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SPORTS WEEKEND

Sampras Shows His Illpower

Commentary: This was the tennis match that all future great ones should be measured against.

September 06, 1996|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

Rocky Balboa met Pete Sampras on Thursday. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Whether you were watching on television, or sitting somewhere among the 20,000 on Stadium Court at the U.S. Tennis Center in New York, it was exhilarating and exhausting. Imagine how the players felt.

Sampras beat a wonderful little clay-courter from Spain, Alex Corretja, in five wonderful sets, ending in a wonderful 9-7 tiebreaker that had drama dripping from every corner. If this one didn't make your pulse beat faster, you haven't got a pulse.

This was "True Grit" without John Wayne.

It was Kirk Gibson limping around the bases. It was the guy falling off the ski jump at the start of ABC's old "Wide World of Sports" series.

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

For years, we will be shown the pictures of Sampras in that fifth-set tiebreaker, vomiting, then somehow making his way to the service line, hunched over with illness, nearing another time warning that would take a point away and put him within one more time warning of a default, and firing in a 120-mph ace.

For years, we will be shown the pictures of Sampras gaining a match point, then Corretja, then Sampras.

For years, we will be shown the final act, Sampras' desperation 90-mph second serve ace to get to match point at 8-7, and Corretja's double fault to end it.

That's because, for years, probably forever, this one will stand the test of time as a match for the ages. All the other cliches work too. It was an epic, a show-stopper, the kind of thing where those in attendance save their ticket stubs and frame them. The true tennis buffs will be telling their kids someday where they were the day Sampras threw up between serves and still won his quarterfinal match in the U.S. Open.

Said his coach, Paul Annacone, "There will be lots of people who saw things out there today that they may never again see in their lives."

This wasn't a tennis match, it was a Ron Shelton movie. It was scripted right before our eyes for Costner. No "Tin Cup." Call it "Silver Plate."

All those things that the world of sports wants so badly to build into its essence, all those things that high school football coaches preach in the heat of August and demand in the chill of November, were out there on the court with Sampras and Corretja: determination, perseverance, poise under fire, never say die, never give up, fight to the end.

This was like one of those locker room posters--"No pain, no gain"--but it was real.

If sports is to be a character-builder, as our society so badly wants it to be, then Sampras and Corretja wrote the text book in one 4-hour 9-minute session. If our children are to follow our athletic heroes and do as they do, they now have a wonderful alternative to Albert Belle. Actually, two alternatives.

While Sampras was the winner, and his dramatic effort because of his illness and his already established celebrity gave him the leading role in this off-Broadway classic, there is a best-supporting Tony out there somewhere for Corretja.

Guts can be shown without being spilled, and Corretja deserves admiration of sports fans everywhere for his locked-jaw, fist-clenched desire in the match of his life to stay the course, whatever the bumps.

When it was over, when he sank to his knees in agony just seconds after his second serve had missed by inches, Corretja was probably devastated over this kind of ending. In years to come, how it ended won't be nearly as important to him as how it began and how it continued.

In the U.S. Open, all sorts of underdogs and wannabes talk bravely and snort loudly in the early going against the big guys like Sampras and Andre Agassi and Boris Becker and Michael Chang. Corretja was still doing so in the fifth-set tiebreaker.

Much will be made about the inspiration Sampras draws on from the memory of his deceased coach, Tim Gullikson. That is a legitimate part of the story, recognized immediately by the television announcers when an exhausted Sampras looked heavenward late in the match. How much that played in the eventual outcome is locked somewhere inside Sampras today, along with an assortment of much more identifiable aches and pains.

What will never again be locked inside him will be any doubt about his place as a true champion in tennis history.

There will be more Grand Slam titles, maybe even one Sunday. And there will be years of more money and fame and the good life accorded a pro tennis superstar.

But never again will Sampras doubt that he has what it takes to sprint up the steps, all the way to the top, and stand there proudly, arms raised high.

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