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1999 Great American Insurance ATP Championships
August 9 - 15, 1999
by Vince Barr

To have a successful men’s professional tennis tournament, you need outstanding leadership, excellent facilities, a fantastic main draw featuring the world’s top-ranked players, and, of course, record-setting crowds the whole week. The 1999 Great American Insurance ATP Championships, played in Cincinnati from August 9 —15, 1999, had all the above as well as explosive rivalries and a trace of lingering controversy from the previous year’s championship match between Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter.

In that particular match, which Rafter won 1-6, 7-6(4), 7-5, chair umpire Lars Graff overruled a linesman’s call of out on Rafter’s serve at match point. A visibly irritated Sampras confronted the umpire, argued the call and pointedly refused to shake his hand. For Sampras, this rare display of emotion was completely out of character and rather shocking. Pete’s subsequent comments about the difference between himself and Rafter being "10 Grand Slams" started a yearlong feud between the players, which had only been settled the week before in Los Angeles. Consequently, everyone in Cincinnati was eager for a rematch and ultimately, they would not be disappointed.

With nine of the top 10 and 14 of the top 20 ranked players entered in the main draw, there were few, if any, easy matches. Sampras probably had the toughest draw of anyone in the tournament. Playing in his quarter were Magnus Larsson, newly crowned du Maurier Open champion Thomas Johansson and Richard Krajicek. Sampras and Larsson had played here the year before in the semifinals with Pete narrowly beating Magnus 7-5, 2-6, 6-1. A possible Sampras / Larsson matchup would occur in the Round of 16.

Of greater concerns to Sampras fans, however, was the presence of Dutchman Richard Krajicek in Pete’s quarter. Krajicek was one of the elite few players who possessed a career advantage over Sampras in head-to-head meetings. The two had played each other eight times previously with Krajicek winning six of them causing Pete to admit, "…he has my number, you know. The past three or four times, he’s beaten me pretty convincingly."

Krajicek’s career supremacy over Sampras is all the more astonishing when you consider the fact that he has been the only player in the last seven years who has beaten Pete on the grass at Wimbledon. That particular match, coming in the 1996 quarterfinals, marked the beginning of Richard’s dominance over Pete. Since then, their other meetings had taken place on fast surfaces (Stuttgart Indoor in 1997 & 98) as well as Key Biscayne earlier this year. Richard also enjoyed a 3-1 advantage over Pete on hard courts.

Andre Agassi headlined the second quarter of the draw and had been playing very well since winning the French Open last June --- becoming only the 5th player to complete a career Grand Slam (the others were Rod Laver, Don Budge, Roy Emerson and Fred Perry) and the first to do it on four different surfaces. After losing to Sampras in the finals at Wimbledon this year (3-6, 3-4, 5-7), Andre proceeded to meet him again two weeks later in the finals of the Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles. That match went to two consecutive tiebreakers, which Pete won by a count of 3 and 1 and Agassi was eager for a rematch. If form held, they would meet in the semifinals here.

Agassi’s quarter featured Spain’s Albert Costa, Germany’s Tommy Haas and Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten. The tournament featured players from 13 different countries. Costa had played well in Cincinnati with a 5-2 record headlined by a semifinal appearance back in 1997 when he lost to Sampras. Kuerten was developing a reputation as a solid player on all surfaces and had won the Super 9 tournaments in Monte Carlo and Hamburg on clay and then reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon on grass this year. On a more personal level, Agassi was not likely to forget their second encounter, which also happened here in 1997 in the first round. In that match, Agassi was completely outclassed by his Brazilian rival 3-6, 1-6, and his failure to defend the title he had won here in 1996 was a major part of the reason he fell to # 141 in the rankings as of November 10 of that year.

The third quarter of the draw featured 5th-ranked Tim Henman, Nicholas Kiefer, Jonas Bjorkman and Yvgeny Kafelnikov. Yvgeny stared out this year by capturing his second career Grand Slam singles title by prevailing over Sweden’s Thomas Enqvist in the finals of the Australian Open. Two weeks after that victory, he won the title in Rotterdam over Tim Henman. Coming to Cincinnati, Kafelnikov had appeared in the championship match of the du Maurier the previous week. The 4th quarter of the draw contained defending champion Patrick Rafter, Alex Corretja, Goran Ivanisevic, Jim Courier, Cedric Pioline and Carlos Moya.

Eleven matches were scheduled on day one of the competition, highlighted by Pioline vs. Moya as the feature match. Although Moya had the edge in both rankings (# 10 vs. # 26 for Pioline) as well as previous head-to-head matchups (he was 2-0 vs. Cedric), the chances were good for a minor upset. Cedric said, "…(both of their previous meetings) were on clay courts, so it’s a completely different game. On hard court, I can be more offensive, so it’s better for my game." Pioline ultimately won the match 6-4, 6-1 and said that the pivotal point came in the first set. "I think when I broke him at 5-4 was important mentally because it was very tight and I finally won the game…it was a difficult point for him to come back." Moya agreed with Cedric’s observation and added "When he plays well, he can do anything: forehand, backhand. He went to the net, put pressure on me and served well, and you know, I didn’t play well."

Day two featured some interesting competition with Michael Chang going against Marat Safin, Jim Courier opposed Goran Ivanisevic and in the night’s feature match, Pete Sampras played against Jan Siemerink. Chang entered the tournament ranked # 58 but was returning to one of his favorite tour stops. Over the last 11 years here, Michael had produced a tournament-best 35-9 record here. From 1993 — 96, Chang was in the finals each year, beating Stefan Edburg in 93 and 94 but losing to Agassi in 95 and 96. Chang disposed of his Russian counterpart rather easily, 6-4, 6-4.

The ease of his victory was rather surprising given his recent struggles on Tour. He was asked if he had any unusual comfort level with this particular tournament that perhaps he did not have elsewhere and he replied "I think what probably helps me (here) is being able to talk to people. I talk to people as if I live here and that’s kind of a neat feeling. It’s kind of like a hometown feeling where everyone kind of knows everybody and that’s the way I feel when I come here. The reception and hospitality I get is always very warm and that’s definitely a good thing."

Another significant contest in day two was the Courier / Ivanisevic match. Both former top-10 players had played 10 times previously with Jim winning seven of those. Courier was 4-0 against Ivanisevic on hard court and had won the last five meetings overall between the two. The first set was very even with Goran serving well. Unfortunately for him, his game took a vacation during the tiebreaker as he managed to only win one point. After that, his attitude seemed to change and he appeared to be rushing his service motion on court. Courier broke him twice in the second set and the match was over.

The premier night match of day two featured Pete Sampras vs. Jan Siemerink. Siemerink earned the matchup with Pete by beating Jan Kroslak, 6-1, 6-2 in the first round. Sampras had a first round bye since he was one of the top 8 seeds in the tourney. Jan had faced Pete three times previously and had failed to win any. Sampras turned around a dismal year at Queen’s and proceeded to win Wimbledon and then Los Angeles. However, this was his first on-court action in nine days and he showed some signs of sluggishness.

Siemerink held serve and broke Sampras first to go up 3-1. Each player then held serve and at 30-40, Siemerink serving, rains interrupted play for about an hour and a half. In the post-match press conference, Siemerink thought that the conditions worsened for him after play resumed. "…With my serve, I use a lot of wrist action and when it’s very hot and humid, you get a lot of water in your hand, you have to squeeze your racquet a little bit more…(after the delay) I just couldn’t get my first serve in." Pete got the break back at 4-4 and each player held serve until the tiebreaker. Pete later said that "…he was serving well, serving very smart and not giving me any sort of rhythm out there…he plays well against all the top guys. He’s got that tough serve and volleys well, so it was not an easy match."

Pete played a sluggish tiebreaker and quickly found himself down three set points with Siemerink serving at 6-3. Jan lost his next service point on a double fault (one of seven during the first set alone) and Pete won the next point on Siemerink’s serve with a brilliant backhand lob that just fell out of Siemerink’s reach. Pete eventually won the breaker by a score of 11-9. To his credit, Siemerink came out firing in the second set and broke Pete to go up 2-0. However, Sampras broke back immediately and went up an insurance break later to lead 4-2 and the match was effectively over.

Day three began with Michael Chang squaring off against the tournament’s 8th seed, Alex Corretja. Surprisingly, the two had never played each other. Andre Agassi played against Arnauld Di Pasquale of France, who was ranked 51st in the world. The third match featured Cedric Pioline against Jim Courier while the night match was Rafter vs. Daniel Vacek. The Chang / Corretja match was exciting with Michael gutting out a tough three-setter 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2. Michael was asked how he managed to turn the match around after losing the breaker and 2nd set to Alex and he replied that "…I was able to attack him effectively; I think I was winning a good percentage of my points attacking him. I kept my errors to a minimum --- against a guy like Alex, he’s not going to make a whole lot of errors --- you have to go out and force him to make them and really hit winners against him."

Agassi’s match with Di Pasquale started out ugly with neither player doing well holding their own service games. After getting to 3-3 with two breaks of serve each, the first set was basically decided by Di Pasquale’s double fault to go down 4-5 with Andre serving to close out the set, which he did with an ace. Andre immediately broke Arnauld to begin the second set and then greatly improved upon his first serve percentage (from 68% in the first set to 83% in the second). Di Pasquale could not keep up and his first serve percentage actually dropped from 71% to a mere 50% in the second. After the match, Andre observed that "…he needs a little bit more time to hit his shots. He has a big forehand, moves really well. I felt like you could rush him a little bit and not give him time to hit, especially his backhand."

Jim Courier and Cedric Pioline had not played each other in over two years and Jim was looking for a little bit of revenge as he was not at his best the last time they met. "The last time I played him was in Antwerp (Belgium, February of 97) when I was on my last gasp from traveling around the world --- 90,000 miles in seven weeks --- and it was my seventh week. He beat me 0 and 2 and I was lucky to win two games. I would hope that I would have a little bit better physical presence out there." Unfortunately, that was not to be as his comments proved to be somewhat prophetic. Courier had to retire from the match down 0-2 in the third set due to heat cramps in his legs after a grueling 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4) match. Jim mentioned that "…the cramping first started setting in the 2nd set. To have cramps after just an hour and 40 minutes of play is extremely unusual. And this is the 2nd or 3rd time that this has happened this year. I have to go in and find out what’s wrong with my body." Pioline was a bit relieved to win the match after a tough loss in the 1st set tiebreaker. "I had one break, I was up three-love in the tiebreak. I was disappointed (to lose the first set) because I think I had more chances than he had. But I just tried to stay in the match, keep my serve and it worked."

The Round of 16 began on Thursday with several interesting matchups. Michael Chang hoped to extend his stay in Cincinnati by beating Cedric Pioline and Pete Sampras played his second match of the tournament against Germany’s Rainer Schuttler on Pete’s 28th birthday. Chang thought his 6-1, 6-4 victory over Pioline was more a case of Cedric not playing as well as he could have rather than his own stellar performance. "Cedric was hot and cold today. I really didn’t know what to expect from point to point. I think the key points in the match were the first two games and the last two games; other than that, I think Cedric had quite a lot of unforced errors, but he also hit some unbelievable shots today."

Sampras had never played against Schuttler before but his unfamiliarity with his opponent proved to be inconsequential. Apparently, Pete had hit with Rainer in practice and Sampras said, "In some ways, it probably worked to my advantage, to see what he liked. I’ve seen him play a little bit over the year…I knew what to expect. He was going to stay back, he moves well and returns pretty well." One thing Pete did not do was to take his opponent for granted. "He beat Larsson yesterday, who is a great player…(Schuttler) has a great game, he serves well, backs it up with groundies and moves well." Stylistically, this match was quite similar to Pete’s match with Siemerink two days before. On both occasions, Pete lost his second service game only to bounce back and win the set. However, unlike the Siemerink match, he got two service breaks to win the 1st 7-5. At 2-2 in the 2nd, both players exchanged breaks and headed to a tiebreaker, which Pete won rather easily by a score of 7-2. Pete said "I felt like I was putting some pressure on him. I was doing a lot of chipping and charging. I made some loose errors in the beginning (but) I just managed to get hot at the right time." Schuttler was very complimentary of Pete’s performance by saying, "…he serves unbelievable. When he hits the first in, there’s no chance to return the ball. I mean, he’s the best player in the world, so I think it was a good match for me."

The quarterfinals featured Sampras vs. Krajicek, Henman vs. Kafelnikov, Agassi vs. Kuerten and Chang vs. Rafter. Kafelnikov had a 7-3 edge in career head-to-heads with Henman and had won their two previous encounters including a 6-2, 7-6(3) triumph to win the title at Rotterdam last February. Yvgeny disposed of Henman in straight sets, 7-5, 7-5 and faced Rafter in the semifinals. Patrick had no difficulty whatsoever in dispatching Chang in the quarters, 6-1, 6-2. Patrick broke Chang’s serve twice in the first set and three times in the 2nd set. Michael stated the obvious that he played poorly. "He aced me on second serves on a couple of occasions. Got me on a couple of first serves. I think I didn’t get that many returns back. The ones I did, I got them down low and I won those points…I wasn’t able to get things going the way I would have liked." Rafter pointed to his serve and returns from the baseline and said "(I’m) …usually not that aggressive on my forehand, but today it worked. I served the corners well, and I was just very consistent from the baseline." In the Agassi / Kuerten match, Andre broke Gustavo in the first game of the match and never really looked back. He added an insurance break at 5-2 then served for and won the first set, 6-2. The second set was tighter, with Kuerten breaking Andre first and jumping out to a 3-0 lead but then Andre broke back at 3-4 and the match was on serve until the tiebreaker. The breaker made for some compelling drama and lasted 22 points.

The Sampras / Krajicek match was closer than the final score of 6-4, 6-2 indicated. Pete said "I think we were both struggling with our serve all day because of the wind and sun. At three-all, he almost hit a forehand winner on the return of serve. I got through that game, hit a couple of unbelievable shots to break him and hit a good topspin lob. That was really a huge part of the match that first set, first game and the second game of the second (set). He put in a couple of doubles and the next thing I know, I was up a set and a break and it changed within a couple of minutes." Krajicek has given Pete problems throughout his career, Pete explained, "(because) his game is kind of similar (to mine) in our styles of play. When he gets hot, he is very, very tough to play…The key of the match was my return of serve against his second serve. Finally, for the first time in a number of meetings, I felt like I got on his second serve and made him play (which) is why I got a couple of double faults there in the second (set)." Krajicek observed that "we were pretty equal in the beginning and just whoever was going to take his chances (was going to win the match)... I thought he got better in the 2nd set, his first serve percentage went up (from 50% to 67%) and he started hitting more backhand passing shots. His backhand return is always very good but I think his backhand passing shots can go off a little bit. He started to make them in the 2nd set a lot."

The semifinals featured the top four-ranked players in the world: # 1 Pete Sampras, # 2 Yvgeny Kafelnikov, # 3 Andre Agassi and # 4, Patrick Rafter. This is no small accomplishment since it was the first time any tournament, including the Slams, has had this semifinal result in seven years. According to the ATP Tour, the 1993 Wimbledon semifinal was the last tournament to feature the four top-ranked players in the world. "That year, No. 1 Pete Sampras beat No. 2 Jim Courier in a July 4 final, after they disposed of No. 4 Boris Becker and No. 3 Stefan Edberg, respectively, in the semifinals. The regal quartet of Sampras, Kafelnikov, Agassi and Rafter has held the No. 1 ATP Tour ranking for all but two weeks this year (Carlos Moya held the top spot March 15-29)." Rafter and Kafelnikov had not played each other since last year’s Great American Insurance ATP semifinals, which Rafter had won, 7-5, 6-0. This year’s result was much the same with Rafter winning rather easily, 6-4, 6-2. Kafelnikov took credit for the loss since he lost his serve at the end of the first set. Yvgeny commented that "…basically, he didn’t do anything to win that game, I lost it, and I made three unforced errors, which I should not have done. And those three errors cost me, first of all, a set and then basically the same story in the second game of the second set. I played three of the dumbest shots I could possibly play at that moment."

Of course, the main attraction of the semifinals was the 26th meeting between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. This storied rivalry has lasted 10 years and they have met 12 times in finals with Pete winning seven of those. Sampras is 3-1 against Andre in Grand Slam finals with his only loss coming at the Australian Open back in 1995 when Andre beat him 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (6), 6-4. The only other player to beat Sampras in a major final was Stefan Edberg at the U.S. Open. Of their 10 previous meetings within the U.S., Sampras maintained a 7-3 edge over Agassi and also enjoyed a 15-10 won-loss record against Andre for their entire careers. Both players were looking forward to the matchup. Prior to the match, Pete mentioned that "…it’s not going to be easy for both of us. He is playing well. I am playing well at the moment. I have gotten through some close matches --- I won a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles…I have to be playing at my best and firing on all cylinders and really be on top of my game to beat him. If I’m not, it’s going to be a long day." The rivalry was special to Pete since "…it is just a little bit different than playing anyone else that I have played throughout my career. Just the history that we have and playing in the finals of majors, just kind of adds on to a rivalry we have had through the years." The respect was mutual between the two players. Andre said, "Playing Pete in any situation requires you to be at your best. He’s been good for my career in many ways and a pain in my ass in many other ways. It’s the only time when you come to the park that you know that even if you are playing your best, you might lose."

After Agassi beat Kuerten, he was asked to evaluate Krajicek’s claim that Pete was perhaps the most mentally tough player on Tour: "…the ability to assess how strong somebody is mentally is purely based on how they deal with a variety of situations. Whether they should beat somebody, whether they are behind, whether they are ahead and with Pete, it doesn’t matter if you are up (or) down, you just have to play well on every point to expect to win it…Pete doesn’t go out there and chip away at you. He waits for his opportunity and then he strikes with conviction."

From a technical standpoint, Andre noted that Pete’s big weapon is his serve "…that he can hit four corners with a number and variety of spins as well as pace, the guy is an explosive mover. He can cover the forehand, run better than anybody in the game. He can go from defense to offense in a matter of a split second before you (can) even anticipate a point. So many times you are in position to win a point (and) the next thing you know, you actually find yourself on defense. He can play from every part of the court. He can stay back and rally with the best of them and wait for his opportunity to either hit a winner from the backcourt like he is a baseliner or to chip and come in like he is Patrick Rafter. So he can take on a lot of faces out there and you never know which one he is going to bring to which big point. Not to mention that he has great hands at the net."

The first set provided some tense moments with no breaks of serve. In fact, neither player even had a break point against their serve in the whole first set, including the tiebreaker, which Pete won by a count of 9-7. Pete said, "…6-all, net cord, the key to the match was that first set. I felt we both played about as well as we could on our service games. He didn’t miss any first serves and was just hitting the ball clean and didn’t make any errors and (was) just too strong…When we are both playing that well, it is just a question of a couple of points. At six-all, I came in on a good shot, got unlucky with the net cord and he got unlucky with the net cord. To beat Andre, you need a little bit of fortune and I got that in the first set." Andre compared this match to the one in Los Angeles two weeks ago that Pete won in two tiebreakers. "This (court) is playing faster than LA and the ball is hot and it is really hard to control. You are only going to get a few opportunities and that’s why you’ve seen a lot of close sets here this week. Pete tends to play the big points well and he won that breaker, which was huge. It is hard to stop him when he is taking those kinds of chances on serve and coming up with it."

Perhaps capitalizing on the momentum of winning that 1st set tiebreaker, Pete immediately broke Andre to start the second set, held serve and broke Andre again to eventually go up 4-0. Pete remarked that "I was kind of playing in a zone up to that point and all of a sudden it is 4-1, double faulted three times in a row. The whole match just kind of changed its complexion within five minutes. You can’t afford to lose concentration against Andre. He can get hot and returns too well to play a game like that." At the changeover, Pete admitted that he was talking to himself. He said his approach was to "…just get my serve in and make him beat me instead of just giving it to him." Andre recognized that the momentum was changing "…but I realized I was still down a break and my work was cut out for me. I did feel momentum but he is an experienced player who knows how to stop that. (At 4-3 Sampras) He held serve pretty solidly in both of those service games, so all I could really do at that point was to force him to serve it out and force him to come up with the shots (to win)." The final score was 7-6 (7), 6-4 and Pete gained a rematch with Rafter.

Before the match, Sampras went out of his way to explain why there had been some recent tension between the two players. "(Last year) I lost a tough match, said a few things and when you lose (that way) you are a little emotional. I regretted some of the things I said. I have always respected Pat as a competitor and as a person. He called me the week of LA to really clear the air of what has been happening. That is the best thing, we don’t want to communicate through the press. We want to talk in the locker room and on the phone and it has really been fine. To call me showed a lot of class, definitely."

The 1st set of the match was very tight as neither player yielded any breaks on their serve. Pete had been serving in the 120s (miles per hour) all week long but came out for the Rafter match firing into the 130s on a consistent basis. Pete dismissed the idea that he was doing anything different by pointing out that "…historically, this court has always been a bit quicker than the normal Tour event. When you play great returners like Pat or Andre, it’s important to use the change up and mix it up --- go into the body and use all my spins and speed. The last thing you want to do is serve 130 every time up the middle." Patrick said "I don’t know how he felt about it, but it’s as good as he’s served against me in a long time. It was just bouncing up all over the place. It’s not flat --- I can return a flat one but not a ball that’s bouncing all over the place. He just served too big and too hard. I felt intimidated on his serve the whole time. Even when I was there, it was tough to get back."

One point in particular symbolized the ferocity of Sampras’ serve. Pete was leading the tiebreak 3-2 and proceeded to uncork a blazing 133 mph serve right down the T. As Rafter moved to return it, the ball struck the low end of Rafter’s racquet, near the vibration dampener and completely shredded three strings in Patrick’s racquet. The resulting THWACK! Sounded like a broken frame but the television replay showed the extent of what had actually occurred. The combination of Pete’s spin and velocity on the ball tore through the string bed and the ball passed cleanly through Rafter’s racquet. Patrick looked at his racquet and went over to the sidelines to retrieve another one. He was asked what went through his mind on that point. "I can’t remember anything like that happening. When you catch a ball in that sort of area, it’s going to probably break. (But) that was a big serve. (At the time) I was more annoyed than anything (since) they gave him another first serve. At least I had a chance at a second serve if he missed it. I looked at the racquet and thought that’s pretty indicative of the way he’s serving." The breaker came down to one point: Rafter missed a volley on serve at 7-6. Pete held serve and closed out the first set, 9-7.

Pete got off to a quick start in the 2nd set by holding serve and breaking Patrick but was immediately broken right back by Rafter to go back on serve 2-1. Each player held serve until Patrick was broken at 3-4. Pete then served out the match, collected $361,000 and over 400 ranking points with the win. For the match, Pete won 80% of his first serve points vs. Rafter’s 72%. Sampras held the edge in Aces by a 12-4 count and made several blistering running forehand crosscourt winners. In fact, Pete more than doubled the number of winners made by Rafter (29 to 11) and decreased his double faults. Sampras also held a 4-1 edge in backhand winners as well.

Pete was asked if winning the title here was harder than winning a Slam due to the quality of players he had to beat to win his 60th career title. "From Krajicek to Andre to Pat, back-to-back-to-back is…you don’t find that at a Grand Slam. So, in some ways, you can have an easy match at a Slam with a fluke of the draw. And in some ways, this is --- I don’t want to say tougher to win, but certainly, you don’t have many breaks. You don’t have a day off, and this week, I was faced with a lot of different players, serve and volley players to Andre, being a good returner, and I got through it. There’s no question that the field here is strong. It’s a Grand Slam field and to come through and beat some good players gives me some confidence (heading into the Open)." That was precisely what worried Rafter. "It’s starting to become a little scary for the rest of the players, and it’s becoming a habit for Pete. You know, if he’s got that sort of form going into the U.S. Open, it’s going to be very tough."

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