As the 2018 Australian Open draws ever closer, let us take a look at one of the most emotional and inspiring matches in the tournament’s history.
Sampras beat Courier 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 in the quarter-final
It’s 1:09am at Rod Laver Arena, Jim Courier embraces an emotional Pete Sampras as the centre court crowd at the Australian Open quarter-final match-up have not only witnessed an instant classic between two of America’s greatest exports, but for any tennis fan, one of the sport’s most truly memorable moments.
Before reaching the quarter-final, defending champion Sampras had worked his way through to the fourth round with all too familiar ease. Pistol Pete breezeed past Gianluca Pozzi, Jan Kroslak and Lars Jonsson without dropping a single set. The fourth round, however, would see the legendary American come up against a determined Magnus Larsson. The Swede piled on the pressure by producing a stunning start to the match, battling to lead two sets before succumbing to an incredible Sampras fightback.
With the effects still lingering of his five-set battle against Larsson, Sampras would then come up against his friend and compatriot Courier. The 1992 and 1993 Australian Open champion had not dropped one set in the tournament coming into the game, and at one point it looked as if that streak would continue for the four-time Grand Slam winner.
Courier played superbly in the first two sets, despite Sampras consistently serving well, and after two successive tie-breaks it was the four-time Grand Slam champion who would take a 2-0 lead in the third set. But Sampras would display all the fighting qualities that made him one of the sport’s very best. For the second successive match in a row, the reigning champion would come back from the edge of defeat to bring the scores level at two sets a piece.
This is, however, when the match would take an unexpected and emotional turn. At the beginning of the fifth and final set, Sampras stepped up to serve but would struggle to hold back tears as the American could be seen to be visibly sobbing. The majority of people inside Rod Laver Arena would not know until later that Sampras’ coach, Tim Gullikson, had been diagnosed with a brain tumour prior to the tournament. With his emotions astray and his face awash with tears, trying desperately to regain some form of control, Sampras would hear the words of a concerned Courier from across the net.
‘Are you alright Pete? We can do this tomorrow you know’. The words themselves seemingly acted like a trigger as Sampras bravely collected himself and resolutely kept going to claim the first game of the last set.
However, still with his emotions on a knife-edge, Sampras slumped into his seat for the changeover, his face covered with a towel as he struggled to hold back the tears once again. A splash of water and Sampras was once again ready to go, however still looking like he would rather be anywhere else but here.
Courier then went on to win the next game but earned himself a code violation for cursing in the process, and now it was Sampras’s turn to serve.
Somehow, he was able to fire his 19th ace of the match to put the score at 30-0, but preparing to serve once more, his emotions once again would come to the surface. The tears would pour down his face while 15,000 spectators looked on, staring blankly at his racket while fiddling with the strings.
After a few moments Sampras pulled himself together enough to serve once more. Through those tears, he smashed another ace and then a winner to take a 2-1 lead, and it was clear from then on that neither fatigue nor emotions were going to get in the way of Sampras.
Courier would end up being the first to show weakness as he started to cramp up. He didn’t face a single break point in the opening two sets. Despite no longer being at his peak, he slugged away with the confidence and precision that had seen him win multiple Grand Slams, yet he couldn’t deny the will of Pistol Pete.
At break point in that game, Courier would drive a forehand into the net cord, the ball popping up and agonisingly falling back on his side. Sampras served out the game at love, hitting a 23rd ace and a service winner to end the match at 1:09am.
As both players met at the net they would walk off to a standing ovation from Rod Laver Arena. Sampras would wrap his right arm around the shoulder of his countryman, while Courier would wrap his left around the waist of his friend.
One cannot just simply state what triggered Sampras’ emotional turmoil at the beginning of that last set. There is the myth that someone called out from the crowd, ‘Do it for your coach’, which was said to cause Sampras’ breakdown but this has been disputed. However, the scene of Sampras breaking down in tears would have been enough to make the most hard-headed of people reach for the tissues.
It was a truly inspiring and heart-breaking match of exceptional quality from both men that will live long in the memory and is up there as one of the greatest Australian Open matches ever.
Sampras would go to reach the final but would fall to long-time rival Andre Agassi in four sets.
By Zach Holland
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