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Old Sep 8th, 2012, 02:53 PM   #2357
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Re: Steffi Graf Admiration Thread Vol 2

Sampras and Graf Follow Grueling Paths to Greatness
By ROBIN FINN
September 10, 1996
New York Times

It was just four months ago that Pete Sampras could not bear to set foot on a tennis court: tennis reminded him of the death of his coach.

It was just four weeks ago that Steffi Graf could not keep her mind's eye on the ball long enough to keep her shots on the tennis court: tennis can seem like a pointless game when your father is in prison, accused of mishandling your prize money.

But on the stormy final Sunday of the United States Open, both Sampras and Graf played tennis of such convincing caliber that they not only won the Open and solidified their spots as the undisputed top players in the world, but they also left themselves open to charges of being the two greatest champions of their, or any, era.

Both are now a mere handful of Grand Slams away from becoming the most prolific champions in the history of their sport: Graf needs four Grand Slam victories to pass Margaret Court's record of 24, and Sampras needs five to nudge Roy Emerson's 12 Grand Slams from the top of the record book. Each is fully capable of achieving those numbers sooner rather than later.

"The reality of it is that I learned over the years that I hate to lose and I'll do whatever I can to win, and if it's ugly, it's ugly, just as long as I win the last point," said Sampras, who cried as he won a rough quarterfinal at the 1995 Australian Open and retched as he scrambled out of another five-set quarterfinal at this year's Open. "People don't remember who comes in second, and now that I've won a number of majors, the more I want to win them."

Not in 50 years had the Open had both its men's and women's champion elbow their way back into the finals to defend their titles. Never had two champions crossed such a minefield of complications to reach that round: Sampras had to forget that his late coach, Tim Gullikson, would have turned 45 on Sunday had he not died of brain cancer in May. Graf had to forget that her father, Peter, was in his 13th month of imprisonment and first week of trial on tax-evasion charges from which she has not yet been ruled not guilty.

Graf was jubilant, and impervious to a thunderstorm that raged around her, as she accepted her reward for defeating her archrival and co-No. 1, Monica Seles, 7-5, 6-4, on Sunday afternoon. By design, Graf forced Seles into a running game with a barrage of powerful serves and forehands; by design, Graf, the gazelle of the two, won the race. The result was a reprise of what happened here a year ago in their only other meeting since Seles returned to the Corel WTA Tour following a traumatic stabbing incident. Besides proving that Graf and not Seles is the best player in the world, it also left Graf a perfect 6 for 6 in her last half dozen Grand Slams.

"To have played the last six Grand Slams and won all six of them, it's an incredible achievement by itself; I ain't looking any further than that," said Graf, who geared herself up for Sunday's slugfest by telling herself she was a better player than Seles. "I said, 'I think I'm better than her; I think I can make it happen.' "

But two hours after the match, Graf's hands were still trembling.

"I hadn't been believing I could do it because I had so many things on my mind, and really, I was afraid to come here," said Graf, who had left all her assertiveness on the tennis court. "Between my worrying about my father and trying to keep in touch with the lawyers, and then hurting my leg the first day I tried to practice here, it all knocked me down, it really did."

Graf gave herself just one night to savor this victory before flying home to Germany to tackle the mountain of paperwork that holds the answers to her convoluted legal affairs.

"I need to know what's going on to have peace with myself," she said as she shakily picked at a plate of pasta. "I feel like it's my responsibility to be a part of this, and that's why it was so hard to put it aside and come here and play well this tournament."

Several hours after Graf earned the most gratifying Grand Slam of her career, Sampras followed suit and captured his with an uncompromising 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3) performance against second-seeded Michael Chang, who could have stolen Sampras's No. 1 ranking along with this title, which would have been Chang's first and only Grand Slam since he won the 1989 French Open at 17.

"The ranking was up for grabs, but I wanted the title," Sampras said. "It's not the money. It's not the commercials. It's the titles. That's what I'll be remembered for, and I think about that a lot."

Both victors said that this was the most difficult Grand Slam they had ever undertaken, and both said that they saved their best for last, that they somehow knew that that strategy wouldn't backfire. Champions always assume the last round is the one designed especially for them.

But that's not to imply that the 25-year-old Sampras, who now owns four Open titles, and the 27-year-old Graf, a five-time Open champion, took it for granted that Sunday would be their day. According to them, it has become precisely the opposite scenario: as they have gotten older, the acquisition of Grand Slam titles has become less of an exhilarating dream and more of an internal imperative.

Whether they prevailed out of sheer greatness, they left for others to say: neither Sampras, who protests that he is just coming into his prime, nor Graf, whose prime seems to be getting primer, is comfortable with that word, particularly when applied to them.

"When you're already a champion, a small part of it is habit," said Heinz Gunthardt, Graf's coach, of the finales. "The other part is wanting it and needing it."
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