A STRING QUARTET
Throughout the colorful history of tennis--a game almost as old as war--only two men have won the Grand Slam. In 1938, the year Hitler decided he owned Austria, American Don Budge swept the Australian, French, British and U.S. Open tournaments--a feat as daunting as a pro golfer winning all four majors in one year.
No man won the Grand Slam again until 1962, when the compact Australian lefty Rod Laver powered his way to immortality. In the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, "Rocket Rod" did the impossible. Then, amazingly, he repeated his heroics seven years later, at an age when most topflight players are dinking it around mixed-doubles matches over at the club. Laver's double Slam makes a strong argument for him as the greatest player of all time and, since 1969, only two men have approached his perfection: Fiery Jimmy Connors lost only in Paris in 1974 and Swedish iceman Mats Wilander won all the biggies but Wimbledon in 1988. Borg? Newcombe? Ashe? Rosewall? Kramer? Lendl? Becker? McEnroe? Great players all, but none of them has won more than a pair of majors in a season.
In the women's game, Slams are just as hard to come by: Maureen Connolly managed it in 1953, Margaret Court Smith did it in 1970, Steffi Graf in 1988.
But look out. Because this year we may see not one, but two Grand Slam winners.
Amid the current chaos in women's tennis--underscored by the lunatic stabbing of superstar Monica Seles--Germany's Graf looks like a lock for her second Slam. Two weeks ago in Melbourne she toyed with Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario for just under an hour in the Australian Open final, breezing to a win that put the linespeople to sleep. Graf won three of four Slam events last season, too, but for many, Seles's continued absence clearly will taint any of Graf's accomplishments. Fair or not, the world is likely to put an asterisk next to Graf's name should she manage a second sweep in 1994--over a lackluster field of contenders.
The case for Pete Sampras is a lot more interesting.
Just two years ago, knowledgeable tennis fans daring to raise the possibility that another young American could reproduce Budge's Slam were talking about just one player--a muscular, redheaded power drill named Jim Courier. A tough, all-around athlete with a big serve, blinding ground strokes and a taste for baseball, Courier looked like the pro tour's next huge star. After winning conscutive French Opens in 1991 and '92 and a pair of Australians in 1992 and '93, Courier became the chalk to win a latter-day Grand Slam: If only he could get the hang of the legendary, slick grass at Wimbledon, where strawberries and cream are the refreshment of choice and serve-and-volley is the game strategy.
Meanwhile, Sampras, the tall, quiet, well-mannered Californian they called "Sweet Pete," toiled in his friend's shadow. A self-admitted bust in the junior ranks, he'd muddled along in mediocrity as a baseline-stroking pro until coach Tim Gullikson weaned him from his accurate but cumbersome two-handed backhand, got him to the net and helped sharpen what is now the most powerful weapon in tennis--a 115- to 120-mile-an-hour serve that not-so-sweet Pete can blast up the center line, hook wickedly into a corner or rip straight into the body of an opponent trying to split the difference.
When Sampras won the U.S. Open in 1990, tennis's tight little clan saw it as a fluke and quickly turned attention back to flashy Andre Agassi and brutal Boris Becker. The next year Courier was all the rage. But when Sampras, then 21, upset Courier last year at Wimbledon (the first all-American final there since Connors beat McEnroe in 1982), then destroyed upstart Cedric Pioline to win his second U.S. Open, he became the number-one-ranked player in the world, only the fourth American ever to top the heap.
In 1993 Sampras won eight tournaments in all, bettered Ivan Lendl's 1985 record of 80 match wins in a year with an 83-15 record and served an incredible 1,011 aces. With the wins at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow, he also put $3,648,075 in the bank that year.
Is that all? Well, no. Pete Sampras also found time to fall in love with law student Delaina Mulcahy, whose strengths many see as his secret weapon.
This year isn't going badly either. On January 30 Sampras won his third consecutive Grand Slam event (that hadn't been done since Roy Emerson managed it in 1964-1965), overpowering fellow Yank Todd Martin on the weird, rubberized green courts of Melbourne's Flinders Park Stadium. That day, Sampras blasted thirteen aces and hit some of his serves as hard as 126 miles an hour. He also volleyed beautifully and scorched a dozen brilliant passing shots.
The Australian Open win vaults Sampras straight into Grand Slam fever.
Even the gods of drama are cooperating. Sampras's most severe test is likely to come next, at the end of May on the slow red clay of Paris's Roland Garros Stadium. The tricky French Open surface rewards patience and it can neutralize both Sampras's powerful serve and his still-improving volleys. He got only as far as the quarterfinals in Paris last year and, despite being number one, is not ranked in the top five on that surface. Still, given Sampras's growing confidence and his improving game, Paris could mean another major showdown with Courier in the final. The big redhead already has won two titles on the slow clay. But not in 1993: The winner of the French last year was Spaniard Sergei Bruguera, who startled Courier with his patience and steadiness.
But tennis wags believe Bruguera, winner of four additional titles last year, has as much chance of repeating in Paris as your Uncle Elmer.
If Sampras, at 22, can solve the mystery of the clay (in Budge's day--and Laver's--the Grand Slam was contested on three grass venues and one clay) and threaten for the brass ring he will single-handedly give professional tennis a much-needed shot in the arm, and a boost of heart. A Graf Slam on the women's side would help, too, but a Grand Sampras would carry more weight.
Anyone who followed the game last season can tell you 1993 was the year that Mr. Hyde beat Dr. Jekyll in straight sets. In April, Seles was stabbed by a crazed German fan--neither Tonya Harding's bodyguard nor Lee Harvey Oswald apparently had anything to do with it--and vanished from the game until who knows when. Lovable antique Jimmy Connors probably staged his last comeback ever, John McEnroe and his tantrums finally stormed off the court, and a trio of kids who seemed oh-so-young just a couple of seasons ago--German Boris Becker, volley-master Stefan Edberg and the flashy, underachieving Andre Agassi--suddenly looked like they could see the other side of the hill. Unless they surprise, Goran Ivanisevic is still all big serve and Michael Chang is all speed--a literal flash in the pan.
The women's game is a mess. Aside from fifteen-title winner Graf--a number two player wearing the crown by default--women's tennis is more afflicted than ever with players limited by glaring weaknesses. Consider Vicario's slow-footedness, Gabriela Sabatini's fatigue factor and Mary-Jo Fernandez's pitty-pat serve, just for a start. Meanwhile, America's great teen hope, Jennifer Capriati, finally took a break from the pressure to finish high school. The tale of Mary Pierce's awful, abusive father bears no repeating here, and at the end of the season the women's tour's corporate sponsor--Kraft--suddenly dropped out, leaving the women without a backer for the first time in twenty years.
Steffi will have trouble carrying the game. She needs Monica's help.
Folly among the men? Agassi, a wild-eyed compendium of hype and product endorsements, somehow wound up over at Barbra Streisand's place last season, where she deemed the young man "sensitive." One thing's for sure: Andre's sensitive to the current rankings. After his poor play and some long absences from the game, the "Image Is Everything" camera salesman has slipped to number 24 on the global hit parade.
Still, everything will be sweet again if Sampras can win the French Open in May. Then Wimbledon in June. And the U.S. Open (played on hard courts) on Labor Day weekend. All that will do is establish him as the finest player of his generation (with a shot at all-time champ), repair the reputation of a game that sorely needs all the help it can get and provoke another tennis boom among American kids who don't know topspin from a double-fault.
That's a tall order for Sweet Pete--particularly the red clay challenge in Paris--but he's a kid with his eye on the ball. Yes, we say. Yes. Suddenly, it's Grand Sampras time, and neither Don Budge nor Rocket Rod will mind one bit.
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