One day, one epic match: Sampras - Bruguera (2nd round 1996)

 - Simon Cambers

Relive the match between Pete Sampras and Sergi Bruguera at the 2nd round of Roland-Garros 1996.

Sampras against Bruguera at Roland-Garros 1996©FFT invites you to experience the 2020 tournament on the original dates by looking back at some of the most memorable matches from the past, round by round. Today, Tuesday 27 May, we go back to a match that saw Pete Sampras defy his clay-court doubters to upend the former king of Roland-Garros in a stunning second-round match.

The context

Bruguera had already won the Roland-Garros crown twice in the past three years, first in 1993 and then again 12 months later. Beaten in the semi-finals in 1995, he had dropped out of the world’s top 20 by the time he arrived in Paris in 1996 and was unseeded. Sampras, who had lost in the first round the previous year, was the world No 1 yet it was Bruguera who was many people’s favourite to win their encounter.

But Bruguera would have known that Sampras was no pushover on clay, having dropped a set to the American in the quarter-finals on his way to the title in 1993. And though clay was Sampras’ least effective surface, blunting his huge serve, he had also made the last eight in 1994, the year he won the Italian Open. One month before Roland-Garros, Sampras had also suffered the death of his long-time coach, Tim Gullkison.

Pete Sampras during Roland-Garros 1997©FFT

The Match

On a hot day that allowed him to be more aggressive than usual at Roland-Garros, Sampras scorched through the first two sets. Mixing his game up, he served and volleyed at times and stayed patient when he needed to be as he overpowered Bruguera, outgunning him from the baseline.

Bruguera was a wily old fox though and even if he was struggling to cope with the power, he knew what to do. Hitting with his customary heavy topspin, especially on the forehand, Bruguera tried to keep Sampras pinned back and when the American did approach, if the ball was not within a foot of the baseline, he was invariably passed by the accuracy of the Bruguera groundstrokes.

When the two-time champion won the tiebreak 7-2 to win the third, the momentum changed and the fourth set was one-sided as the pair slid into a decider. In the fifth, Sampras upped his game again and snatched it to complete a 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 2-6, 6-3 win, one of the best wins on clay in his career.

What they said

Writing in his autobiography, “A Champion’s mind”, Sampras said the memory of Gullikson was key and the support of the crowd, who knew what he was going through, had pushed him over the line. “I know Tim would have been proud of the way I attacked and kept the pressure on,” he wrote. “I kept my head up for the entire match and I really felt Tim – and the French crowd – pushing me through the rough parts of that battle.

Match stats

Sampras saved 18 of the 20 break points he faced in the match.

What happened next ?

Sampras was on a roll and after beating Todd Martin in five sets in the next round, he knocked off Scott Draper before producing perhaps an even better win than the one over Bruguera when he came from two sets down to beat his old friend and rival, former champion Jim Courier to reach the semi-finals for the first time. Unfortunately for Sampras, the effort of making it to the last four left him spent and he was well beaten by Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia.

Though he lost at Wimbledon soon afterwards, for the first time in four years, he won the US Open later in 1996 and stayed as world No 1.

Bruguera’s star was already on the wane but he still had his moments, notably back at Roland-Garros in 1997, when he reached the final only to lose out to Gustavo Kuerten in the first of the Brazilian’s three title-winning efforts.

Relive the entire match between Paire & Herbert (1st round 2019)

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