Flashback: When Sampras wept

On January 24, 1995 Pete Sampras beat Jim Courier 6-7 (4-7) 6-7 (3-7) 6-3 6-4 6-3 to enter the Australian Open semi-final.

Tennis News: Pete Sampras, Jim Courier

That it was an epic is obvious. But today, 16 years later, it is remembered as the match that showed the world the "human" side, if you will, of one of the greatest players of the modern era. Until then - Pistol Pete had appeared to be just that - a machine designed to shoot down opponents with his cracking serves and booming forehands.

Having lost the first two sets in tie-breaks, Sampras had stormed back to take the next two to level the match. All, it seemed, was business as usual. The serves were firing, the groundstrokes were finding their mark. But there was no way the dogged Courier - famous for his fighting qualities - was going to give up. The fifth set was supposed to provide an exciting finale to what had been a magnificent match.

The dam breaks

Then, while serving in the first game of the decider, Sampras, inexplicably, started sobbing. He served out the game with tears streaming down his face before collapsing in his chair.

It would later emerge that Tim Gullikson, Sampras' close friend, mentor and coach, had been diagnosed with brain cancer and had flown to America that very day for treatment, having collapsed in the Melbourne Park locker rooms just before the tournament. After exercising supreme control over himself for most of the match, it all got too much for the American in the last set. 

"I think people understand that I'm normal, I have feelings like everyone else...I'm not a robot out there," said Sampras, speaking about the incident after beating Michael Chang in the semi-final. "I'm as normal as the guy across the street, and I think that's what people have to realize, when they see tennis players, we're not above everyone, we do the same things everyone else does."

Pete Sampras

What triggered Sampras' outpouring depends on who you choose to believe. Some accounts say it was a remark from a spectator in the stands, asking him to "do it for your coach." Other claims it was the immense stress of the past few days, in which Sampras had faced some tough matches on court (including a five-setter in the fourth round) and an even tougher situation off it. 

"I thought he might be unable to go on [against Courier]," said his girlfriend at the time, Delaina Mulcahy. But Sampras kept crying and kept hitting winners. It was an astonishing sight, unlike anything that had ever been seen on a tennis court before. Sampras revealed later it had been a well-meaning remark from Courier that had spurred him on.

After witnessing the defending champion dissolve in tears, Courier had sportingly offered to finish the match the next day, asking his friend "Are you all right, Pete? We can do this tomorrow, you know."

But Sampras, in his confused state of mind, took it to be a sarcastic comment. "I think once he said that, I thought he was giving me a hard time," he said in a television interview in 2004. "It kind of woke me up to be like, 'OK, let's focus' and it made me click into the match." So much so that he fired two successive aces immediately after Courier's query.

And what of Courier?

While most people remember the match from Sampras' perspective, it would be unfair to not put oneself in Courier's shoes for a moment. Here was a man who had seen his opponent and good friend (the duo's acquaintance stretched back to their playing days as juniors) suffer an emotional breakdown in the midst of a match - a Grand Slam quarter-final no less. For four sets, he had given it his all, but was now confronted with an unprecedented situation - one that transcended the game.

So what was Courier to do? Should be play his normal game, should he take it easy on the distraught Sampras- especially with the crowd, almost to a man, rooting for the latter? His offer to push the match to the next day had already been rebuffed. 

A player can change his strategy and change his shots to counter his opponent, but no amount of practice can prepare him for the situation that confronted the five-time Grand Slam winner that night.

Well, Courier being Courier, he continued to play in exactly the same way - pulling out those punishing groundstrokes, running after every ball and giving it his all. It remains one of the most cherished matches of his life.

Jim Courier

"You're never happy to lose, but I take a lot of satisfaction away from that match," he said later.

"We both could have collapsed then [when Sampras started crying]. We were cramping, the intensity took its toil, but we never let up. I knew by the second set this was something special in our lives

"I played just about as well as I could and the quality was of the highest level and some days you just get beat by a better player and on that day Pete was a better player.

"The level of tennis was exceptional in that match and just high drama all the way through. And a really great sense of camaraderie after the match which Pete and I shared in the locker room having been through that together."

Sampras lost only four points on serve in the final set, serving as well as he had ever done, despite tears in his eyes and blisters on his feet. He got the decisive break in the eight game of the final set - saving five game points to establish a 5-3 lead. And in the next game, when Courier hit a forehand long on match point -  the most remarkable night in tennis history was over.

One of the most private champions of the era had broken down in the most public place possible for a tennis player - the court. In front of thousands of fans and millions of television viewers, Pete Sampras came across as both a normal human being and a great champion. Normal in his concern for a close friend and a champion in the way he overcame the turmoil to win one of the most memorable Australian Open encounters.

What happened next

- Sampras progressed to the final of the tournament, losing to Andre Agassi in another classic. He went on to win nine more Grand Slams before officially retiring in 2003.

- Jim Courier reached two more Grand Slam quarter-finals (the 1996 Australian and French Opens), before fading away. He is now a respected tennis commentator.

- Tim Gullikson died of brain cancer 16 months after the Sampras-Courier match.

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