Of the two Wimbledon semifinals played in the year 1995, the second semifinal is remembered a little bit more than the first. In that one, two of tennis’ most charismatic figures with no love lost between them, Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, squared off. Agassi was thrashing Becker, up a set and two breaks, and seemed to be on his way to another Grand Slam final. However, Becker fought back and won the match in four tight sets, setting up what Agassi dubbed his ‘summer of revenge’, as he was hell-bent on exacting some revenge on the brash German. Revenge was eventually served in the semifinals of the US Open, as Agassi returned the favor in four tight sets, withstanding Becker’s game as well as Becker’s ‘tactics’ of blowing kisses to his then-girlfriend Brooke Shields. Then, Agassi was able to do what he hadn’t in London, look into the camera and say “I’m coming Pete!”
Speaking of Pete, this article is about a match of his, so we should probably start talking about that. Yes, rambling aside I’m going to take you through the other lesser remembered, but in my opinion higher quality, 1995 Wimbledon semifinal. This match was between two more subdued personalities than Andre and Boris, but in their own ways these two men were probably the two best grasscourt players in the world at the time, as they had squared off in the previous year’s Wimbledon final, with Sampras winning 7-6, 7-6, 6-0. They would also square off in the 1998 final, with Sampras winning a serve dominated contest in the fifth set. However, this match was easily the best of the three, as it was much closer than 1994 and of a far higher quality than 1998, but the result was no different as Sampras, despite being three inches shorter than his opponent, was once again the bigger man in the biggest moments, pulling out a hard fought 7-6(7), 4-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 win to reach another Wimbledon final, where he would give the aforementioned Boris a tennis lesson, free of charge, in the last three sets of the final to pull off his own three-peat at Wimbledon – picking up the slack from the other three-peat king of the 90s, who was busy swinging and missing in minor league baseball. In short, this semifinal match was arguably the best grass court match of the 1990s between the two most prominent figures of the decade on grass, and it really did summarize the dynamic of grass court play at the time. Without further ado, let’s get right into it!
The match began with a routine hold by Sampras, to the surprise of no one. Ivanisevic then raced out to a 40-15 lead in the next game, but Sampras then hit a brilliant angled block return right past the Croat as he charged the net. After a few Ivanisevic misses, Sampras had a break point, but it was snuffed out by some sturdy serve and volley play, and Ivanisevic held after a couple of big serves. The next game continued this entertaining passage of play as on the first point, Sampras was forced to sky for two overheads and then finished off the game with an absolutely jaw dropping lunging forehand drop volley.
Two fairly routine holds followed, but again they featured some brilliant shot making, highlighted by a stunning running forehand pass down the line by Ivanisevic off a quality Sampras backhand volley.
The entertainment continued in the next game, and with Sampras serving at 15-15, Ivanisevic once again connected on a brilliant running pass off a Sampras forehand volley. Pistol, at full stretch, laid out and dove for the ball, but it was not enough as the ball died just before the net. Sampras took the next point with a big serve, but then Ivanisevic hit a tough return at Sampras’ feet to generate a break point, which Sampras saved with a major helping hand from the powers above as once again Ivanisevic hit a low return, but Sampras’ reply hit the tape and died on the opposite side, mere millimeters in front of the net. Sampras made good on this stroke of luck with two big serves to go ahead 4-3. The next game mirrored the previous one, as Sampras generated a break point at 30-40 in part due to a brilliant forehand lob. However, Sampras was then a little late on a running forehand pass, and after a few thundering serves and a quality stretch volley off of an excellent Sampras running pass attempt, Ivanisevic levelled the first set at 4 games apiece.
A tiebreak looked imminent, as one would expect from these two, and indeed the two traded pairs of relatively simple holds to send the set into a tiebreak. The breaker provided a fitting conclusion to the set. Sampras secured the first minibreak at 1-1 as he won an entertaining cat and mouse exchange with a rocket backhand pass. However, he would then miss a tough backhand half volley, and Ivanisevic would secure himself a minibreak with a forehand passing shot. In classic Ivanisevic fashion, the Croat followed with a double fault and an ace. Down 3-4, Sampras then fired two aces to surge ahead 5-4, and after a low angled return that Ivanisevic could not handle, Sampras had two set points. The first was saved by a spectacular angled backhand drop volley from Ivanisevic.
What would then follow was a point that had the Centre Court crowd buzzing. Sampras approached the net off a serve and went into another full dive to dig out a stinging Ivanisevic pass. This time, the ball made it just over the net, but Ivanisevic, showing off his underrated quickness, barely avoided crashing into the net to get to the ball and lob Sampras. The American then showed off his explosive speed as he got to his feet, despite stumbling in the process, and then sprinted diagonally to hit another lob over Ivanisevic. However, his lob landed just long, and the tiebreak was level at 6-6, after a point as entertaining as any you will see.
The two then traded missed returns, but at 7-7 Sampras connected on a key forehand return winner, and after a strong serve and volley play on the next point, he had the first set 7-6, winning the tiebreak nine points to seven. Despite no breaks of serve, these two men and their shotmaking ability and athleticism produced a spectacular display of grasscourt tennis.
This pattern continued to start the second set. The men traded holds until 5-4. While there were no truly spectacular points here, this was still grass court tennis at its apex. There were big serves, crisp volleys, and athletic passing shot attempts. It was clean play with very few mistakes and very few long rallies, and while some may view this as boring, this reactionary tennis style featuring quick strike athleticism and lightness of foot in abundant display is a treat for those like me who still appreciate this now unfortunately archaic version of the sport. Anyways, nostalgic reminiscing aside, in this set Goran Ivanisevic showed why he was such a terror to play against on grass. Possessing perhaps the most untouchable first serve tennis had ever seen before a certain 6’11” countryman named Ivo Karlovic came along, Ivanisevic was simply unbreakable when he was serving as he was in this set. It didn’t matter how good a returner you were, Ivanisevic would simply fire missile after missile with that fearsome left-handed delivery, and the only recourse was to wait him out, as Andre Agassi had done three years earlier to win his maiden Grand Slam title. However, what separated Ivanisevic from the likes of Karlovic was his athleticism. He was capable of connecting on returns and passes on the run, and when he did a set could be over in a blink of an eye. This is exactly what happened here. At 4-5, with Sampras serving, Ivanisevic bludgeoned two returns past Sampras to help him get to set point, and although Sampras saved one with a big serve, Ivanisevic won the next one, finishing a back and forth exchange with a rocket right at Sampras’ feet that the Pistol could not handle. Ivanisevic had put forth a vintage display of classic grass court tennis with gargantuan serving and timely returning to win the second set 6-4, and it was game on.
Outgunning the Pistol himself:
For as much as I extol the virtues of Goran Ivanisevic, there is a reason it took him until his fourteenth attempt to win Wimbledon, despite his ready-made game for fast grass. One of course was Pete Sampras, but possibly an even bigger reason was his inconsistency and lack of a killer instinct to truly put his foot on the throat of the opponent. This tragic flaw was on full display in the third set. After an economical second set win, instead of putting pressure on his opponent, Ivanisevic handed Sampras a break in the very first game of the third set with a double fault and several silly mistakes at the net. Pete Sampras, on the other hand, was a man who defined the term “killer instinct”. Give him any kind of opening and he would make you pay. True to form, Sampras immediately consolidated the break with two aces and a pair of scintillating winners at net, the first an angled backhand drop volley, and the second a deft forehand half volley that grazed the sideline. Ivanisevic then responded with some big serves, and after an entertaining exchange on game point where Sampras sprinted forward to hit an angled return off a drop volley only for Ivanisevic to cut off his reply into the open court, Ivanisevic got on the board in the third set.
Ivanisevic would mount considerable resistance in the next game as a stinging return got him to break point, which Sampras saved. Another rocket of a return, this time off the backhand, brought Ivanisevic another break point, but he then barely sent a backhand pass wide. Ivanisevic generated yet another break point with another backhand return winner, but Sampras once again kept his cool and put away a forehand ground stroke winner at net. Ivanisevic threw his racket into the turf in disgust, surely realizing that in order to beat an opponent who consistently raised his game in the biggest moments and would not give him an inch, he had to be perfect. This disgust was well warranted, as an ace whistled past Ivanisevic and Sampras then aired for a slam dunk overhead to survive a tumultuous game and lead 3-1 in the third set. The two then traded holds, both punctuated by delicate volleys on game point. With Sampras serving at 4-2, Ivanisevic slapped a forehand return winner to get to deuce, but once again Sampras gave him no openings, and two first serves gave the American a 5-3 lead. The next game mirrored the first one of the set, as several loose errors by Ivanisevic got Sampras to set point, which he took full advantage of with an angled return and a backhand pass to seal the third set 6-3. It was a set that was of lower quality than the first two but perfectly encapsulated the dynamic between these warriors. Ivanisevic had all the weapons but inexplicably made mental mistakes, while Sampras continually came up with calculated, yet aggressive, plays in pressure spots that only he could pull off with consistency. This trait made Sampras a grass court genius without question, and he now led this match two sets to one. However, on grass against a loose cannon like Ivanisevic, it is difficult to truly feel safe.
Sampras and Ivanisevic traded holds to start the fourth, punctuated by an awe inspiring flying Sampras slam dunk to help close the third game.
Pistol Pete takes flight:
At a time when ‘Air Jordan’ had just returned from his hiatus and was shaking off rust, preparing to embark on his second three-peat, ‘Air Sampras’ showed that he still had plenty of tricks in the bag too. The set continued onward with brutally efficient serving. However, due to the clean serving and crisp net play interspersed with moments of brilliance such as an Ivanisevic backhand lob, the play was still very entertaining. At 3-3, Ivanisevic took it up a notch. He traded in his two-hander for a rare one-handed backhand to draw an error from Sampras at net. He then followed with two forehand rockets past Sampras at net to get to break point. Another strong backhand return had Sampras reaching for a volley, and the American sent it long, giving Ivanisevic an impressive break of serve. The next game continued this high quality and terse passage of play. Sampras opened with a laser-like backhand pass down the line, but Ivanisevic followed with a volley winner and an ace. The Croat then connected on a tremendous reaching backhand volley off an angled return. Sampras had a look on a running forehand pass, but it hit the tape. At 40-15, Ivanisevic dumped an easy volley in the net, but held his nerve and held to 5-3 with a huge first serve. Sampras held in the next game with some lovely shot-making, including a tough overhead and an angled backhand drop volley off another Ivanisevic one handed backhand pass attempt. However, he was merely delaying the inevitable. Unreturnable serve, ace, unreturnable serve, monster second serve – game and fourth set Ivanisevic. In almost identical fashion to the second, Ivanisevic had captured the fourth set 6-4, and one set remained to determine this classic contest.
The fifth set opened with an entertaining game that Sampras won with some big serves and delicate volleys. The next game defined the match. A double fault gave Sampras footing in the game, and then he blasted a backhand passing shot past Ivanisevic. Two big serves followed, but then Ivanisevic drew Sampras in with a drop volley, and Sampras hit a lunging forehand volley winner at full stretch past Ivanisevic to give himself a break point. On break point, Ivanisevic had a makeable forehand volley but sent it wide, albeit not by much. Sampras had hit some excellent shots there, but once again a double fault and a missed forehand volley were silly mistakes from Ivanisevic at a crucial time. Perhaps he could have gotten away with them against lesser players, but Sampras gave you no margin of error, no room to breathe – because you knew that any mistake would be punished and taken advantage of to the fullest extent.
Ivanisevic hit a forehand return winner in the next game, but Sampras once again kept his cool in a big moment and held after a series of big serves and drop volleys. It was now 3-0, and the result seemed inevitable due to Sampras’ ability to cruise on serve when he had a lead. Again, not much separated these two on grass, but similar to the previous year’s final when Sampras won a few key points to pull out the first two sets in tiebreaks, Ivanisevic could not quite come up with the goods in the biggest moments, while Sampras kept his cool and raised his game like no other when he needed it most. Though some may accuse Ivanisevic of being a choker, no one could question his fighting spirit, and indeed even though he had, by some definition, “choked”, he kept battling by diving for volleys and raining down serves. However, Sampras had the finish line in sight and the lead in hand, a deadly combination, and he held without issue for 4-1. Despite a brilliant Sampras forehand lob in the next game, Ivanisevic held with a series of strong serves and a backhand volley winner. Ivanisevic was not going away, but Sampras was simply too cool and confident. An ace, two unreturnable serves and a volley winner later, and Sampras held for 5-2.
Ivanisevic stayed in the match with a hold to 15, capped off by his 36th ace. It would be his last, and Ivanisevic seemed to know that as a hint of resignation spread across his face. He knew better than anyone how cold-blooded Sampras was when the finish line was in sight, and the bagel he suffered in last year’s final after two tightly contested sets was a painful reminder. Although Ivanisevic won the first point of the next game with a strong return, a service winner and two aces promptly followed, and Sampras had finally arrived at victory’s doorstep. However, this match had a little more magic left as on the first match point, Ivanisevic’s return clipped the net and floated over.
Not the most heroic way to save a match point and Sampras, wasting no time, stepped to the line on the second match point and thundered a first serve right to the Ivanisevic forehand as if to say “try that again”. He tried and he failed, and Sampras had won his 20th consecutive match at the All-England Club. Two days later, he would win his 21st and give us this indelible image.
The last man to beat him? Goran Ivanisevic, but 1992 seemed like an eon ago, given what had happened when these two met in 1994 and on this day. Ivanisevic had hung in the match tenaciously today, unlike in 1994, but once again on the big points there was no questioning who was the boss. It went to five sets, but Ivanisevic never really had a chance, as he was always behind, and the break in the first game of the fifth sealed the deal. The extremely sloppy game by Ivanisevic to begin the third set was also a difference maker. This match, in quintessential grass court fashion, really did come down to two games and a couple of points in the first set tiebreak. It was a match that was of very high quality and featured well-rounded play and shotmaking behind extremely strong serving (64% with 36 aces for Goran, 66% with 20 aces for Pistol, very rare to see a match with that many aces that had percentages that high in that era), something which was not the case in their much-maligned, thoroughly serve- dominated 1998 match. However a melodramatic finish, largely attributable to how good Sampras was in pressure situations, and the lack of truly epic rallies after the first set delineates this match to the honorable mention section of the annals of great grass court matches, behind the classics that we’ll be covering throughout this week.
Much of this match was a clinic in how to play grass court tennis, but what separated the two was that Sampras knew not only how to play on grass, but also how to win on the surface. Grass court tennis before the advent of polyester strings and slowed courts was really all about winning a few key points, and the ability to consistently bring your best to these select points in big matches. No one was better at recognizing these moments and elevating his game to seize them than Pete Sampras. However, this was an area in which Ivanisevic definitely fell short, which provides part of the explanation as to why Sampras finished with six more Wimbledons. Indeed, this contrast was on full display in this match and their final three years later. Both matches truly could have gone either way, but Ivanisevic fell short in the big moments with mental mistakes while Sampras held his nerve. Switch the outcomes of those matches, or the mentality of these two competitors, and it is fully possible that Ivanisevic sits today with three Wimbledon titles and Sampras with five.
Tennis truly is a sport played on the margins, and nothing embodies that more than grass court tennis in the 1990s – and perhaps nothing embodied grass court tennis during that decade more than this match between the two most consistent grass performers of the time. Indeed, Sampras won just one more point than Ivanisevic, 146 to 145, but at the end it felt like a comfortable victory in the fifth for Sampras, a direct reflection of how these two men played on the biggest points. Sampras would survive this topsy-turvy encounter and would go on to win his third consecutive Wimbledon. For Ivanisevic, it would be six long years before he would finally realize the ability that Sampras had perfected, and parlay that into surviving several tight matches to finally taste Wimbledon glory as a wild card in what was surely one of the most memorable and emotional runs of all time. Tennis has a way, doesn’t it?