January 20, 1996: Mark Philippoussis stuns Pete Sampras on Rod Laver Arena


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January 20, 1996: Mark Philippoussis stuns Pete Sampras on Rod Laver Arena

During his illustrious career, Pete Sampras claimed 14 Grand Slam title but only 2 came from the down under, winning the Australian Open crown in 1994 and again in 1997, admitting he never loved to play there. That first triumph in Melbourne almost never happened, as he was 2 points away from the defeat against young Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the second round, prevailing by 6-3 2-6 6-3 1-6 9-7 in 3 hours and 20 minutes.

Exactly 2 years later, Pete faced another stern test in another youngster and this time his rival didn't crack under the pressure, sending the reigning finalist home in the third round. Namely, the 19-year-old Mark Philippoussis (they both share Greek origins) stunned the world number 1 by 6-4 7-6 7-6 in 2 hours and 13 minutes under the closed roof of the Rod Laver Arena for one of the biggest wins of his career, gifting his crowd a memorable moment exactly 20 years since they saw the last Aussie champion in the men's singles draw.

Pete ended his exhausting 1995 season just a month earlier after 88 matches played, and he was forced to withdraw from the Grand Slam Cup due to an ankle injury, and he wasn't at his best at the Australian Open either.

This was the third main draw appearance for Philippoussis and he played almost flawless tennis against better-ranked and more experienced rival, never facing a break point and overpowering Pete from both wings to deliver straight sets win, playing his best tennis when it mattered the most, especially in the second set tie break.

Sampras was on a verge of winning that part of the match, leading 5-2, 6-5 and 8-7 in the tie break but it wasn't to be for him, falling by 7-3 in the third set tie break to lose both the match and the top spot in the ATP rankings, leaving Andre Agassi and Thomas Muster to fight for that position by the end of the tournament.

Mark won 10 points more than Pete (119-109) and he created 6 break points in 4 return games, converting 1 in the opening set to get the things running and keeping the pressure underneath the surface. Nothing could separate them in the shortest rallies but Philippoussis had the upper hand in the mid-range points with 5 to 9 shots, controlling both his forehand and backhand beautifully and hitting more winners than Sampras.

40% of all points were the service winners, with Mark blasting 49 and Pete adding 41, and there were only a few points that went beyond the 8th stroke. Sampras earned the first break point in the 5th game of the match but he was denied with a good serve&volley combo from Mark and the Aussie grabbed the opener with a break in game 10, ripping a bullet from his backhand that Sampras failed to control at the net.

Pete served better in the first half of the second set and he won 4 points in a row to create a break point in game 7 with a backhand down the line winner. Mark saved it with a booming serve and he won a 14-stroke rally for his advantage, closing the game with another forced error from Sampras.

Just like in the opening set, the American had troubles to hold in his last service games, playing against 2 break and set points in game 12. He saved them with a forehand winner and another good attack to set up the tie break, where he moved 5-2 in front.

Mark closed the gap with a backhand down the line winner and an ace, and he cracked a forehand winner to get back on the level terms. He saved a set point at 5-6 with a forehand winner and another one at 7-8, and the crucial moment occurred in the 19th point when he scored a mini-break to take a 10-9 lead.

Philippoussis blasted another service winner to clinch the breaker by 12-10 and he was just a set away from a huge upset. That dream was slowly turning into reality when Mark created 2 break points in the 3rd game of the third set, only to be denied by a service and smash winner from Pete who brought the game home with 2 aces.

Young Aussie was determined to end the match as soon as possible, gaining another break chance with a return winner in game 7 before Pete landed an ace on the T line and he got out of jail with two good points to keep his chances alive.

Both players served well before the tie break and the pressure was on Sampras who couldn't afford to lose it. Mark opened it with a mini-break after a solid return and he moved 3-0 in front with 2 service winners. Additional 2 forehand winners pushed the teenager 5-1 up, and he had the finish line clearly in his sight.

Cracking backhand cross court winner gave him 5 match points and he converted the 3rd with his 49th service winner, making the crowd at the packed Rod Laver Arena erupting in joy. His fairy tale didn't last for long, as Mark Woodforde beat him in the next round by 6-2 6-2 6-2, but he will always remember this win over Pete, the one that put him to the top of the tennis world at least for a day.