Exhausted to the point of sickness, barely able to move, forced to lean on his racket like a crutch between rallies, Pete Sampras survived an epic ordeal Thursday against indefatigable Alex Corretja.
Sampras vomited on court in the middle of the fifth-set tiebreaker and looked as if he would pass out. Yet somehow he summoned the strength to keep going and set up a second match-point with his 25th ace. Then he watched in utter relief as the Spaniard double-faulted to end one of the most dramatic matches in U.S. Open history, 7-6 (7-5), 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (9-7).
Corretja collapsed to his knees and Sampras slumped onto the net before they embraced each other tenderly amid a long standing ovation after the 4-hour, 9-minute struggle - the longest match of the tournament.
Moments later, Sampras hugged his girlfriend, Delaina Mulcahy.
“This one was for Tim. Tim was there with me,” he whispered to her, referring to his late coach, Tim Gullikson, who died in May.
Mulcahy said: “I feel good that Tim will be with us the rest of the way.”
Everyone who watched this match had to be cringing as Sampras limped around the court, wobbling dizzily at times, trying to stay on his feet, and playing on and on. He vomited at the back of the court at 1-1 in the final tiebreaker, received a time delay warning, but came right back to win the next point.
“A lot of people saw things today that most won’t see in a lifetime,” Paul Annacone, Sampras’ current coach, said. “Alex Corretja should get a lot of credit for what he did. What Pete did, there are no words. It was exhilarating to watch.
“The guy is pretty special, and special people do special things.”
Even Corretja, who broke down and sobbed after the match of his life slipped away, was amazed by Sampras.
“I saw him at a couple of times really tired, but he was more dangerous then,” the No. 31-ranked Corretja said. “At 3-3 in the tiebreaker, he served at 124 mph. If he was tired, he can’t serve like that.”
But that’s exactly what Sampras did before going off to receive an intravenous drip for treatment of dehydration. He left more than an hour later, at 9:20 p.m., wearing sunglasses in the night and saying nothing about the match.
Sampras will have to find a way to recover by Saturday when he plays in the semifinals against Goran Ivanisevic, who sent two-time champion Stefan Edberg into retirement at night, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11-9) after his record 54th consecutive Grand Slam tournament.
Edberg fought off four match-points before finally succumbing on the fifth, tapping a backhand half-volley into the net on Ivanisevic’s crisp return of serve.
“I think it’ll be nice in the beginning,” Edberg said of retirement. “After the sixth, seventh, eighth month I might start missing (tennis). I feel I’m doing the right thing. I just made a decision and I’ll stick to it.”
Ivanisevic, a first-round loser the past two years, served 26 aces against Edberg and will present Sampras with a much different problem in the semis. If nothing else, Sampras can look forward to shorter points.
Ivanisevic complained that the crowd was tough on him, cheering when he hit faults or errors against the popular Edberg.
“It’s going to be another tough crowd Saturday,” Ivanisevic said.
An “unbelievable effort” is the way Ivanisevic described Sampras’ victory. Edberg called it simply “incredible.”
“Everybody was watching it in the locker room,” Edberg said. “What he can do under those circumstances, nobody else can do it. I don’t know how he won it.”
Under a burning sun and, hours later, under the lights in the cool night, Corretja played gloriously to wear down Sampras.
The match packed almost as much drama and emotion as Sampras’ victory over Jim Courier last year in the Australian Open, when Gullikson first was diagnosed with brain cancer. Sampras played through his tears that night, yet found a way to win.
And in many ways, this match also revived memories of his loss in the fourth round of the 1994 U.S. Open against Jaime Yzaga, when Sampras limped off in sheer exhaustion, his feet blistered and bleeding.
Sampras has a history of illness and heat exhaustion. He was sick to his stomach the night before he lost to Edberg in the 1992 Open final. He fell ill at the 1994 Lipton tournament, and Andre Agassi, in a gesture of sportsmanship, gave him an extra hour to recover. Sampras won. At the French Open this year, Sampras lost the first two sets to Courier, looked wobbly, yet won in five sets.
Sampras, broken in the first game of the match against Corretja, seemed in control when he broke back to 5-5 and took the tiebreaker in the middle of a run of 21 straight points that he won on serve.
That control suddenly disappeared in two crucial lapses when Corretja broke him in the 12th games of both the second and third sets.
Sampras couldn’t find a way to break Corretja at all in those sets, and the Spaniard kept pounding balls from behind the baseline, making Sampras strain for every point except aces and service winners. Though not a big server in terms of speed, Corretja’s accuracy and kicks enabled him to equal Sampras’ 25 aces.
Corretja finally yielded on serve at 1-1 in the fourth set when Sampras began showing signs of exhaustion. Sampras bent over wearily, gasping for breath after gaining a second break-point, then recovered and put away a forehand volley to take a 2-1 lead.
In the fifth set, neither player yielded serve, and it was incredible to see Sampras, rubbery-legged one moment, serving at 125 mph the next. He knew he couldn’t play long rallies, so he had to try to win with his serve, and in that set he came up with six aces.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: U.S. Open Results: Men’s singles, quarterfinals: No. 1 Pete Sampras beat Alex Corretja, and No. 4 Goran Ivanisevic defeated Stefan Edberg; Mixed doubles championship: Lisa Raymond and Patrick Galbraith won. Stat of the day: Corretja had only three double-faults in his five-set, 4-hour, 8-minute match, but the last one came on match point. Quote of the day: “It was probably the best match of my career, probably the best match and the worst one.” Corretja after losing to No. 1 Pete Sampras when he double-faulted at match point in the fifth-set tiebreak.
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