September 1996, the quarter-finals of the U.S. Open. Pete Sampras, in bad shape, meets Alex Corretja, then a young player of 22 years old. In the fifth set, the world's No. 1 stumbles and wobbles and eventually throws up on the court, using his racquet for support. And yet, he manages to finish a game that will enter the legend of the game. The story…
This Thursday September 7th wasn't your typical day at Flushing Meadows. By early evening, Tony Pickard was speechless: "I can't find the words to express how I feel
." His protégé Stefan Edberg, defeated by Goran Ivanisevic in the quarterfinals, had just played the last match of his career in a Grand Slam. At that time, Pete Sampras entered the court to face Alex Corretja. With no Grand Slam success, that season was the most difficult of his career. Two months earlier, he had lost his former coach, also his best friend, Tim Gullikson, who died of cancer. "Pete Sampras has been physically and mentally exhausted for the last eighteen months..." said Paul Annacone, his coach at the time. For this match, Corretja, world number 31, had a plan: to force the American to play long points and grind him down, a classic clay-court game, a style of tennis that Sampras hated. From the second set, already exhausted, Sampras tried to shorten the points as much as he could. But the Spaniard set the tempo and the exchanges were hard-fought and drawn-out. At the beginning of the fifth set, Sampras was physically at his worst and only the strength of his first serve was keeping him in the game. In agony, he could no longer stand. He used his racquet as a cane, as an altar of repose, and Pistol Pete took on a corpse-like pallor. Sampras was somewhere else. He didn't know it yet but he was writing his legend.
"Shit, I'm going to throw up. I'm going to throw up, in front of the entire world! "
Led 2-1 in the tiebreak of the final round, Sampras, dehydrated and walking on empty legs, bent over and threw up on the court the little water remaining in his body. He admitted afterwards: "I remember playing a disputed point and to have had this sudden thought: Shit, I'm going to throw up. I'm going to throw up, in front of the entire world!
". Each point is agony. Every change of side is an effort in itself. At each pause, he bows his head, exhausted. His usual weary, lazy look was now multiplied, and took on its full sense. Sampras had never been so theatrical. He played in a daze and went for broke. He no longer had the strength to do anything else. Some shouts of "We love you Pete
" could be heard from the stands. The 23,000 people gathered in the Louis Armstrong Stadium were aware of the History being written in front of them, History with a capital H. At 6-5, he obtained a first match point but sent it into the net. At 6-7, Alex Corretja had an opportunity to win. Sampras served and went to the net, Corretja shot back a perfect dipping passing shot and Sampras stretched and delivered a volley from out of nowhere.
An exit with an intravenous injection
Minutes later, on the second match point for the American, the Spaniard made a double fault, and fell to the ground. He had just lost the tiebreak 9-7. Pete Sampras hurried off the court, accompanied by doctors. He was put on an IV to rehydrate. Alex Corretja remained in his chair, alone, his head in a towel, while the stadium was still in shock. "I didn't think about anything. I couldn't move. The crowd could have left the stadium ... It was the biggest game of my career. The best and the worst
" he said. Sampras’ girlfriend at the time, DeLaina Mulcahy, confessed: "He fell into my arms after the game. We both cried. He said: This one is for Tim
." Paul Annacone added: "The public saw today on court more emotion than many will see in a lifetime.
" No, this Thursday, September 7th
at Flushing Meadows was definitely a day unlike any other.
By Antoine Mestres