One day, one epic match: Sampras - Courier (quarter-final 1996)

 - Simon Cambers

Relive this great quarter-final between Pete Sampras and Jim Courier at Roland-Garros 1996

Sampras against Courier 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 2 June, we look back to 1996 and a quarter-final battle between world No 1 Pete Sampras and former world No 1 Jim Courier, a match that saw Sampras come from two sets down on his weakest surface to deny his old friend and reach the semi-finals for the first time.

The context

Sampras had reached the quarter-finals in Paris three years in a row before losing in the first round in 1995. Clay had always been the toughest surface for his all-out attacking game and as Roland-Garros began, Sampras was also dealing with the death, earlier that month, of his long-time coach and friend, Tim Gullikson. But somehow, with warm conditions helping, he had already played two outstanding matches, beating two-time former champion Sergi Bruguera in round two and then Todd Martin in round three, both times in five sets.

Courier had won the title at Roland Garros in 1991 and 1992 and reached the final in 1993. Even if his consistency and ranking was starting to slide, his punishing baseline game, stamina and mental strength meant he was still a big threat, particularly on clay.

Courier & Sampras during the quarter-final at Roland-Garros 1996©FFT

The match

For the first two sets it seemed as if clay-court expertise would see Courier through as the former champion took a commanding two sets to love advantage. Serving well, getting the ball up high to the Sampras backhand and moving him around the baseline was paying dividends.

On his way to the quarter-finals, Sampras had served and volleyed, for the most part, and it had been successful. Against Courier, perhaps out of respect for his returns, he largely stayed back in the early stages. Courier’s footwork was good enough to get around his backhand and thump forehands into the Sampras backhand corner and the world No 1 looked on his way out before he snatched the third set to give him hope.

In the fourth set, Courier continued to press and at 4-3, he held two break points which would have given him the chance to serve out the match. But as he did so many times throughout his career, Sampras threw caution to the wind. The first break point was saved with a thunderous ace down the T and then, after breaking a string on his first serve at 30-40, he wandered over to his chair, picked up one of replacement racquets and promptly fired a second-serve ace, which skidded off the line and under Courier. A brilliant, angled backhand volley and a forehand in the net from Courier and it was 4-4.

From thinking he was about to serve for victory, Courier suddenly found himself under pressure and Sampras stepped up the attack. A double-fault gave Sampras two break points and though Courier saved the first with an ace, on the second, Sampras ran around his backhand to thump a forehand return down the line for a winner and the break was his. He then held to force a decider.

The momentum was with Sampras and the crowd, who loved to see attacking tennis and who recognised his effort, were now behind him, too. A wayward backhand from Courier gave him the break he needed for 2-1.

When Sampras served for the match, it seemed the efforts of the day and the past week in general were catching up as he doubled over, seemingly struggling to finish. But yet again, his serve helped him out as he hit his 28th ace of the match to clinch a memorable 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory after three hours, 31 minutes, leaving Courier, as the LA Times reported, to mumble: “The guy’s in his grave and he’s serving 190 mile-an-hour bullets.”

What they said

At that point, it was just adrenaline, there wasn’t a whole lot of thinking going on,” said Sampras, describing his second-serve ace after breaking his string when down break point in the fourth set.

Some people put up a front that they are tough,Courier said. “Pete tends to put up a front that he’s hurting, but he still seems to fire those aces. I don’t pay much attention to him when he’s looking tired, it really doesn’t matter because he’s got a great heart. He’s got a strong heart and he’s going to leave it on the court.

Match stats

The pair combined for 55 aces (Sampras 28/27 Courier).

What happened next ?

Though Sampras had two days off before his semi-final, his tank was empty and he was well-beaten by the Russian, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who went on to win the title. A few weeks later, he lost at Wimbledon for the first time since 1992, beaten in the quarter-finals by the big-serving Richard Krajicek. But he regained his form over the summer to win the US Open and finished the year No 1. He ended up with 14 Grand Slam titles, which stood as a record until Roger Federer passed him in 2012.

Courier’s best days were behind him and he slipped out of the top 10 later in 1996. He never reached the quarter-finals of another Grand Slam, eventually retiring in 2000 with four Grand Slams to his name.

Relive the match between Grosjean & Agassi (quarter-final 2001)

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