The excitement generated by the 19-year-old Russian's performance on the Centre Court was offset by concern for the welfare of the popular Henri Leconte, who was taken to hospital after collapsing from heat exhaustion on No 1 Court.
Kafelnikov served notice of his potential 11 days ago by defeated a compatriot, Alexander Volkov, to win the South Australian Open in Adelaide. The success improved his ranking to 59 from 102, but nobody imagined that he would be capable of giving the Wimbledon and United States Open champion such a difficult time.
Sampras admitted that he was fortunate to survive, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3,
1-6, 9-7. He had teetered, as did Jim Courier, the champion, in the first round, without following Michael Stich, the No 2 seed, over the edge.
'It was a big scare for me,' Sampras said. 'I was just pretty lucky to get the right points at the right time. I think he's the best Russian player I've played. In my prediction, he's going to be in the top 20, if not better, in a couple of years. The guy is good and he's young. He has some of the best groundies I've ever played against.'
The American sampled plenty of those as Kafelnikov worked him round the court and passed him with two-handed backhands and spectacular forehand drives. Moreover, scant respect was paid to Sampras's first serves, the Russian boldly standing on the baseline when facing delivery.
After the fourth set, which ended with Sampras's serve being broken to love, anything seemed possible. The American's concentration had lapsed so badly that he decided to try to cut his losses. 'My energy was very low at that point, and once it was 5-1 I was basically looking to the fifth set. That obviously is not the way I wanted to go, but that was what I had to do.'
The crisis seemed to have passed when Sampras held a break point for 4-1 in the final set, but his determined opponent saved it, curtailing a rally with a winning smash. Sampras, serving for 5-3, was then broken, Kafelnikov wrong-footing him with a forehand winner.
Sampras, serving at 4-5, 30-30, passed Kafelnikov with a backhand and then shut the door with a volley. That was the closest the Russian came to winning, and cramp in the left leg did not help as he played the subsequent points. Even so, he managed to break Sampras to love when the American served for the match at 7-6, and then attempted to dig up the court with his racket after losing his own serve in the next game.
Obdurate to the last, Kafelnikov saved two match points before hitting a backhand over the baseline. 'I was two points from the greatest victory of my life,' he mused.
Around this time, Leconte was being discharged from hospital. The tournament had ended for the Frenchman when he was trailing Martin Damm, of the Czech Republic, by two sets to one and 4-2. It was then that Leconte rubbed his eyes, double-faulted to lose the opening point of the next game, and keeled over, lying on his back on the court. His pulse rate and blood pressure were checked and he was then placed on a stretcher.
Though the temperature did not rise above a moderate 27 C, Leconte was urged to wear a cap by Georges Goven, the French Davis Cup captain. He finally took notice during the second set; too late, it seems.
Leconte has experienced similar problems in the past, during a match against Todd Witsken at Flinders Park and while playing Jimmy Connors in Memphis. 'Since I had mononucleosis (glandular fever) in 1986, I know that I am a little bit fragile in the sun,' Leconte said. 'I know that it is risky to play bare-headed, but it is difficult to change habits.'
An image remains of the stricken entertainer raising a shaky left arm to bid adieu to the sympathatic spectators as he was wheeled off the court; ever the charmer.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content