Hingis, Agassi, Sampras, Connors... The list of winners of Wimbledon? No, the list of victims of the All England Club's court number 2, also known as "the graveyard of champions." Focus on a nearly 40 years old mystery...
"When the calendar came out the day before my match, I was amazed to see on what court I was going to play. I don't want to look like a diva or anything, but it felt like a slap in the face." July 2002, Pete Sampras was at the twilight of his career. A fall to the 10th place in the world the previous year, eliminated in the last 16 at the Australian Open and a defeat in the first round of the French Open against Andrea Gaudenzi. It looked like the beginning of the end. At Wimbledon, where he had been reigning as a king for years, he was playing his the second round against the Swiss George Bastl, 145th in the world. A first sight, a formality. Except that the game was held on the little court number 2. Sampras was raving, worried. "I felt that as a leading player for years, I deserved a little better. Perhaps the Wimbledon Lords saw an opportunity to add to the legend of the court" he later wrote in his book A Champion's Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis.
The legend, what legend? Before him, they all fell on this court number 2, one after the other: Jimmy Connors, Pat Cash, Andre Agassi, Richard Krajicek, Michael Stich, Goran Ivanisevic, Marcelo Rios, Gustavo Kuerten, Michael Chang, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Boris Becker... In 1991, this is where the victory with the biggest gap in the rankings happened. Nick Brown, 591st player in the world, won against Goran Ivanisevic, then in the top 20. Even John McEnroe lost on the court number 2, 1979 against Tim Gullikson, one of the historic coaches of Sampras. Enough to give a cold sweat to a declining Pistol Pete, who expected more from a country where you don't mess with respect for tradition and past "If I was to lose this match, the news headlines of the following days were already ready: 'Sampras buried on the cemetery'. All of a sudden, the road became terribly bumpy for me, at a time when it should have been smooth and easy."
Vultures and Psychosis
How to describe the court 2? Sampras describes it as the perfect crime location: "Small stands, a public very close to the court, you feel like you're in a boiler room. With many distractions, beginning with the crowd noise of the adjacent court number 3." And the terrace of the players' lounge overlooking the court. When the game becomes interesting, the crowd gets massive. "Everyone stands there, as vultures perched on a cliff,” according to Sampras, Andy Roddick talks of the court number 2 experience unequivocally: "When you dig a hole, it's hard to get out." This is perhaps a partial explanation of the mystery. The place has all the characteristics of a trap: small, destabilizing, with a punctual public that often prefers to support the weakest one, who often plays his best tennis, far from the paralyzing pressure of Centre Court. No doubt that the tournament organizers use this court to play from time to time with the nerves of the best players.
Enough to create a psychosis: in 2011, the Williams sisters, winners of the last nine Wimbledon complained of being both programmed on the court number 2 instead of the court number 1 and the Centre Court. Two years earlier, in 2009, the court was however destroyed and rebuilt to allow the renovation of the court number 3. But the fear remained. Because a few years earlier, in 2005, Serena fell there against Jill Craybas. A year later, it was Venus who bowed on the court number under the blows of the young Jelena Jankovic. "They like to put us on the court for 2, I don't know why. I have never understood. Maybe one day I will", said Serena, perplexed. To which the spokesman of the tournament, Johnny Perkins replied: "I don't think that it's actually intentional. The programming of the tournament is a very complex puzzle, everyone judges from his own point of view." After this controversy, the Williams sisters emerged safely from the trap. Not Pete Sampras. After a mysterious game, he was finally defeated 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4 by a lucky loser in grace. And left Wimbledon, forever, in July 2002, head down and with those few words: "I just added my name to the graveyard of champions".