All day the gloom had come and gone, bringing rain delays and
the threat of a washout, but now it was settling in for good:
darkness falling over Wimbledon's Centre Court. The rich
whiteness of the tennis shoes, the net-cord tape, the shirts and
shorts and even the court's chalk lines had begun to dissolve
into the dusk. It was 8:55 p.m. Pete Sampras and the crowd of
13,812 and the NBC executives in America and everyone who had
flights booked and families waiting needed just one more break.
One more break to keep the match from spilling into Monday. One
more break for Sampras to bury Australia's Patrick Rafter and
serve for history. Everyone kept glancing at the sky. Could
Sampras get it in time? He had Rafter pinned against a wall--a
two-sets-to-one lead and up 4-2, 40-15 with Rafter down to his
second serve--but everything depended on this moment.
Rafter unloaded his most valued weapon, a vicious serve kicking
91 mph to Sampras's backhand. Sampras took it high, muscling the
ball along the ad-court sideline, too far for the charging Rafter
to reach. The place stayed silent an instant longer, then erupted
in a whirl of noise. The two men walked to their chairs. Rafter
knew. Everyone knew. It was over. Sampras was about to serve for
his record-breaking 13th Grand Slam singles championship, a
seventh Wimbledon title, and neither night nor Sampras's sore
left leg nor the spirit of Slam record holder Roy Emerson could
stop him. Both men sat. Sampras felt tears coming to his eyes,
two weeks of stress and a decade's worth of labor coming to a
boil. "It all hit me that I was going to win, and it hit me
hard," Sampras said later. "It was going to happen: the moment
I've dreamed about."
The clock ticked to 8:56 p.m. Chair umpire Mike Morrissey called
out the most important word of the 2000 Wimbledon championships.
"Time," he said.
For that is what Sunday's final, and the entire tournament, came
down to: time, and Sampras's race against it. Time, and the need
to hold off its ravages until he could secure his most lasting
achievement. Time, and the way it changes a man's perspective. On
Sunday all the faces of Sampras's life came together. His
parents, Sam and Georgia, the first ones to put a racket in his
hand, had flown from their home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.,
to see Sampras play a Grand Slam final for the first time since
the 1992 U.S. Open. Sampras's fiancee, Bridgette Wilson, to whom
he had proposed the night before leaving for England in June, was
there, as was his best friend, John Black; his agent, Jeff
Schwartz; and his coach, Paul Annacone. Even the face of his most
influential coach, the deceased Tim Gullikson, made it, in the
person of Tim's twin brother, Tom. "Timmy would've been proud,"
Tom would tell him.
July 16, 2000
Sampras wanted them all around him, win or lose, because at 28 he
knows what he didn't know when he won his first Grand Slam event
at 19: "You get older, and other things are more important than
tennis," he said. "It was important to me that they were here,
that they were part of it, because those are the memories you'll
have when you're done."
Time is closing in. Sampras knows that, because he'll celebrate
another birthday next month, and the past year has been a battle
against his body. A herniated disk in his back knocked him out
of the 1999 U.S. Open and left him unable to walk for days. A
torn hip flexor cost him an epic semifinal against Andre Agassi
at the 2000 Australian Open. Tendinitis in Sampras's left shin
hit after his first-round Wimbledon match two weeks ago and left
him unable to practice until the day before the final. Had this
been any other tournament, Sampras said following the final, he
would have pulled out. He said he considered defaulting after
the second round. But always, dangling before him, was the most
alluring draw he had seen--before Sunday's match with the
12th-seeded Rafter, the highest-ranked player Sampras faced was
No. 56, Jan-Michael Gambill--played on grass courts, where
points are short and his serve is its most dominating. Emerson's
record was there for the taking. Who could say when Sampras
would get another chance like this?
For two weeks his confidence had been shot. He submitted his shin
to acupuncture, massage, icing, anti-inflammatories, painkillers.
He underwent hours of daily treatment and entered every match
"completely out of sorts," he said. "The racket didn't feel good
in my hand." On Sunday the rain made things worse, delaying the
start of the final by an hour, then causing two midmatch delays
lasting a total of nearly three hours. When Rafter, who won the
first set, went up 4-1 in the second-set tiebreaker, Sampras
thought he was going to lose. But then Rafter crumbled in a
flurry of unforced errors, and he admitted afterward, "I knew I
Sampras took the breaker, and the match was even. Rafter's nerve
and serve never recovered, and Sampras's stayed as strong as
ever. When he came out to serve at 5-2 in the fourth set, a
series of flashbulb explosions began in the now dark stands. Two
quick serves and a backhand volley later, Sampras stood poised at
championship point. His final serve bombed in at 122 mph. Rafter
had no chance. "It's the most difficult Slam I've ever won,"
Sampras said after the 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory, and "the most
Sampras raised his arms. He shook hands with Rafter, put down
his racket, took a step, bent over at the service line and began
to cry. He is the greatest men's champion Wimbledon has seen.
His serve-and-volley game and shy demeanor have always been the
perfect fit for the All England Club but never more so than on
Sunday. Sampras prides himself on being a throwback, and in a
stadium with no light stanchions, on a day when rain made
critics again call for a retractable roof, Sampras and Centre
Court created a surreal and quaint tableau. There was Sampras,
clambering up the thick, wide steps to hug his father and mother
in the stands. The couple, who hid from cameramen all day,
looked panicked when they were approached by reporters. They had
told their son that they loved him and that they were proud, and
that was enough. Sam Sampras would not be dancing on the roof of
any broadcast booth. "He won't be putting up any signs, either,"
Sampras said. "He doesn't quite enjoy the attention like Mr.
The contrast, of course, couldn't have been starker. The action
on Sunday gave every nod to the past, but the day before,
Wimbledon had seen the unpredictable future. While Venus
Williams's father, Richard, held up his hand-lettered signs (I
NEED AN ICE-COLD COCA-COLA and IT'S VENUS'S PARTY AND NO ONE WAS
INVITED!, among others), she rolled to her first Grand Slam
singles title with a 6-3, 7-6 win over defending champion
Lindsay Davenport. The match lacked drama and featured a
nerve-racking display of double faults and unforced errors by
both women, but Venus's achievement was unassailable: By taking
out No. 1 Martina Hingis, her sister, Serena, and Davenport en
route to the title, the 20-year-old Williams finally made good
on the promise she showed in having bulled her way to the 1997
U.S. Open final. After erasing Davenport last Saturday, Williams
laughed and leaped about the grass, and her father stepped out
on top of the NBC booth and started jumping too. "We thought the
roof was coming down," said commentator Chris Evert.
It was like nothing Wimbledon had seen, but then very little the
Williams clan did this fortnight went according to form. Venus
had hardly been expected to win; she had played just nine matches
all year and only recently returned from a curious fade. Her
18-year-old sister's victory at the '99 U.S. Open--and her first
loss to Serena three weeks later--left Venus "worried about
myself," she said late last Saturday evening. "I was like, Venus,
you've got to start coming through at some point. You have to
cross that line."
But recurring tendinitis in both wrists knocked her out of the
Australian Open. Months passed without news, and then Richard
arrived at Miami's Ericsson Open in March and declared that he
was advising Venus to retire. She stayed home in Palm Beach
Gardens, Fla., watching tennis but practicing little. "It was
great," Venus said. "Serena and my mom would be gone on the tour,
and me and Daddy were on the couch watching Zorro at midnight.
I'd fall asleep and wake up disoriented, and my dad would put me
into bed. I'd been there so long, it was strange, finally leaving
home. No more Zorro."
She lost weakly to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the quarterfinals
of last month's French Open and came to Wimbledon two weeks ago
with no grass-court preparation. Still, in her one week home
between the two Slam events, Venus bought a gown to wear at
Wimbledon's Champions' Ball. Aside from her family, she was the
only one who knew she was on the verge of a breakthrough. "She
hadn't gotten past a top player in a Grand Slam," Davenport said
after the quarterfinals. "She never beat anybody." Last week,
though, Venus cracked the game's elite with her 6-3, 4-6, 6-4
quarterfinal win over Hingis that left the top-ranked player
shaken. "Someone else probably deserves to be Number 1," Hingis
Richard Williams has long said his daughters would eventually
battle for that spot, and that day seems inevitable. After
beating Hingis, Venus looked into the stands and pointed to her
father, who pointed back at her, and the two jumped up and down.
Serena, sitting next to him, seemed delighted. But when her
father tried to hug her, she patted him halfheartedly. Serena had
also bought a gown for the Wimbledon ball. Now she would have to
play her older sister in the semifinal for a chance at the dance.
It seemed that Serena should win--she had dropped only 13 games in
her previous five matches. Sampras, Andre Agassi and Martina
Navratilova picked her to beat Venus. But those closer to the
women's tour weren't so sure. Hingis called the outcome "a family
matter," and there was a general feeling that if only because of
the psychological weight of the moment, Serena would ease up
enough to give Venus the edge. When they met, Serena looked like
a different player, shaky and tentative, and the fact that she
was up 4-2 in the second set and lost 10 straight points to allow
Venus back in the match lent ammunition to anyone wishing to
believe that Venus won because it was her turn. Both women denied
"That's a goddam shame that people come up with that bull----,"
Richard said last Friday. "When McEnroe and his brother played?
When Chrissie Evert and her sister played? No one asked them
that. But everyone comes to us with a goddam bunch of bull----
when it comes to that. You got the two best girls in tennis right
here, and if it wasn't for Venus and Serena, this bull---- tennis
would be dead, because Hingis and the other girls aren't worth
selling. And people come with a bunch of s--- like that? That is
That the match took its toll on the two sisters is undeniable.
When Serena smacked a double fault on match point, she stopped,
held her head in her hand in disbelief, then all but staggered to
meet Venus at the net. Venus never clenched a fist or smiled.
Stone-faced, she put her arm around her sister and said, "Let's
get out of here." She had never been sadder in winning. "It was
terrible," Venus said. "No fun, to say the least. Serena believed
she was going to win Wimbledon. We both believed [we were going
to win]. For either of us to lose was terrible."
But when Venus was victorious on Saturday, becoming the first
African-American to win the tournament since Arthur Ashe in 1975
and the first black woman since Althea Gibson in 1958, there was
only joy. Venus climbed up to the family box, and the sisters put
their heads together and whispered happily. "She was wearing my
shirt, which I hadn't seen for years," said Venus, who teamed
with Serena on Monday to win the doubles title. "I wear her
pants, which I will not give back. We love each other."
Love and time. Those two words get bandied about plenty during a
tennis event, but this year they resonated more than usual as
Wimbledon wound down. When Sampras finished with his parents, he
walked down the stairs to accept his trophy. Sampras declared
his love for his parents, his fiancee and Wimbledon in the
on-court miked interview he did before the crowd. He walked
around the edge of the court holding up the cup, and flashbulbs
popped like fireworks in the evening air. The scene had the
quality of something that might have happened long ago, captured
in black and white. It was 9:12 p.m. Sampras began walking
toward the tunnel, and people refused to stop applauding. Women
in flowered dresses slapped their hands on the concrete walls.
Men pounded their umbrella points onto the cold stone floor.
Sampras held the trophy. Into darkness and history he disappeared.
"You got the two best girls in tennis right here," said Richard
Williams after his daughters' semifinal duel.
In Sunday's second set, Rafter crumbled in a flurry of unforced
errors and said, "I knew I was screwed."