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Alex Corretja’s Great Feat In Hanover

Spaniard recounts his fantastic triumph in the 1998 edition

This week, ATPTour.com is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Nitto ATP Finals. Today we remember Alex Corretja’s coming of age in Hanover.

Alex Corretja was a persevering talent. With a superior range of shots that set him apart, he epitomised a tennis style drawn from tactics. His one-handed backhand, the crowning shot of a versatile and cultured player, enjoyed its finest moment in the 1998 ATP Tpur World Championships. Under the roof of the Expo 2000 Tennis Dome in Hanover, he produced one of the most epic chapters in the tournament’s history. In an all-Spanish clash, Corretja beat Carlos Moyà in five epic sets, producing an electrifying 3-6, 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 battle to claim what is still the last Spanish victory at the ATP’s season-ending event.

The player from Barcelona shared with ATPTour.com some of his experiences from those days and the tension of seeking an historic win.

“All the players who reach the tournament are playing at a very high level,” said Corretja, who played the year-end championship for the first time in 1998. “They’re the eight best of the year; you arrive with a lot of matches throughout the whole season and so you have a lot of faith in yourself. If memory serves, I’d won four tournaments and reached the final at Roland Garros, Hamburg... To me, Lyon was important because I won it three weeks before the Masters and that gave me the necessary confidence to believe that I wasn’t inferior to anyone. Of course, I knew that the groups were very difficult and maybe there were players in better form than me on that surface, but I felt that I was very well prepared, both physically and mentally.”

The young 24-year-old arrived on the streets of Hanover already among the best players in the world and determined to show off his ability on the big stage. Months earlier, he had reached his first Grand Slam final at the French Open - he had earned his right to a place among the strongest on tour despite the youthful label of debutant. 

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“Before starting the tournament, I felt incredible. I had so much hope. I had really been wanting a big win for a long time,” the Spaniard remembered. "In 1997 I won my first Masters 1000 in Rome, the final at Roland Garros helped me so much at the big events to believe that I was ready and, honestly, I could tell that I was feeling the ball very well.

“I think that the fact that it was the last week of November meant that the players were very tired and I had worked very hard physically so that when an important moment came along I was able to cope with it,” acknowledged Corretja, who had survived the longest match in the history of the French Open (5h31m against Gumy) that very year. “I believed that if I had the chance, I was going to be a difficult opponent. Although the surface was indoor, it wasn’t too fast, and the ball was bouncing quite high, which was very important for my game.”

Playing on a wooden base covered with synthetic material, a surface that allowed for a tactical approach, the Spaniard found his ally for deploying a versatile game from the baseline. Corretja faced a relentless group of death; he was on the verge of a comeback against Andre Agassi when the American withdrew, he lost to British player Tim Henman and his survival came down to the last match of the group stage, where he defeated his compatriot Albert Costa in two sets.

“The thing I remember most is that ‘Dudu’ drilled it into me that I was ready to search for a big title,” remembered Corretja, following the advice of longtime coach Javier Duarte. “When I lost the second group match against Henman I went to the locker room feeling pretty desperate. I told him, ‘So much for doing something big in this tournament.’ Then he said to me, ‘There’s still time, you can get to the semis if you win the next match.’ I answered that it would be Pete Sampras in the semis, and he told me to take it one step at a time.”

After advancing past the group stage, Corretja found himself struggling to believe. A day before meeting Sampras, the American had claimed the Year-End No. 1 FedEx ATP Ranking for the sixth consecutive season, coming through the group stage unscathed and doing what he did best: setting himself apart on indoor hard-court.

“Pete had come out of the group winning all his matches very easily, and I don’t know if that made him relax. He had already won many Masters, and I had the experience of our US Open match two years earlier, where I had a match point,” said Àlex, recalling their epic five-set duel in the quarter-finals in New York, where Pistol Pete vomited on court. “I left the court believing that I could do it. Even though it was indoor and it felt very complicated, and I could see that he was a very complicated player with an almost unbreakable serve. 

“But I also believed that I could handle all of his shots well from the baseline. I went out really psyched up and convinced it was possible,” he said. “It’s true that in the end it was almost miraculous. He had three match points and some of them were very long points that I ended up winning. The experience in 1996 was fundamental for my belief that I could do it.”

The mind of a champion is never satisfied with the victory, but with the hope of winning again. And Corretja was very clear about which mistakes he didn’t want to repeat, of course, he would not allow himself to make them against Moyà. The memory of his defeat in the Paris final and the way he had prepared for his first Grand Slam final were learning experiences that the Catalan studied hard.

"I remember that the day when I won the semi-finals, I threw out my brothers and friends who had come to watch me play in the Masters. They were celebrating that I had reached the final and I chucked them out of the locker room. I told them that at Roland Garros, my mindset before the final had been a bit too passive and that I didn’t want to have the same feeling before the final against Carlos,” revealed Corretja. “I remember that in the press conference a Mallorcan journalist said to me, ‘I think you look very tense for tomorrow’s match.’ And I told him, ‘I’m not tense, I’m focused. I don’t want to waste a drop of energy, so I’m serious and conserving what little energy I have left in what has been a very long year.” I don’t know if I would have won or lost, but the way I approached that final was very different to the way I did in Paris.”

<a href='/en/players/alex-corretja/c344/overview'>Alex Corretja</a>

If that final demanded one thing, it was to have all five senses totally focused on the match. In a stadium that was packed to the rafters, Corretja was facing a player who was firing on all cylinders. Moyà had not lost a single set to him all year. He had beaten him in three sets at the French Open, two sets in Monte Carlo and three sets were enough once again at the US Open.

“Carlos was a very tough player that year, he had a very powerful forehand, a spectacular serve, he moved well, didn’t make many mistakes on his backhand... He neutralised all my shots,” explained Corretja, who soon found himself two sets down. “But I had a kind of internal faith, a hope and a desire to win that was so huge that I believed I could turn it around. My experience at Roland Garros helped me to not stay satisfied with what I had already achieved. In my semi-final against Sampras, when I won, I barely celebrated. I lifted my arms a little, because I knew that I had to use what little energy I had left to play against Carlos. That was fundamental. 

“It’s not that I was convinced I’d win but deep down inside I believed that the match could be levelled. I felt very good, but I also struggled to get going after the tension of the previous day, from 7-6 in the third,” he remembered. “Carlos started with a very high pace, and as soon as I won the third set I had the feeling that it was going to be very difficult for him to win. Then I found myself 3-1 up in the fifth. Then I was serving for the match and I couldn’t finish it off... I had always dreamt of winning a very big title. I had won Rome, at Roland Garros I had played in the final, but I felt that the time had come.”

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After over four hours of graft, Corretja became the second Spanish player to win the season-ending Masters. The Catalan followed in the footsteps of Manuel Orantes 22 years earlier in Houston 1976 to produce one of Spanish tennis’ greatest stories of the 90s. It was a legendary win that would take time to sink in for Corretja.

“I was exhausted after the final. I remember we celebrated outside the hotel where there was a bar. But I went to my room with my girlfriend pretty early. I celebrated it later when I got home with friends, with family... That night I was very emotional, it was a big dream. It was more amazement than a release of euphoria,” admitted Corretja. “I saw the news and the thing that impacted me the most, because I can’t remember if we had the internet at the time, was when I got to the airport the next day. When you travel there aren’t many papers on the plane, maybe El País, the ABC or La Razón. And I was on the front page of all of them! I was there down on my knees, and that’s when I realised the magnitude of the win. The following days I had a lot of interviews, reports, television programmes that wanted me. I started to realise that I’d done something historic.”

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Now, over two decades since that magical day, Corretja still treasures some wonderful memories. The Spaniard considers that trophy to be the most special of his entire career alongside the Davis Cup win of 2000, the first in the history of Spanish tennis.

“It’s the trophy that I have the most affection for, of course. It is a very special moment, when you become the champion of the world. The feeling that you have beaten the eight best players of the year is very unique and special. It makes it historical,” he recognised with emotion. “For me it’s spectacular, together with the Davis Cup, because it had so much history behind it. We had lived a whole lifetime in which nobody had done it. It’s like a confirmation that you have been the champion of the world in singles and with a team. That’s why I feel that way about it. The tournament is so tough because you play 11 months of the season to reach the end of the year to see who is the best out of all the players. I think it’s a very special thing.”

“Lendl was my idol and I had seen him win the tournament thousands of times. Seeing yourself on that list of winners that included Sampras, Becker, Edberg, Lendl, Agassi… people that I had always watched on TV, was spectacular.”