving's admission proved no
distraction during her breathtaking debut. "I've been in my own
bubble, so it didn't disturb me at all," Alexandra said. "I
haven't read anything, and I don't really care. It's just the
same as always. Nothing's going to change."
Sitting next to her, Samantha chimed in, "I've taught her that
newspapers wrap fish the next day. She understands that, I
think, and is just focused on her life." Then Samantha added, "I
thought it was an unethical piece of journalism that forced our
family into the situation we were forced into. It shouldn't have
All in all, it was an appalling showing by everyone involved
except Alexandra. Fortunately, by then Agassi and Sampras had
begun dismantling Rafter and Henman, respectively, in a pair of
hugely anticipated semifinals, priming the pump for the biggest
match in men's tennis since Sampras took Agassi apart at the '95
U.S. Open final. The rivalry between the game's greatest server
and its greatest returner, which reaches back to junior
tournaments on the California hard courts, has always demanded
much and exacted a toll: That loss in Flushing Meadow sent
Agassi's career into a tailspin that left him ranked 141st in
late 1997 and Sampras without a measuring stick for his
extraordinary talent. "Andre brings out the best in me," Sampras
said after Sunday's final. "He elevates my game to a level that
Since winning last year's Wimbledon, Sampras, at 27, had
stumbled into what he calls "a crossroads" in his career. He
skipped the '99 Australian Open, lost early at the French and
even called Agassi to congratulate him for his stunning win in
Paris, something he had never done after an Agassi victory.
Sampras insists he was being guileless, but it isn't hard to
imagine that the wheels began spinning in both men's minds. For
two weeks at Wimbledon, they dressed side-by-side in the locker
room, not talking about the confrontation that loomed closer
with each win. But when Sampras walked into the training room
for a massage after his four-set victory over Henman on Saturday
evening, he found Agassi, who had been brilliant in dismantling
Rafter in three sets with the No. 1 ranking at stake. The two
looked at each other and couldn't help grinning. "When I was 141
in the world, you didn't think you would ever have to go to
sleep at night thinking about me, huh?" Agassi said.
"No," Sampras said. "I never thought that. I've played you too
The next morning, Sampras woke up early and scared. "Just an
unbelievable fear of losing," he said after the final. "How am I
going to feel if I lose this match? But once I get out in the
warmup and start playing, I just feel some sort of calmness. I
know it's one-on-one, he's feeling the same pressure I'm
feeling, and I've been in this position. Something takes over."
Agassi had no chance. Going into the final, he had been far
sharper than Sampras, rightly confident that he was playing the
best tennis of his career; Sampras had gotten lucky in the
quarterfinals when Aussie boomer Mark Philippoussis, up a set
and reading Sampras perfectly, pulled up lame with torn
cartilage in his left knee. But Sampras on grass is like
gasoline on fire: nearly impossible to stop once he gets going.
Drilling Agassi with 17 aces--and never allowing Agassi one
winner off his first serve--Sampras outhit the game's best
baseliner from the baseline and savaged Agassi's serve with
pinpoint returns. Twice he went fully horizontal and bloodied
his forearm with Beckeresque lunges for volleys. The effort was
well spent. In less than two hours, Sampras surpassed his idol,
Laver, and Borg, both of whom won 11 Grand Slam singles titles,
and left the world's new No. 1 player broken--if only for one day.
"I want another shot at him," Agassi said. "It's the story of my
career. He's established himself as one of the greatest players
of all time--if not the best--but I want to play him on hard
courts again, and I want to play him on clay. I want it, and
more. I want this all to happen again for another few years:
That's how good it feels. And we'll start with the U.S. Open."
Coming from two Americans on the Fourth of July, such intensity
would seem more than enough to bring the recently dormant U.S.
tennis scene to life. Davenport certainly gave it new life on
the women's side. Growing up, she and Sampras played out of the
Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Palos Verdes, Calif., where there
must be something in the water. Since beating then No. 1 Hingis
for the U.S. Open title last September, the once toweringly
insecure Davenport has grown more confident, more hungry. By the
second week of Wimbledon, Graf had become the sentimental and
smart-money favorite to win the title; she had never lost to a
baseliner at Wimbledon. But when Davenport, having already
secured a place in the final, saw Graf struggling to beat Lucic
in the semis, she found herself rooting hard for the former
"I told my coach, 'I want to play Steffi,'" Davenport said late
on Sunday. "In past years, I would've said, 'Oh, Lucic, please
win!' But I wanted to play Graf: You lose, you lose to a legend,
and if you win, it's more special."
In truth, though, Graf was finished. Davenport drilled her with
winner after winner from the baseline and hammered perhaps the
greatest player in the game's history into submission. "I'm a
little disappointed I could not play better today," Graf said.
"I just wish I could've shown more."
She played like someone already gone. Her left thigh was wrapped
because of a strained muscle, and all the years of injuries
seemed finally to have caught up with her. Nothing, not even the
prospect of winning one last Wimbledon, seemed to interest her
anymore. Graf had always moved fast, on court and off, and when
the trophy presentation ended, she strode away, not bothering to
It was odd. The end indeed came on Sunday, but for just one
person. Steffi Graf didn't seem sad, not a bit, at leaving this
What would be the lasting memory of Wimbledon '99?
Out-of-control parents or the compelling matchups?