Wimbledon throwback: When Sampras was taken the distance

The most prestigious event on the tennis calendar, Wimbledon, was supposed to begin on June 29. But the major, known for its manicured lawns and crisp white attire, has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Through the fortnight, we will feature some of the most memorable Wimbledon finals. Today, we turn the clock back to 1998, when Pete Sampras defeated Goran Ivanisevic in five sets to win his fifth Wimbledon title...

Pete Sampras was King of the Centre Court

1998: Pete Sampras beat Goran Ivanisevic 6–7 (2), 7–6 (9), 6–4, 3–6, 6–2

Pete Sampras has won 14 singles Grand Slam titles. The 1998 Wimbledon final was the only time he was taken to the fifth set.

The American, who had lost his No 1 ranking to Chile’s Marcelo Rios earlier in the season, was keen to prove a point. He dropped only one set en route the final: when he defeated local favourite Tim Henman 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the semi-finals.

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Across the net was the talented, but temperamental, Ivanisevic. The Croat had earned his place in Sunday’s final by beating the 1996 champion Richard Krajicek 15-13 in the deciding set.

Summer of hope

Though Ivanisevic had lost in the Wimbledon finals twice (1992 to Andre Agassi and 1994 to Sampras) it was the summer of hope for Croatians. After all, their football team had made the 1998 FIFA World Cup semi-finals on debut.

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The left-handed Ivanisevic, who stood at 6’4, began promisingly, taking the first set tie-breaker 7-2 and twice held set points in the second set ‘breaker. On both those points, Ivanisevic, while facing Sampras’ second-serve, slammed his backhand into the net. Sampras, who had wasted two set points of his own, cashed in on the third with a huge serve.

Serve fest

Their 1994 Wimbledon final had been a serve fest, and one of the matches that made the AELTC rethink the pace of the surface. Ivanisevic had once again thrived on his serve, hitting 161 aces in the run-up to the final.

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“Ivanisevic’s serve was a roller coaster,” the Washington Post wrote. “He had 32 aces and 20 double-faults — and he rode it hard to force the fifth set.”

The Croat hit 72 winners to Sampras’ 53, and for once it looked like he had the heart for a fight. But the fatigue of the fortnight, especially the 28-game fifth set against Krajicek, seemed to catch up with him. He was a step slower getting to the net, and Sampras started passing him with greater ease and precision in the decider.

Pete Sampras (left) and Goran Ivanisevic at the trophy ceremony

Back to form

Sampras had suffered a dip earlier in the season, but had now roared back to form on his favourite court. He gave a masterclass in serve and volley, dashing to the net 136 times and winning 102 of those exchanges.

The American broke the Ivanisevic serve twice in the fifth set, at love the second time, to win it 6-2.

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The usually understated Sampras threw his shirt into the stands after clinching his fifth Wimbledon title. It was also his 11th major, which put him only one away from the world record held by Roy Emerson at the time.

“Compared to all the Wimbledons I’ve played, this is by far the toughest,” said Sampras, after the match that lasted 2 hours and 52 minutes.

“I’m sure this one is going to sit with both of us, you know, this match, and I’m sure he’s frustrated. I would be frustrated if I was in his shoes.”

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The Croat, meanwhile, sat distraught in his chair, having lost his third Wimbledon final.

“It’s the worst moment in my life,” Ivanisevic, then 26, had said. “I can only kill myself.”

As it happened, both players went on to achieve more. While Sampras finished with seven Wimbledon titles and 14 Grand Slam titles in all, which was a world record then, Ivanisevic had a fairytale run in 2001, winning Wimbledon as a wildcard entrant.