What do we do with no new tennis to watch and discuss? How about watching and discussing some (very good) tennis from the past?
Each week during the sport’s hiatus, we’ll look back at a classic match, relive its theatrics, and talk about what, historically speaking, makes it worth a second look.
Since many of us will be missing the Miami Open over the coming fortnight, we’ll try to fill the gap with a trip back to Key Biscayne in 2000, when Pete Sampras beat Gustavo Kuerten, 6-1, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8), in a classic contrast in styles. Aside from its entertainment value, the match can be seen as a transitional moment from one century of tennis to another.
Sometimes you remember the matches you didn’t see at the time better than the ones you did. I vividly recall asking a friend and fellow editor at Tennis Magazine if she wanted to see the movie High Fidelity on the same spring Sunday afternoon as this final. She chose Sampras-Kuerten on CBS, and I went to the movie theater, not thinking that this match had the makings of a classic encounter. To me, the American and the Brazilian didn’t have competitive chemistry. Sampras had won their only previous meeting easily, and I expected a similar result on hard courts in Miami. Little did I know. I made it home in time to see the final few points; judging from the Davis Cup atmosphere in the arena, and Kuerten’s racquet-smashing rage in defeat, I knew I had made a mistake.
Twenty years later, Guga vs. Pistol Pete has become more than an entertaining contest in my mind. It’s the first of two matches that these polar-opposite personalities, with polar-opposite games, played in 2000—Sampras won in Miami, and Kuerten turned the tables at the year-end Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon, in a match that was every bit as good as this one. Taken together, they can be seen as a bridge between centuries. In Miami, the 20th century, as represented by Sampras, had its last hurrah. In Lisbon, the 21st century, as represented by Kuerten, took the reins for good. The men’s game hasn’t been the same since.
You can see the contrast between the two men, and their eras, in every point of this final. Sampras, who was schooled in serve and volley, attacks relentlessly, charging in behind most of his own serves, and most of Kuerten’s second serves. Kuerten, schooled in the South American clay-court game, stands back and sends dipping returns and passes at Sampras’s feet—and a few perfectly measured lobs over his head.
It’s the kind of contrast—net-rusher vs. baseliner, fast-courter vs. dirtballer—that was once commonplace, back when the game had surface specialists. But the contrast between Sampras and Kuerten was heightened by a new factor: their strings. Kuerten was using relatively newfangled Luxilon, a polyester that “snapped back” more quickly than other strings and allowed him to put an unprecedented amount of topspin on the ball. Sampras was using old school gut; he would never change to a poly, and he would regret it. Guga, it turned out, was a pioneer: 20 years later, virtually everyone uses a polyester, and virtually everyone hits with his type of dipping topspin.
Tellingly, it was Nate Ferguson, a pro-tour stringer, who saw the future. Ferguson has said that the moment he knew Luxilon would change the game for good came during Kuerten-Sampras match in Lisbon. Watching Sampras try, and ultimately fail, to cope with Kuerten’s dipping passes that day, he wondered how anyone was going to be able to serve and volley ever again. He was right to wonder.
All of which makes Sampras’s win in Miami look like a net-rusher’s last stand. Watching these clips from Key Biscayne 20 years later, he and Kuerten look like prototypes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. One was the best player on grass, the other was the best player on clay. One was five years older than the other. Sampras was 28 at the time, and, like most 28-year-olds up to that point in tennis history, he was on the downslope of his career. His record streak of six straight seasons at No. 1 had been snapped the previous year, and that summer he would win the last of his seven Wimbledon titles. Kuerten, at 23, was on the rise. He would win the second of his three French Open titles a few months later, and become the first South American man to finish a season No. 1. It’s sad to think that, just one year later, injuries would begin to take their toll on him at 24, and that Guga would win just won one more major title. We can see from this clip that he was well on his way to being a multi-surface champion.
A few notes on the 13-minute video embedded here:
—Maybe it’s because his records have been eclipsed, or maybe it’s because he has absented himself from the sport since retiring in 2002, but Sampras has faded a little in the collective tennis memory. We can see here what made him a special player: The smooth, invincible serve; the ability to apply constant pressure; the athleticism to reach back for leaping overheads; and the reactive forehand he seemingly never missed. Sampras wasn’t as polished around the net as Stefan Edberg or Pat Rafter, but he used his legs well.
—Like Sampras, Kuerten’s renown has faded a little with the years. I guess that’s bound to happen when you win three titles at Roland Garros, and the game’s next great clay-courter wins 12. This video makes me think that we have also underrated his one-handed backhand. The high take-back, the full follow-through, the ability to shorten it and make clutch passing shots on hard courts: Guga’s single-hander was one of the best.
—For those of you who think Nick Kyrgios or Daniil Medvedev invented the 125-m.p.h second serve, we see Sampras hit an ace with one here. And for those of you who think Novak Djokovic was the first player to put his hand behind his ear and ask the crowd for some love, we also see Sampras do the same here. Maybe, like Djokovic, Sampras felt like he deserved more support than he was getting. Technically, this match was played in Sampras’s home country, but Guga was just as much, if not more, of a favorite in Miami.
—The quality and intensity rise with each set. Sampras has his way early, but Kuerten starts timing his returns and finding the range on his passes and lobs midway through the second set. You can see how the net-rushing game put a premium on every shot. Everything comes down to reflexes, and everything is over in a matter of seconds.
—The fourth set has the feel of a horse-race homestretch: Sampras has the lead, but Kuerten is closing fast, and playing better tennis. Twice he reaches set point, and once he has a good look at a pass, but Sampras guesses right and cuts it off. Finally, on Sampras’s sixth match point, at 9-8 in the tiebreaker, a Kuerten pass clips the tape and skips over the baseline.
“I can definitely walk out of this tournament feeling really confident and real good about the way things went,” Sampras said.
Kuerten? He wasn’t quite as pleased. We remember the smiling Guga, but he had a temper, too, and he shows it at the end here. Apparently, he wasn’t any happier in his post-match press conference.
“I was ready for a fifth set,” Guga said. “On one [set] point, 7-6, something like this, I had a very bad call on his backhand passing shot.”
“The ball went long and they didn’t call. I am sure if it had been in Brazil we would be playing a fifth set right now.”
Unfortunately for Kuerten, the match was in Miami and Sampras was the winner. The 20th century had held off the 21st one last time.