In May 1996, Pete Sampras' longtime coach Tim Gullikson lost his battle with cancer and the American was never the same player after that, having to deal with this since the beginning of the previous season when Tim had to fly home from the Australian Open.
Pete won five smaller titles before the US Open in 1996 and was one of the favorites at home Major where he already won three titles in the past and a year ago, eager to bounce back after early losses at the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
Sampras had to survive a five-setter in the second round against Jiri Novak, playing well in the other three encounters to reach the quarter-final where he faced the clay-court specialist Alex Corretja on September 5. The Spaniard left everything on the court to make Pete run for his money, with the American saving a match point in a 7-6, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 marathon that lasted four hours and nine minutes!
It was one of the toughest challenges that Pete had ever experienced, struggling to match the rival's pace (Corretja served like never before) and also with physical issues, forced to vomit at the back of the court after the second point of the deciding tie break, receiving a time violation for that!
After surviving this thrilling contest, Sampras would go on to defend his title, beating Goran Ivanisevic and Michael Chang in the last two encounters to prove his greatness once again and add another Major to his tally. Nothing could separate Pete and Alex on that day, with both winning 188 points and scoring five breaks overall, three for the Spaniard who couldn't make that one last step and dethrone the great rival as a complete outsider, winning only one match in New York before 1996!
Sampras was 73-54 in front in service winners but Corretja had the advantage from the back of the court, hitting more groundstroke winners and trying to impose his shots and extend the rallies.
At US Open 1996, Pete Sampras saved a match point in a thriller against Alex Corretja.
Nonetheless, Sampras had more than 30 volley and smash winners, staying composed when it mattered the most and passing all the obstacles to find himself in the semi-final.
Alex had a 5-3 advantage in the opening set, wasting two set points in the next game after two volley winners from Sampras who claimed the tie break 7-5 with a service winner for a massive steal. The Spaniard bounced back in sets two and three, breaking Pete in the 12th game of each to move a set away from an upset, barely putting a foot wrong and besting Sampras in front of his partisan crowd.
With no room for further errors, Pete broke in the third game of the fourth set and brought it home with four excellent holds, restoring the order and setting up a decider where he was the favorite. There were no breaks of serve in the fifth set and Sampras struggled more and more physically (he could barely stand by the seventh game), having to vomit after the second point of the tie break.
The American somehow kept his focus and used the last atom of energy, saving a match point at 6-7 with a crafty volley winner to stay in the encounter. At 7-7, Sampras landed the second serve ace and crossed the finish line in the next point when Corretja hit only the third double fault of the match, sending Pete into the last four in what had been one of the most entertaining clashes in the US Open history.
Pete needed two liters of intravenous treatment to recover and repeating, still in tears, that he won that one for Tim, who was certainly there during the match, taking care of him from above and leading him towards the heroic triumph.