Sampras chokes but survives in Kuerten thriller

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The Independent Online

Now we know: even the best are prone to "choking", losing their nerve on the point of victory. It even happens to Pete Sampras, six times Wimbledon champion and the winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles.

The sudden sense of fallibility that would grip Jana Novotna, famously when she lost a winning position against Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final, and which afflicted Tim Henman when the British No 1 double-faulted on one of four match points he held against Andre Agassi in the quarter-finals of the Ericsson Open here last week, befell Sampras on Sunday evening.

Sampras needed seven match points to defeat the Brazilian Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten, 10-8, in the fourth-set tie-break of a thrilling final, double-faulting on the fifth opportunity and hitting a backhand return long on the sixth. The contest was decided, 6-1, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, after three hours and 18 minutes, Kuerten's forehand drive down the line clipping the net cord and landing over the baseline.

"I was 'choking' there," Sampras admitted. "Did you see that second serve I hit on the match point [at 7-6]? Nerves were definitely getting the better of me. I was tentative on some of those match points and I got a little lucky at the end."

Sampras's confession was fascinating. Had he "choked" in previous matches? "Yeah," he said. "I can't think of one right now," he added, smiling. "I was tight [today], there's no question. I had 6-2 in the breaker. I felt like my chances were there. If we had gone into a fifth set, I don't know how I would have recovered."

"Tightness and nerves happens to everybody. For myself, or anyone that has played sports, to say they didn't 'choke', they are lying to you. But I got through it, and that is obviously the main goal."

Sampras seemed less troubled by his inability to convert six match points than by allowing the contest to develop into "a dogfight" after leading by a set and 5-3. Kuerten erased a set point at 30-40 in the ninth game with an unreturnable serve, and broke Sampras for 5-5, finally giving the Brazilian supporters in the upper tiers of the 14,000-seat Stadium Court reason to wave their flags and chant with conviction and the Americans to rally to Sampras's cause.

Not that there had been any shortage of advice in Portuguese for Kuerten. The No 6 seed had brushed aside the injured Agassi in the semi-finals, having been urged to "Clean the head of the bald guy, Guga!", but was finding it difficult to "Finish the old man", namely Sampras, 28.

"A big part of the match was at 6-1, 5-4, serving with new balls," Sampras said. "I was debating going to a new racket, a little tighter, and I stuck with my old frame and a couple of shots flew on him. I got broken. It changed the whole shape of the match. If I had held on and put the clamps on there in that second set, I think it would have been a bit smoother. "

In view of the excitement that followed, we were grateful that Sampras did not change his racket at that point, even though he finished with match statistics showing nine double-faults among 50 unforced errors, balanced by 20 aces among 59 winners.

The frustrated Kuerten smashed his weapon and tossed it on the top of the net after the fateful net cord. "I was prepared for the fifth set," he said. "I think I'd have maybe a chance, because I would be more motivated than him."

That is something we shall never know.

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