Sunday, February 10, 2008

1996 ATP tour championships: Sampras def. Becker

Sampras def. Becker: 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4
Classic: Yes
Rating: 97

The Plot: The thrilling finale to the 1996 ATP Tour, contested between Sampras at the height of his powers, and his most formidable opponent not named Agassi.

The match: Becker opens the match by serving four straight aces, an indication of Becker's form. Sampras has chances to break in the 3rd game, but otherwise Becker is holding serve with great ease, and making Sampras work to hold his serve. Eventually Becker breaks Sampras and wins the set. Becker continues to dominate on serve in the 2nd set, but Sampras is gradually getting better, and it goes to a tie-break. Sampras wins it 7-5, and is clearly relieved to have leveled the match. Sampras continues to improve in the 3rd set, but it is again decided in a tie-break, where Becker gets (what he thinks is) a bad call on the baseline against him, and loses the tiebreak 4-7. The 4th set is highly dramatic, but no where more so than the inevitable tie-breaker, which is a nervy affair where neither man seems to be able to dominate with his serve. Sampras has 2 match points in the tie-break, but it is Becker who eventually takes is 13-11. The 5th set is tense from the start, but features superb tennis. It is Becker who cracks first at 4-4 when Sampras breaks with a backhand down the line and then serves out the match in the next game.

The bottom line: The level of play is outstanding throughout, and the match is as close as can be. The 4th set tie-break is a minor epic in itself. There is an abundance of good serve and volley points, but the players also stay back on many 2nd serves, so there is far more variety in this match than what people who remember 1990's tennis may think. This is an almost perfect tennis match, but I share the sentiment of match commentator Frew McMillan that neither player is able to come up with the occasional spectacular shot when they are in a defensive position. This is a very minor shortcoming that may be attributed to the lightening-fast indoor court. The match gets my highest recommendation.

Stat of the match: Becker had 31 aces in the match, and won 178 points to Sampras' 166.