As the quarter finals of the 2013 Australian Open approach, Michael Hale picks a great encounter from the same stage of a previous tournament.
Pete Sampras vs. Jim Courier (quarter final, 1995)
6-7 (4), 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3
In recent years the Australian Open seems to have accrued more than its fair share of classic grand slam encounters – the latest being the five hour plus marathon between Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka. One theory explaining this credits the plexicushion surface used in Melbourne since 2008 with rewarding attacking and defensive styles equally, leading to a plethora of entertaining battles.
However looking back over the years, there were plenty of great matches prior to the advent of plexicushion. One of the most heralded quarter finals ever seen at the tournament was in 1995 between Americans Pete Sampras and Jim Courier.
In the pantheon of great American tennis players, Courier can sometimes be unfairly overlooked. His achievements do not match those of his contemporaries Andre Agassi and Sampras, but are hugely impressive nonetheless. What would current tennis fans in the US give for a player of his stature now?
A graduate of Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Florida, Courier spent a total of 58 weeks at number one (including the end-of-year position in 1992) and enjoyed a prolonged golden spell in which he won four out of eight grand slam events, making three consecutive slam finals on two occasions in doing so.
A month before Courier turned 23 years old in the summer of 1993, he reached the championship match at Wimbledon and became the youngest player ever to reach the final of all four grand slam events. At Wimbledon he was defeated by the man who would succeed him as end-of-year number one that season and go on to dominate the sport for years: Pete Sampras.
The career head-to-head between the pair stands at 16-4 in favour of Sampras (Courier actually has a 7-5 advantage over Agassi) with Sampras dominating on hard courts. When the pair met in the last eight of the 1995 Australian Open, Sampras was entering the imperial phase of his career while Courier, who never reached another slam final after their Wimbledon match-up, was beginning to descend the rankings. As reigning champion and world number one, the expectation was that Sampras would win comfortably on his favoured surface.
However the usually iron-clad Sampras was in a moment of great trauma; his coach and mentor Tim Gullikson had collapsed during a practice session. While a worried Sampras took to the court, Gullikson was returning to the US for tests that would reveal an inoperable brain tumour that would tragically take his life.
Courier began the match with an assault on his opponent’s more vulnerable backhand wing and had the better of the opening. As was so often the case though, Sampras’ serve kept him in contention and the first two sets went to tiebreaks without any breaks of serve. Courier won both tiebreaks for a two set lead before a sometimes disconsolate looking Sampras roused himself to take the third. Courier looked set to close out the match after consolidating a break in the fourth set to lead 4-2 but Sampras again raised his level and reeled off four consecutive games to take it to a decider.
The most famous moment of the match came at the start of the fifth set with a fan extolling Sampras to ‘do it for your coach’. Sampras could not control his emotions any longer and wept openly. His friend and Davis Cup colleague over the net sportingly offered to postpone play till the next day, an offer Sampras did not take up. Sampras managed to get through that game, re-focus and eventually broke the Courier serve and won the match. He ultimately lost to Agassi in the final but came back to win Wimbledon and the US Open for another end-of-year top spot.
The video at the top of the page shows the action from midway through the third set while the one below starts at the beginning of the fourth, with Sampras’ show of emotion around the three minute mark.