MELBOURNE, Australia — Talent, like steel, must go through fire to be tempered. Emotional journeys are the same. The human spirit must be tested by trials and tragedy before it, too, emerges stronger.
This is what, much later, Pete Sampras can take out and examine when his thoughts turn back to a painful night that seeped into early morning, when he came back to beat Jim Courier in five sets and advance to the semifinals of the Australian Open, when anguish overwhelmed him and he cried.
The match was a Titanic struggle, the first time Sampras and Courier had ever gone to five sets, and only two days after Sampras had come back from two sets to love against Magnus Larsson. The game ended after 3 hours and 58 minutes at 1:09 this morning, and the score was 6-7 (7-4), 6-7 (7-3), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
Even as No. 1 in the world and possessed of an overpowering tennis game, Sampras has been teetering on an emotional edge during this tournament, which he won last year. His frayed emotions unraveled in the fifth set, when a fan yelled, "Win it for your coach!" His coach, Tom Gullikson was on a plane back to the United States, battling his own anxiety after being stricken with a recurrence of a heart problem last week.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 26, 1995 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 7 Column 3 Sports Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Tennis--Pete Sampras' coach is Tim Gullikson, not Tom, as was reported in some of Wednesday's editions. Tom, Tim's twin brother, is the coach of the United States Davis Cup team.
The last few months have made for a difficult emotional voyage for Sampras. In late September he was devastated by the death his best friend in tennis, Vitas Gerulaitis. Here, Sampras had kept his emotions in tight rein after Gullikson collapsed and was hospitalized last week.
Sampras spent days suppressing his emotions about the illness of his coach, his friend, who was beside him when he won four of his five Grand Slam titles. What had been bubbling close to the surface, boiled over on court. It was a reminder: For all his titles and all his prize money, the 23-year-old Sampras is, after all, a young man.
His undoing came after winning the first game of the fifth set, Sampras sat down on the changeover and began to weep into a towel, his shoulders shuddering. Even as he walked onto the court to receive Courier's serve, Sampras was still crying. Courier won the game and Sampras was fighting to control his emotions during his service game. Wiping his shirt sleeve over his eyes, as if he were dabbing at sweat rather than tears, did little to conceal what was happening.
Blinking back tears, Sampras stood at the service line and paused to collect himself. The once-boisterous crowd was hushed. Fans who earlier had interrupted service tosses by shouting or whistling were chastened into a respectful silence. Courier called out across the net, "Are you OK, Pete? We can do this tomorrow, you know." Sitting in the players box Sampras' girlfriend Delaina Mulcahy leaned forward and spoke softly to him, "Come on, honey."
Something passed over Sampras' face and his eyes narrowed. His response was to serve two aces and win the game at love.
On the changeover, he called for the trainer but received consolation not treatment. Sampras poured water over his head, took slow deep breaths and composed himself. He had gotten through.
Ahead was still one of the most intensely contested matches of his career. Everyone knew it.
"I realized early, going into the second set, something special was happening out there," said Courier, who is ranked No. 11. "We were both not missing much and all the points were being fought for."
Sampras, like Courier, was emotionally and physically spent after the match. Sampras had difficulty composing himself in the post-game news conference, which he conducted with his head hung low and speaking in a whisper.
"Win or lose, I thought it was one of the better matches I've ever taken part in," he said. "I just didn't quit and tried to do everything I could to try to win. You know, we both showed a lot of heart out there."
The first two sets were played even. There were not only no service breaks, there was only one break point. Sampras had the easier job holding his serve, getting in 86% of his first serves, and Courier was more pressed to hold his own serve. Sampras served remarkably under the circumstances and considering the duration of the match--he had 23 aces and only four double faults.
Courier later said that his pace in the first two sets came back to afflict his legs later. Still, it was hard to fault his tactics: teeing off on every forehand, he kept Sampras from dominating the net. He won the first two sets and was tired, but, in almost any other situation, Courier wouldn't have expected to play another hour and a half.
The players matched shots from all angles of the court. They dueled from the baseline, they slugged from outside the doubles alley and, occasionally, they exchanged volleys at net.
The game wore on into the night. At midnight, Courier broke Sampras in the fifth game of the fourth set to get his only service break of the match. But in the eighth game, Courier committed a rare but costly service error. He held game point but served his second double fault of the match and the game went to deuce.
After that, a loose forehand and a backhand punched into the net by Courier gave Sampras the break and an even chance at 4-4.
Sampras broke again two games later to win the set and even the match at two sets apiece. The last set took only 37 minutes.
Now, Sampras must face Michael Chang in the semifinals on Thursday. Another chance to steel himself against all in life that may buffet him.