Pete Sampras and Jim Courier faced off in the first all-American final at the year-end championships in more than a decade.
After storming to the 1990 US Open title as a 19-year-old, Pete Sampras struggled to adjust to the even-greater expectations that were thrust upon him through the first half of the following year. Though his play started to improve over the summer, he fell in the quarterfinals in New York to his fellow American and former doubles partner, Jim Courier, who would go on to reach the final in his own breakout campaign.
After that loss, Sampras expressed some relief that the pressure of defending the title was over, a sentiment that year’s surprise US Open semifinalist Jimmy Connors and Courier took issue with. Sampras’ play through the indoor season afterward did pick up and in his second appearance at the ATP Tour World Championships, he would go on to reach the final. In the title match, he’d face Courier, who’d been making a charge at the No. 1 ranking.
At the US Open, Courier notched his first-ever win against Sampras, having lost their three previous encounters, including two in 1991. In the first set of this match, Courier, the reigning French Open champion, struck first as he broke Sampras in the fifth game and went on to claim the opener 6-3.
Though the indoor conditions favored the big-serving Sampras, it was Courier that looked invincible when he stepped to the line. Sampras finally broke in the 11th game of the second set, but Courier got it right back on serve to force a tiebreaker. Sampras quickly went up 5-1, and soon clinched it at 7-5 to level the match at one set apiece in the best-of-five contest.
From there, the world No. 7 gained even more confidence in his serve, which allowed him to take more chances when returning Courier’s delivery. Sampras rode a single break to win the third 6-3, then took a tighter fourth by a 6-4 scoreline, giving him the second biggest title of his career and his fourth of the year—with all of them coming in a five-month span to close out 1991.
In his six career singles finals, this was the first Courier lost to a countryman, having beaten both David Wheaton in Key Biscayne, Fla., and Andre Agassi at the French Open earlier in the year.
For the second year in a row, the title was won by a player who had lost at least two of his three round-robin matches in his prior appearance. In 1989, Agassi went 0-3 in round-robin play, before capturing the 1990 title. Sampras went 1-2 in group play that year.
For the fourth consecutive year, the ATP Finals champion did not win a Grand Slam title over the course of the season.
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