Sampras’ Detour to the Austrian Alps
It ensured the American a first title on clay
To say clay was Pete Sampras’ least favorite of surfaces would be stating the obvious. It comes across as no surprise that the French Open remained the only Grand Slam that the American never won, rather never came close to winning, in his otherwise illustrious career.
Sampras did make mandatory participation in tournaments on European clay in the lead-up to Roland Garros but that was more out of necessity than by choice. However, to expect him to play on the slow red surface after Wimbledon, and in the lead-up to the US Open, is stretching it a bit too far.
During the prime years of his career, the American with Greek ancestry followed a pretty straightforward trajectory. He would mostly focus on doing well (read mostly win) at the All England Club, take a few weeks break before going full throttle in the hard court swing, playing in three to four tournaments culminating at the year’s final Grand Slam, in New York.
That being said, there in his career, he made a sole aberration to this plan of action. It happened in 1992. Sampras actually played on clay after Wimbledon, and in the lead-up to the US Open.
Why would he do so? You may think.
It was Olympic year and winning an Olympic medal is not something that a player gets a chance often. It happens once every four years. As such for a top player there’s a lot more uncertainty as regards winning an Olympic medal vis-à-vis making multiple attempts every year to win Grand Slam titles.
It was a strategic move by Sampras. Keeping in mind the Summer Olympics at Barcelona, and the fact that the competition was to be played on clay — a refurbished Tennis de la Vall d’Hebron being the venue, the American deviated from the norm by not only playing in more tournaments on the surface in the lead up to the French Open but also featuring in one immediately after Wimbledon.
He played a longer than usual season on clay, and arguably had one of his best seasons on the surface. While an opening-round exit at Monaco and two defeats at the World Team Cup in Düsseldorf weren’t surprising results he did better elsewhere, making it to the semifinals in Nice (France) and the last eight at the Rome Masters.
Sampras also made it to the final at the Verizon Tennis Challenge, played on a Har-Tru green clay surface in the Atlanta Athletic Club, where he lost to compatriot Andre Agassi — who would also beat him at the last eight stages of the French Open a few weeks later.
It is imperative here to mention that en route to what was his maiden quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros Sampras beat Marc Rosset, the eventual gold medalist at the Barcelona Olympics, in five sets in the opening round.
The Austrian Open in Kitzbühel is one of the many tournaments held on clay every year. It is the kind where either clay court specialists enter to add another title to their respective resume or where journeymen attempt to win their first trophy.
There is nothing special to talk about as regards these tournaments unless one finds an unusual name on its roll of honor. After his challenge at the 1992 Wimbledon was cut short at the semi-final stage (by Goran Ivanisevic) Sampras made a detour to the Austrian Alps, opting to participate in the tournament in Kitzbühel, then called the Philips Head Cup for sponsorship reasons, as a build-up to the quadrennial extravaganza in Barcelona.
Compatriot Jim Courier, the reigning French Open champion, also headed to Austria, and was the tournament’s top seed. However, his campaign was cut short by Diego Pérez, an Uruguayan qualifier, in the second round.
Sampras didn’t have a great start either. After receiving an opening round bye the American just about survived his opening match, saving a match point against unheralded Spaniard Germán López Montoya, winning 7–6 in the third set, 8–6 being the tie-break score.
However, things were pretty straightforward from then on. Tomas Carbonell and Gabriel Markus were dismissed in the next two rounds. Marcelo Filippini of Uruguay managed to win the opening set in their semi-final but it was comfortable for Sampras from then on, the American winning the decider without dropping a game.
In the other semifinal, Alberto Mancini accounted for clay court exponent and local favorite Thomas Muster. The Argentine had in his resume big-ticket tournament wins on clay at Monaco and Rome (both in 1989). Besides, he had made it to the title clash at the lucrative Miami Open in the same year.
But Sampras steamrolled over him, winning in three straight sets. That Mancini’s career was already going downhill is obvious from the fact that he never made it to another ATP final.
In the final analysis, playing in Kitzbühel turned out to be a smart decision for Sampras. He ended up winning his first career title on clay — he had won titles on all the other surfaces by the time.
The American would only win three titles (of his 64 overall) on this surface in his entire career — the others coming at the Italian Open/Rome Masters (in 1994) and Atlanta (in 1998), and make two more finals in over a decade.
He would carry forward the momentum and win two rounds in Barcelona. In fact, Sampras led by two sets in his third match, against an opponent he had comfortably beaten in the opening round in Wimbledon a few weeks earlier. However, on this occasion, Andrei Cherkasov would come back to win in five.
As it turned out Barcelona 1992 remained Sampras’s only competitive appearance at the Olympics. As such, the inability to win at Roland Garros isn’t the only blemish in his otherwise impressive resume. There’s no Olympic medal either.
Coming back to the Austrian Alps the tournament in Kitzbühel is one of the oldest tournaments still being played. Its roll of honor has a few big names and some Grand Slam winners but none of them are as big as Sampras.
In fact only three Americans have won at the Austrian resort in the Open Era. It was 13 years after Vitas Gerulaitis’ triumph in 1979 that Sampras won the title. It’s been 30 years since the latter won. No American has managed to make the title round in the last three decades, let alone win.
Even as the latest edition of the Kitzbühel tournament gets underway this week it comes across as no shock that there’s not a single American player featuring in the men’s singles competition.
It is no surprise either that despite a plethora of positive results in his professional career the American did not forget his success in the Austrian Alps. In his autobiography, A Champion’s Mind Sampras describes the result as “probably my second-best win on clay”. No points for guessing the first.