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Open Era 1990-1999: Two figures dominate, a pair of brits emerge

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Kyle Edmund, Caroline Wozniacki, Roger Federer, Heather Watson, and Johanna Konta celebrate 50 years since the start of the Open Era of professional tennis

 

Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras took home the lion’s share of Grand Slam title, but Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski ensured British fans had something to cheer. By Alex Sharp

The 1990s belonged to two icons of the sport.

Steffi Graf had already shot to prominence in the Eighties, but an unquenchable thirst for silverware drove the German to another 14 Grand Slam titles.

Over on the men’s side and Pete Sampras was the spearhead for a wave of American success in the majors, collecting 12 trophies in the decade.

Challenging the duo was a plethora of talent, who occasionally stole titles from their clutches, but the staggering consistency of Graf and Sampras smothered the history books.

At the 1990 Wimbledon final Martina Navratilova lifted her 18th and final Grand Slam singles trophy. Graf was the defending champion but lost to Zina Garrison in the semi-finals, halting a run of 13 consecutive major finals for the German stretching back to the 1986 US Open.

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Graf’s glorious Grand Slam ratio of 282 match wins to just 32 losses was built on the back of numerous rivalries.

For example, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Graf duelled 36 times from 1988-96, but the Spaniard tasted defeat in 28 of those tussles.

Another pulsating rivalry with Monica Seles was cruelly interrupted.

Between 1991-93 the American scooped seven of nine majors finals, navigating past Graf in three Grand Slam finales, before a crazed fan stabbed Seles on court in Hamburg in April 1993. It was sudden, it was shocking, and it was obviously devastating for Seles, who thankfully made a full recovery.

With astonishing spirit and endeavour, Seles returned to the Tour 15 months later and created more magic in Melbourne with a fourth Australian Open crown in 1996.

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It wasn’t just the established order who ruled supreme. Youth kicked back in the Nineties and Martina Hingis was the ultimate prodigy.

In 1997 the Swiss teenager participated in all four major finals, clinching the Australian Open (d.Mary Pierce) at just 16-years-old, Wimbledon (d. Jana Novotna), and US Open (d.Venus Williams). The Swiss shot to stardom and by 1998 held the No.1 ranking simultaneously in singles and doubles.

A moment Hingis perhaps prefers to forget was the 1999 French Open final. A disputed call from Hingis had the crowd berating the young Swiss in the cauldron of the Philippe Chatrier centre court. A set and break lead were sharply relinquished, as Graf stormed back 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.

It was all too much for Hingis in the unforgiving arena and in floods of tears, she had to be escorted back for the trophy presentation by her mother.

Graf’s Grand Slam grandeur produced another iconic teary moment.

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The amicable Jana Novotna seemed destined for a maiden major in the 1993 Wimbledon silverware showdown, but surrendered a commanding lead in an agonising final set collapse.

Visibly distraught, the tears flowed, but she was offered a shoulder to cry on by royalty, the Duchess of Kent, during the trophy presentation. Despair later turned to elation for Novotna, edging Natalia Tauziat in the 1998 Wimbledon final.

Lindsay Davenport claimed three majors at the turn of the century, while a relatively unknown Serena Williams blitzed the US Open in 1999. The tide was turning to America.

The Nineties also ushered in a decade of USA ruling the ranks for the men with Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier.

A Kaleidoscope of colour burst onto the courts and onto our screens with neon looks dominating the scene. The gregarious Agassi was definitely the frontrunner in the fashion stakes with high-top trainers and garish patterns.

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His game certainly backed up his boisterous look, with piercing returns and arrowed winners from the baseline contrasting with the orthodox, structured, usually serve-and-volley output of Sampras.

Their contrasting styles and temperaments over a 34-match saga gave fans an enthralling ride.

Agassi’s aggression from beyond the baseline was mesmerising en route to the 1992 Wimbledon title and gave us a glimpse into the power play of the future.

Meanwhile, Courier was in the mix with four Grand Slams to his name. It was his celebration in Melbourne which was the memorable moment.

In 1992, the American outfoxed Stefan Edberg in searing heat to secure a first Australian Open title. He’d quipped throughout the event that if he won, he’d jump into the Yarra River.

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Well, true to his word, Courier dived head first into the murky water to toast a major accomplishment. Unsurprisingly that hasn’t become the customary photoshoot.

Through 1993-98 Sampras finished each season year-end No.1 and accumulated a record 286 consecutive weeks at the top of the pile.

Agassi, Carlos Moya, Goran Ivanisevic, Michael Chang, and Boris Becker were all outgunned by ‘Pistol Pete’ in Grand Slam finals, but he also broke British hearts in a brace of enthralling Wimbledon encounters.

A large mound on the grounds at SW19 is the site where thousands of fans gather to pitch up a picnic, sip a few Pimms and soak up some rays watching the tennis. Well, the famous verge came to be known fondly as ‘Henman Hill.’

Tim Henman came agonisingly close to major success on home turf and was denied in four-set semi-finals twice by Sampras’ superiority in 1998 and 1999.

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The Brit, who climbed to a peak world No.4, stayed true to his old school skills, slicing his way to chip and charge the net. His Wimbledon journeys stopped pretty much all working activity across the UK, with people glued to their screens.

Actually, speaking of speed, radar guns were first utilised on the Tours in 1994 to detect the exact velocity of the pounding serves in the modern game, which continue to draw gasps from the crowd.

Another Brit Greg Rusedski was one of those bullet servers, who challenged the capability of these speed tests.

His serve was a wicked weapon and enabled the towering left-hander to swat aside Richard Krajicek and Jonas Bjorkman to book a place in the 1997 US Open final.

It was a valiant effort, but Australian Pat Rafter covered the net with aplomb to reign supreme at Flushing Meadows.

British tennis would have to wait over decade in 2008 until we witnessed another singles finalist from these shores.

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