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Sampras Serves U.S. a Davis Cup Title

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
December 4, 1995

MOSCOW, Dec. 3 -- They said Pete Sampras wasn't supposed to be a great clay court player. They said he would be the weak link for the United States in the 1995 Davis Cup finals against Russia.

Trouble is, they forgot to tell Pete Sampras.

Having won once in a dramatic singles match Friday and again as half of the U.S. doubles team Saturday, Sampras returned for a third straight match today with probably his best clay court performance ever. Powered by a virtually unreturnable serve, deft volleying and punishing forehands, he routed Russian ace Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), leading the Americans to a 3-2 victory and their 31st Davis Cup championship since the tournament began in 1900.

"I've never seen better clay court tennis," U.S. captain Tom Gullikson said. "The combination of power and patience and precision serving. . . . It was flawless tennis."

Sampras, 24, the world's No. 1 player, was untouchable through two sets, then staved off a spirited challenge by Kafelnikov in the third. The victory, in just more than two hours, gave the United States its third point in the best-of-five-point final, clinching the Cup and making Jim Courier's subsequent loss to Andrei Chesnokov moot.

The crowd of 14,000 in Olympic Stadium was chanting Kafelnikov's name, howling at every point won by the Russian and even at Sampras's missed first serves. Russia, which made it to the Davis Cup finals for the first time last year against Sweden, has never won the title and had never played the Americans before this weekend's event.

In a country that lately has developed something of a tennis craze—led by No. 1 fan Boris Yeltsin—a measure of the excitement was that the three-day finals were attended by the Russian prime minister, deputy prime minister, foreign minister, chief presidential aide and the mayor of Moscow, to say nothing of dozens of lesser celebrities from Moscow's new and moneyed elite. Yeltsin, still recovering from heart problems, couldn't make it but was said to be watching the live TV broadcast from his bed.

But Sampras managed to neutralize the crowd, and Kafelnikov, by serving 16 aces and allowing just seven points against his serve through two sets. Sampras was pleased enough to allow himself a little crowing. "The Russians were looking at [me] as being kind of the weak link on the slow red clay [but] I certainly played some good tennis when I had to. To play on my worst surface against very tough opponents and a very tough crowd . . . I think today's match was probably my best clay court match I've played."

Beyond the Davis Cup, Sampras and non-playing team captain Gullikson share a bond that made today's victory all the more poignant. Sampras's longtime coach and mentor, Tim Gullikson, the twin brother of the U.S. Davis Cup captain, was diagnosed this year with brain cancer. In the postmatch news conference, both men made reference to Tim Gullikson's struggle. "For me personally it's been a tough year with my twin brother Tim really in a much bigger competition, fighting, really, for his life," said Gullikson, choking up. "So—for us to win this thing means a lot."

As the Americans basked in their victory, Kafelnikov, 21, who is ranked sixth in the world, could only shake his head. Sampras "didn't leave many openings," he said.

It's not that Kafelnikov, who beat Courier Friday, had no strategy against Sampras. He had watched the American collapse with hamstring cramps and get dragged off the court Friday after beating Chesnokov. With Sampras's legs still tight, the Russian's game plan was to work Sampras's legs by drawing out the rallies and making him run.

But Sampras was too aggressive, rushing the net for 20 volley winners and leaving Kafelnikov flat-footed with supersonic forehand winners cross-court and inside-out.

Kafelnikov staged a rally in the third set, losing his serve twice but returning the favor with a pair of breaks to force a tiebreaker. But Sampras was too good, and he iced it with his second ace of the tiebreaker at match point.

"If I would have lost the third, I think I would have had the energy to keep on playing," Sampras said. "But how effective I would have been, I don't know."

Gullikson said the Russians, who had suggested last week that Courier was the stronger player on slower clay courts, had underestimated Sampras, who has struggled on clay from time to time. "I'm thinking, `Geez, here's this guy, he's number one in the world, he's won the Italian Open [on clay, in 1994], he's won his two matches in Davis Cup [quarterfinals, on clay] in Palermo for us this year, he's been in the quarterfinals of the French Open [on clay] a few times.' I mean, this guy can play."

He went on: "The great players have a sense of history. . . . "When the great players go down in the history books, not only will they be remembered by Grand Slam singles titles but how many times did they help their country win the Davis Cup. . . . It's a special thing, it's a team thing."

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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