To think that only two days earlier, Pete Sampras had collapsed and been carried off the court.
But here he was, on this Sunday afternoon in Moscow, one point away from clinching the 1995 Davis Cup title for the United States. The opponent was sixth-ranked Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Sampras was quite aware how good Kafelnikov was. The first time they’d played, in the second round of the 1994 Australian Open, Sampras squeaked past the ascending Russian, 9-7 in the fifth. That win had come on a fast hard court.
In Russia, the surface was indoor clay. Though Sampras by this point in his career had won two singles titles on clay—including the ’94 Italian Open—the dirt was hardly his preferred surface.
On day one of the final, Sampras took on Andrei Chesnokov, a profoundly steady baseliner. The mission was clear. As Sampras wrote in his autobiography, A Champion’s Mind, “Knowing how skilled Chessy was on clay, I started pressing right from the onset. I felt obliged to win points quickly, and made some poor decisions. That I wasn’t in the best of shape also made me want to force the action.”
After losing the first set, Sampras took the next two. The persistent Chesnokov won the fourth in a tiebreaker. In the fifth, though, Sampras’ aggression put him in the lead. But on match point, as Sampras struck a forehand approach shot, he began to cramp. Chesnokov missed the pass. Concurrently, Sampras crumpled. Out rushed Davis Cup trainer Bob Russo and doctor George Fareed.
“It was like I’d been shot in the head or something,” wrote Sampras, “and they were trying to get me to the emergency room.”
Davis Cup had been a mixed experience for Sampras. In his debut year, 1991, he’d played poorly in the final round, losing matches to Frenchmen Guy Forget and Henri Leconte. The next year, though, Sampras played a key role on America’s championship squad. Most notable: Sampras and John McEnroe partnered in the final, rallying from two sets to love down to beat the Swiss pair of Jakob Hlasek and Marc Rosset.
Amazingly, in Moscow, Sampras recovered well enough to play doubles the next day with Todd Martin, beating the Russian team of Kafelnikov and Andrei Olhovsky in straights to put the Americans up, 2-1.
Now came the chance for a rare feat: Taking the title by winning all three points.
“For no good reason I can name, I played a great match at the most opportune of moments,” wrote Sampras. “Call it fate. Call it lucking out. Call it whatever. The bottom line is that Yevgeny never had a chance. I got into the zone a little bit.”
Relaxed after the long struggle versus Chesnokov, his confidence further aided by the doubles win, Sampras sprinted through the first two sets, 6-2, 6-4. Said Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson, “I’ve never seen better clay-court tennis.”
The third went to a tiebreaker. Here again, Sampras’ capacity for clutch play made the difference. At last, Sampras reached match point—championship point—and served at 6-4.
Naturally, Pete Sampras did what he so often did better than anyone: An ace, right down the T.