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#Wimbledon – The End of Pete Sampras

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Pete Sampras is a name that’s etched into people’s memories whenever they think of Wimbledon. His exploits at the famed grass courts were unmatched until the emergence of Roger Federer, who emulated the American’s feat of seven titles.

After winning his seventh title in 2000, Pete Sampras was halted by Federer in 2001 and next year, another Swiss, George Bastl, who entered the tournament as a lucky loser knocked the champion out in the second round. David overcame the Goliath, Bastl, ranked 145 at that time became the talk of the town. Sadly, this victory is the only occasion we recall this forgotten Swiss player.

In tennis, the superstitious and the infamous patterns keep coming no matter what. Not very often you find big names play outside of Court No. 1 or the centre court. The second round encounter between the seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras and the unknown George Bastl was scheduled at Court No.2 – also known as the ‘graveyard of the champions’.

Ominously, it turned out, the second round defeat was the last time Sampras played at the All England Lawn Tennis Courts.

Every champion has an end date, many experts ascertain or predict the end with an accurate timeline. The beauty about any sport is, you don’t know how the event unfolds. It is that tryst with ‘known uncertainty’, that makes any sporting contest intriguing.

The crowd could not believe what was happening as Bastl raced to a two-set lead. It appeared as though Sampras was not in his best frame of mind. He was seen reading notes between the games written by his wife Bridgette Wilson, which read – “Remember, you’re the greatest player who has ever held a racket in the hand”. It did fire him up and the next two sets, he showed his aggressive game as Bastl found it difficult to break his serve or put any pressure on it. The American won the third and fourth sets 6-4, 6-3 to make it two sets all.

The fifth set is seldom about talent and more about the mental game of the players. Sampras had seen it all before and importantly he knew how to win from such situations  – whereas Bastl had never won a five-setter before after turning professional. The underdog Swiss had nothing to lose, and even if he lost, he was certain to get a few pats for his efforts.

The games raced, one by one with each player holding their serve. In the eighth game, with Bastl serving, Sampras had two break points while leading 4-3. From 15-40 down, Bastl served his way to level the scores and then remarkably broke the American’s serve in the next game.

Just when Sampras seemed like getting back to his ominous rhythm, Bastl played four perfect points to break his serve. The match turned in a matter of minutes and so did the fortunes. Sampras, unless he had something else to showcase was staring at his worst exit at Wimbledon since 1991.

The unthinkable happened. The seven time champion sat motionless, looked out of sorts and it took him time to face the fact that he was out of the tournament.

No matter what one’s past records are, it is a challenge to remain at the top of the game consistently with time. If Sampras was outdone by one Swiss in 2001, the next year another Swiss knocked him out. He said, “I have not lost the game, Bastl won it. At the end, he was mentally much stronger than I, and that you have to recognise”.

The drama, the disappointment and the pain of such a defeat only showed what a great champion Sampras was throughout his career. At the press conference after the defeat, the American spoke his heart,  “I plan on being back. I’m not going to end my time here with that loss. I really felt I could do it here and I feel really bummed out. I feel like I can win one major – I will continue to play.”

It wasn’t that Sampras played badly or was in poor form. Those ‘two words’ can be a dampener to give credit where it is due. Bastl played the game of his life and after all, Sampras did went on to win the US Open a few months later, just like he said, he had the gas to win one more title.

The win over Pete Sampras remained Bastl’s only shining glory of his career. Ask any tennis fan, they remember Bastl for that reason – and for that alone. His life, post that match changed and he was recognised by quite a few people on the circuit since his win over the American legend.

Unlike Roger Federer, George Bastl didn’t even make it to the top 70 in his entire life. While, his tennis career never took off, this tall Swiss had to focus on other avenues to sustain his livelihood. He earned a finance degree from a university in California and now works in the same industry.

Any interview with Bastl is incomplete without being asked about ‘that’ match. Those wonderful memories remain just that – memories.

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Rajan lives in Switzerland and has a keen interest in understanding behind the scenes of sports. Besides, he loves reading about history, watching old Hollywood classics, travelling to new places and understanding cultures.