An unlikely final took place in Rome in 1994 between Pete Sampras and Boris Becker.
Having won his second and third career Grand Slam titles in 1993, Pete Sampras entered 1994 with an air of dominance, but dropped his first match of the season to Karim Alami in Doha. He also suffered a surprise opening-round loss in Philadelphia to Jacco Eltingh a month later.
Around those two defeats, though, was one of the best-ever starts to a year in the history of the men’s game.
Sampras bounced back from the Doha loss to win Sydney and claim his fourth career major in Melbourne, and after the Philadelphia shocker, the American went on a tear: completing the “Sunshine Double” by winning in Indian Wells and Miami, then traveling to Asia and claiming two more titles there, bringing his record on the year to 33-2.
Taking a month off after that run, Sampras missed the bulk of the clay-court season. Entering the Italian Open, the world No. 1 picked up where he left off and advanced to the final, defeating former top-tenners Aaron Krickstein and Andrei Chesnokov along the way. In the championship match, he’d face a near mirror image of himself, Boris Becker, a huge-serving Grand Slam winner at his best on faster surfaces. The German reached his first clay-court final in three years with wins over Karel Novacek and Goran Ivanisevic, among others.
Despite Becker having made his mark on the men’s game a decade earlier than Sampras, the American had something his more-experienced opponent did not: a clay-court title. After more than a decade on tour, Becker had yet to triumph on the red dirt, while Sampras came out on top in Kitzbuhel, Austria, a year earlier.
Serving first to start this match, Sampras got in trouble right away, going down a break point. After a Becker forehand error, the top seed won the next two points and rolled from there, racing through the opening set 6-1.
Sampras’ devastating run continued right into the second as he broke Becker at love in the first game. The German had an opportunity to level the score in the next game, but Sampras erased that chance and went on to take the set 6-2. The third set in the best-of-five encounter was more of the same as Sampras, undaunted by adapting his game to the slower conditions, kept rolling to eventually take the third by another 6-2 scoreline for his seventh title of the early season.
This was the first Rome final in the Open Era to feature two past Wimbledon champions.
Sampras’ win extended the streak of an American male winner being crowned to three years, the longest run in the history of the tournament, after Jim Courier won in 1991 and ‘92.
Becker reached his fourth career clay-court final, with all of them coming at the three most prestigious tournaments after Roland Garros. Aside from this finish, he reached the final in Monte Carlo twice, in 1989 and 1991; and in Hamburg in 1990.
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