This time, Pete Sampras was not nauseous or emotional or carrying some heavy personal burden. There was no virus that weakened his body, no trauma that tore at his heart. Monday at the U.S. Open, Sampras was simply human. He was a human who made too many mistakes.
In a gritty, five-set match that included three rain delays and three tiebreakers, Sampras’ supreme serve disappeared at the most crucial of times. His usually quick feet grew sluggish. His backhand fell in love with the net. It was a stunning performance for the world’s top-ranked tennis player, who fell to No. 15 Petr Korda 6-7 (7-4), 7-5, 7-6 (7-2), 3-6, 7-6 (7-3) in what was only a fourth-round match.
It was so stunning, in fact, the instant after Korda served up his final winner, he slapped both hands to his head and let his mouth hang agape. It wasn’t until a full minute later, Korda finally remembered to execute his trademark scissors kick of celebration. He had to recover from the shock first.
“I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and I’m going to be disappointed,” said Sampras, who won two Grand Slam events this year and the past two U.S. Opens. “I definitely wanted this title. It’s the biggest one we have here in the United States.”
A five-set loser to Sampras at Wimbledon earlier this summer, Korda now advances to the quarterfinals, where he will face unseeded Jonas Bjorkman in what is now a wide-open bracket. The power left in this tournament appears to rest in the other side of the draw, where No. 2 Michael Chang and the unpredictable Andre Agassi have quickly become title favorites.
“It would be pretty tough for (Korda) to win it,” Sampras predicted after his demise. “I probably see Agassi or Chang winning it now.”
There is no such confusion in the women’s draw, where four of the top seeds - No. 1 Martina Hingis, No. 3 Jana Novotna, No. 6 Lindsay Davenport and No. 10 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario - advanced with straight-set victories in fourth-round matches. Hingis beat Florencia Labat 6-0, 6-2 and has yet to drop a set at this tournament.
Like Hingis, Sampras strolled through the first week of this tournament, his performance at a peak level that made most think there was little chance he wouldn’t claim his fifth Open title. At almost every Grand Slam, though, Sampras seems to have one match that turns into an epic - one match when he teeters on the brink of disaster, but rarely topples off.
“I’ve been in this situation a lot,” Sampras said Monday, almost sighing, “and the majority of the time I’ve come through. But I’m not going to come through all the time.”
There was sense that he would come through when the fifth-set tiebreaker started early in the evening at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It seemed impossible that Sampras would not prevail this time, just as he had last year at the Open, when Alex Corretja took him through five draining sets and Sampras left his guts on the court.
“It was a long day with the rain and everything,” said Sampras, who had 66 unforced errors, 19 in the fifth set.