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Sampras Trounces Chang in Men's Final

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 9, 1996; Page C1

NEW YORK, Sept. 8 — Pete Sampras took a long, rocky road to the final of the 1996 U.S. Open, fighting heartbreak and exhaustion, dehydration and nausea, and the tears that still tend to overwhelm him at times. Tonight, the end of that journey was short, simple and so very sweet.

Fighting for the title, the No. 1 ranking, and — most important — a personal sense of closure, Sampras defeated Michael Chang, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), in a match that was shorter than the preceding rain delay. Clearly relieved that he finally had won a Grand Slam title in this, his most trying of years, Sampras threw his racket into the stands after he won the final point on a 117-mph service winner. And then he ran to the player’s box in the corner of Stadium Court, where his girlfriend, Delaina Mulcahy, engulfed him in a celebratory hug.

"What can I say?" Sampras said, shrugging his shoulders, a smile finally visible on his face. "These past two weeks, I’ve played my share of great tennis and poor tennis. I fought through the [Alex] Corretja match [Thursday] and never thought I’d get here as a winner. This really saves my year."

Today’s victory gave Sampras, 25, his eighth Grand Slam title (four of those here), but only his first in a year that has been fraught with trauma, on and off the court. Devastated by the death of his coach, Tim Gullikson, and frustrated by his Grand Slam failures, the once stoic Sampras has been an emotional wreck for much of this tournament, and never more so than he was Thursday in his quarterfinal match against Corretja.

Sampras vomited on the court — and nearly collapsed from exhaustion — in that five-set match, which ended with him sobbing on Mulcahy’s shoulder. Sampras dedicated his victory that day to Gullikson, who died of brain cancer in May. And today, on what would have been Gullikson’s 45th birthday, he spoke about what Gullikson had meant to him.

"I was thinking about him all day today and all through the match and things he told me to do on the court," Sampras said. "I still felt his spirit, and even though he is not with us, he is still very much in in my heart and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for his help."

After all the drama that accompanied his arrival at this moment, Sampras captured his elusive championship with relatively little intrigue. The players had to wait for more than two hours for the start of their match, which was delayed by a downpour that started just a few moments after Steffi Graf defeated Monica Seles to defend her women’s title. When the maintenance crew finally emerged to dry the hardcourt surface, Sampras slipped out on the court with his new coach, Paul Annacone, and hit a few balls while dodging the towel-wielding staff. He looked calm, and confident, and once the match started, it was clear he was on top of his game.

"When I got off, it was a great start," Sampras said. "My serve was there, everything was just clicking. Those are the days you dream about, especially in a final."

His serve brilliant and Chang’s shaky, Sampras broke Chang’s first two service games, and was ahead 5-0 less than a half-hour into the match. After holding service at 5-1 to take the first set, Sampras broke Chang again to open the second, and never faced a hint of a challenge until the third.

"I knew I was the underdog once again," said Chang, who also lost in the final of the Australian Open this year. "I didn’t feel a whole lot of pressure. I had a bit of nerves, I think. I think anyone would."

Bidding for the No. 1 ranking and his first Grand Slam title since he won the French Open in 1989 at age 17, No. 3-ranked Chang finally got a set point in the 12th game of the third set, with Sampras serving at 5-6. Trailing 30-40, Sampras hit a forehand cross-court in the midst of a rally, and Chang muffed a perfect volley winner with a forehand into the net. He never reached set point again.

After finishing off the 12th game with a backhand winner down the line, Sampras never trailed in the tiebreaker, and had quadruple match point when Chang hit a forehand wide to give Sampras a 6-2 lead. Two points later, Sampras had his championship.

The match lasted less than two hours (1 hour 59 minutes to be precise), but the title was a long time coming. Sampras lost in the third round of the Australian Open, then lost in the semifinals of the French and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in the aftermath of Gullikson’s death. These past two weeks, then, he has been an admittedly desperate man.

"Maybe this was meant to be, I don’t know," Sampras said. "I’ve never been a big believer in fate or destiny. I just feel you’ve got to go out and win. That is it. This year has been very difficult at times, on and off the court, and this really leaves me with a very happy thought."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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