1995 was the year of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Between the two of them, they won every single big hard court and grass title from the Australian Open to the US Open. For Agassi, the year essentially ended after Sampras beat him in the finals at Flushing Meadows in a match that would decide the world number 1 ranking. After that crushing loss, Agassi struggled with injuries for the rest of the year and lost his motivation, which sent him into a multi-year tailspin. Sampras, however would deliver one of the finest moments of his already golden career to cap off the year. The 1995 Davis Cup final between the USA and Russia took place in December of 1995 on indoor clay at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium. With Agassi on the sidelines and Russia boasting two hardened clay court aficionados in Andrei Chesnokov and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, few gave the United States a chance as Sampras was a first round loser in the French Open that year, while the other US singles player, Jim Courier, was in decline and failed to reach the semis in Paris for the first time since 1990. However, Sampras would quiet his doubters on clay by putting the US team on his back and carrying them past the Russians to Davis Cup glory.
The first rubber of this tie pitted Sampras against Chesnokov. Andrei Chesnokov epitomized the classic 1990’s clay court specialist. He was solid off both wings, hit with high net clearance, and exhibited catlike quickness around the baseline. In many ways, he was a poor man’s version of two time Roland Garros champion Sergi Bruguera. Chesnokov was coming off a truly inspiring win in the decisive 5th rubber of the Davis Cup semifinals against former Wimbledon champion and future 1996 Roland Garros finalist Michael Stich. Chesnokov saved nine match points in a thrilling match before winning 14-12 in the fifth set to vault Russia into the finals. Sampras, of course, was the best tennis player on the planet, but on this surface, the whole equation changed for the man they called Pistol Pete. Few gave Sampras a chance in this match as Chesnokov was an experienced clay court player who had reached #7 in the world off the back of his clay court prowess while Sampras had compiled a woeful 7-5 record on dirt in 1995. However, when his country needed him the most, Sampras delivered a memorable 3-6 6-4 6-3 6-7(5) 6-4 victory that stands as one of his most courageous performances and one of the best clay court matches of the decade. So without further ado, let’s get right into it!
You can watch the full match above in two parts, and I will take you through it with a detailed recap.
Sampras opened the match with 2 forehand winners and a service winner, a sign of things to come in that the American would continue to impose his attacking game instead of falling into the trap of trying to rally with a traditional clay courter. After a routine hold by Chesnokov in the second game, the first classic point of the match occurred at the start of the third game. The two men rallied for over 30 strokes before Sampras brought the Russian to the net with a drop shot. Chesnokov hit a forehand winner, much to the delight of the Moscow crowd. After a return winner and an error by Sampras, Chesnokov had himself three break points. The first was saved with an inside out forehand winner from the American, but a double fault at 30-40 gave Chesnokov the break lead: 2-1. Routine holds followed in the next two games, which featured strong baseline play from the Russian and attacking serve and volley play from the American, and Chesnokov retained his break lead, 3-2. Some aggressive baseline plays from Sampras would earn him two break points in the next game, and another series of aggressive groundstrokes finished by an overhead gave him the break back. However, Chesnokov foiled two Sampras serve volley attempts, and two consecutive forehand misses from Sampras gave the Russian the break to love, 4-3. Despite a gorgeous forehand down the line winner from Sampras in the next game, Chesnokov held for 5-3. In the next game, the Russian manufactured a set point at 30-40, but Sampras was game, saving it by moving forward and sticking a backhand volley. However, two consecutive forehand errors followed, and Chesnokov captured the first set 6-3.
The first game of the second set was a very entertaining one, filled with several high quality baseline rallies finished off by winners. Sampras clawed his way to two break points, and he converted on the second one after Chesnokov sent a backhand wide. Sampras was off to the races, and some strong serving and volleying helped him consolidate for 2-0. Chesnokov followed with a routine hold. To this point, the soft serving Russian had somehow out-aced Pistol Pete 3-1, as Sampras had not been serving his best. Right on cue, Sampras followed with an ace to open the 4th game of the set. Chesnokov fought back in that game to deuce, but two unreturnable first serves would give Sampras a 3-1 lead. Sampras continued to force the issue in the next game and generated a break point, but Chesnokov did well to hold for 3-2. The next two games featured clean play from both players as they both held. One point stood out as Sampras connected on his famous running forehand, but Chesnokov made a terrific get and passed Sampras on his resulting net approach. Nevertheless, the second set was proceeding as Sampras had hoped and after a few more routine holds of serve, Sampras had the set 6-4. It was a workmanlike set from Sampras, the kind you saw him play often on grass and hard, but rarely on clay. His serve had picked up and he was doing an admirable job of standing on the baseline and being consistently aggressive.
The third set opened with consecutive breaks of serve before Chesnokov restored order with a routine hold to lead 2-1. On the changeover, Sampras sipped a coke; yes, the number 1 player in the world was fueling his body with 35 grams of sugar and caffeine. Ah, how the times have changed, unless of course your name is Marcus Willis! However, the Pistol’s choice of changeover beverage did not negatively affect him in the next game, and three gutsy winners helped him hold to 2-2. The first point of the next game highlighted the genius of Pete Sampras. Chesnokov made a rare net approach on a high quality approach shot down the line, but Sampras improvised brilliantly with a flicked backhand crosscourt. Chesnokov dug that out, and then hit a great drop volley on Sampras’ attempt at a forehand pass crosscourt. However, Sampras tracked it down and flicked another backhand within inches of the sideline, well beyond the reach of Chesnokov. While Roger Federer made that flick backhand seem routine, Sampras was a master of it as well, and it’s no secret that Federer modeled his game off Sampras’ in his formative years and picked up a few tricks along the way.
Where Federer got his moves:
After this brilliant point, Sampras continued to show his class with a big forehand groundstroke and a scorching forehand return winner to generate 3 break points. An absolutely jaw dropping forehand half volley gave the American the break, and he was back in business, up 3-2. If you needed further evidence of the shotmaking abilities of Pete Sampras, look no further than that game.
Nobody does it better:
Some missed forehands by Sampras and tenacious play by Chesnokov generated a break point in the next game, but Sampras responded with a forehand winner and two big serves to get out of jail. He led 4-2. The two then traded holds, and at 3-5 a riveting game featuring some high quality hitting saw Sampras impose his will on the Russian and break him for the set, 6-3. While the second set was more cut and dry from Sampras, the third saw the American bring out his full repertoire of all court prowess, a repertoire Chesnokov simply could not compete with no matter the surface. Sampras was in control now, two sets to one, but as you may have guessed, there were more twists to come in this classic match.
The fourth set started with 3 clean holds of serve. The fourth game began with Sampras asserting himself with his forehand, getting to 0-30 on the Chesnokov serve. After a controversial line call which went Chesnokov’s way, Sampras followed with a brilliant crosscourt forehand to give himself two break points. Sampras continued to pressure the Russian with his all court play, approaching the net on a big forehand and then carving a backhand drop volley. Chesnokov did extremely well to run it down, but Sampras hit an easy backhand past him and the break was his. Sampras emphatically pumped his fist; he now led 3-1 and was firmly in the driver’s seat of this match. The next two games were fairly plain, aside from one dazzling running forehand from Sampras. The men traded holds and Sampras inched closer to the finish line, serving at 4-2. All seemed to be going smoothly for the American as he jumped out to a 40-15 lead. However, a double fault and an unfriendly net cord brought the feisty Russian back to deuce. A forehand error gave Chesnokov the break point, and he made good on it with a deep return that caught Sampras off balance and forced the error. The fourth set was back on serve, and Chesnokov held to level the set at 4 apiece. These were crucial times in this clash and both men responded accordingly, trading pairs of no-nonsense holds to get to 6-6 and send the fourth set into a tiebreaker. Chesnokov got off to a quick start in the breaker as two aces and three Sampras forehand errors saw the Russian jump out to a commanding 5-1 lead. Sampras would fight back, and an ace, a forehand volley winner, and a backhand volley winner allowed him to level at 5-5, much to the delight of the small contingent of American supporters in the stands. However, a missed forehand gave Chesnokov a set point at 6-5, and a double fault from Sampras gave the home crowd something to cheer about. Chesnokov takes the set 7-5 in the tiebreak and this match heads to its only fitting conclusion: a fifth set.
The first game of the fifth set, with Chesnokov serving, saw both men raise their game. Sampras hit a series of deft volleys, and Chesnokov replied in turn with a volley of his own as well as a forehand and backhand winner to get to 40-30. The Russian then netted a backhand, but Sampras followed by netting a forehand after a long rally and then netting a backhand to give Chesnokov a crucial hold to start the fifth set. Both men then traded holds, and another strong service game from Sampras leveled the fifth set at 2-2. The next game saw Sampras push hard for a break, as a sequence of aggressive all court plays got him a break point at 30-40. However, after another well-constructed point, Sampras got too cute with a forehand volley and dumped it into the net. Sampras then managed another break point, but Chesnekov once again replied to Sampras’ pressure by saving the break point with an impressive angled backhand pass from well behind the baseline. An ace eventually gave Chesnokov a very gutsy hold of serve and he led the fifth 3-2. The next game was another tense one, as Chesnokov got to deuce on the Sampras serve. A deft backhand half volley gave Sampras a game point, but Chesnokov would reply with a backhand pass to get back to deuce. A double fault gave the Russian a break point, but he couldn’t quite handle a Sampras inside out forehand and sent it wide. Sampras would hold on with a big forehand and some big serves, and the 5th set was knotted at 3 all. Chesnokov replied coolly with a hold to 30. Sampras appeared to be a little fatigued in the previous game. Had the seasoned clay courter Chesnokov finally worn his foe down? The answer was a resounding no. Despite hunching over with his patented hangdog look before stepping to the line to serve at 3-4, Sampras immediately fired an ace. A few big forehands and serves later, Sampras leveled at 4-4. Once more he hunched over, but he still had plenty left as we would see almost instantly. The first point of the 4-4 game saw Sampras hit a reaching forehand winner off a Chesnokov smash. Pistol Pete smelled blood in the water, and he responded with a forehand return winner and a running forehand winner down the line. Triple break point.
The famous running forehand:
A netted forehand from Chesnokov gave Sampras the decisive break, and Pistol Pete would serve for the match after a truly brilliant return game late in the fifth set. Sampras’ forehand continued to burn brightly, as he ripped another down the line winner to open the 5-4 game. Another series of crushing forehands got Sampras to 30-0. A netted forehand return gave Sampras two match points. Sampras sent a backhand volley wide on the first one, but on the second one he finished off a highly entertaining point featuring multiple smashes to seal the deal. The timing couldn’t have been better. Immediately after winning, Sampras collapsed to the clay with severe cramps. Unable to move his legs, Sampras was rushed off the court to get medical treatment. Talk about a guy leaving it all out on court:
This match may have lacked some of the epic gladiatorial feel of some other clay court matches, perhaps due to its indoor setting, but it was high quality and the stark contrast between the styles of Chesnokov and Sampras made for some highly entertaining rallies and clean tennis. Sampras showed his brilliant shotmaking talents in the third set and in the tail end of the fifth, but he also showed his fight and tenacity in winning the second set. Chesnokov also gave it everything he had, and he fought extremely well in recovering from a two sets to one and 4-2 40-15 deficit in the fourth set. Unfortunately for him, Sampras’ forehand went into overdrive at 4-4 in the 5th set, and that was all she wrote. Sampras of course would take confidence from this epic win to win the doubles rubber with Todd Martin and then deliver a masterpiece against soon to be Roland Garros champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the decisive fourth rubber to basically single handedly win the Davis Cup for the United States. Who said Pistol Pete couldn’t play on clay?