Sampras, Inspired By Late Coach, Creates Emotional Roland Garros Run
Editor's Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks, ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September.
Roland Garros was a perpetual struggle for Pete Sampras throughout his career. The American arrived in 1996 having won every other Grand Slam at least once, but had yet to produce a memorable run in Paris. Despite being the top seed that year, the serve-and-volleyer had lost seven of his past 10 clay-court matches and many critics didn’t even consider him an outside favourite to win.
But buoyed by the memory of his late coach Tim Gullikson, who passed away that April from brain cancer, Sampras produced his best run in Paris. He powered through a brutal draw, weathering five-set matches against two-time champion Sergi Bruguera in the second round and fellow American Todd Martin in the third round, before facing another all-American clash in the quarter-finals against two-time champion Jim Courier.
It was Courier who stood across the net when Sampras broke down in tears during their 1995 Australian Open quarter-final, just days after Gullikson received his diagnosis. Sampras rallied from two sets down to win that clash and, fittingly, did so again on Court Philippe Chatrier. With the crowd urging him on, Sampras reached his first Roland Garros semi-final by battling past Courier 6-7(4), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
“It was time to step up. I knew that’s what Tim would have wanted me to do,” Sampras wrote in his autobiography, A Champion’s Mind. “The Parisians are astute fans and tennis aesthetes… They were well aware that I had just lost Tim and their sympathy for me was obvious. Their press was all over the story. Tim had just died, yet because of all the publicity and endless questions, he was more alive in my mind than at any other time since he became ill.”
Sampras was able to adjust in the last three sets, keeping the ball away from Courier’s lethal forehand and focussing their rallies on backhand exchanges. He cleaned up his net game and increased his first-serve percentage, firing an ace out wide on match point to prevail after well over three hours of play.
Courier questioned Sampras’ level of exhaustion during the match and hinted at gamesmanship afterwards, wondering aloud how his opponent could appear to have no energy and still continue to blast aces. The top seed brushed off those comments, but cited his dominance in their ATP Head2Head series (16-4) while speaking the following year to Sports Illustrated and said that “he’s pissed that I beat him every time”.
Repeated five-set matches took their toll on Sampras and he quickly bowed out to eventual champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semi-finals. But inspired by his performance on his most challenging surface, Sampras dominated the second half of 1996 and finished as year-end No. 1 after prevailing at the US Open and Nitto ATP Finals.