NEW YORK — Twenty years ago Louis Armstrong Stadium served its last as the main court at the U.S. Open. It was also the year — 1996 — when Americans Pete Sampras and Monica Seles would make the final at Flushing Meadows for a second consecutive year.
Unfortunately for Seles, the results mirrored themselves from ’95: She lost (to Steffi Graf), and Sampras won (over another American, Michael Chang). The two retired household names remember that year well, and the wild walk from the player locker room to the stadium through a sea of fans.
USA TODAY Sports caught up with both in a pair of interviews through American Express, which has created a virtual experience that allow people to hear, see and feel what it’s like before walking on court, through the eyes of Sampras, Seles and Venus Williams.
Here are some excerpts of those conversations.
Pete, what do you remember from that 1996 U.S. Open? You had some classic battles, including the five-set win over Alex Corretja in which you threw up on court.
Sampras: I remember walking out against him feeling that I was very tired. But that was the year fans really saw my heart because I had kept it close to the vest prior. I think the NYC crowd and I connected in that match. I remember having two days off to play Goran (Ivanisevic in the semifinals). I played a good match against Goran and then against Mike (Michael Chang) in the final.
Everyone expected a pretty easy victory against Corretja. I knew Alex could play. I was playing OK and doing fine, but I was getting into these long points and not playing at the pace I wanted to. I was burning myself out. I had a Coke or Pepsi in the fourth set and I didn’t feel well. I needed a push. I felt gone. I picked the points where I knew I could give it a push. A lot of people saw that that weren’t tennis fans. I struggled, but people liked what they saw. They liked the heart.
Monica, what do you remember of that walk? The players are rather cozy in the tunnel of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Seles: Louis Armstrong was a special court because at no other Grand Slam tournament did you walk into the stadium with the public. You walked from the locker room to the stadium and were going through the public. As you did, people were high-fiving you before the match … it was almost like a championship fight! That era wasn’t as luxurious as it is now. When I first walked into Ashe, it was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole different ball game.’
Sampras: I remember first playing on Louis Armstrong, you would go from one building to the next. Honestly, that walk was pretty intense. They would put the ropes up to keep fans at bay and it was a longer walk. You would walk through the crowd. It made me anxious. Now you are just 50 yards away. It’s still very nerve-wracking, obviously, because you’re trying to do an interview, there is a camera in your face, you can hear a crowd. It’s all intense…
American Express has created this Pro Walk virtual reality for fans to experience. What do you like about it? And what memories did it bring back from pre-match jitters?
Seles: The Pro Walk recreates the experience of walking onto the stadium court with me, Pete and Venus. It’s like you’re going through the actual tunnel at the U.S. Open, like you see on court. The big part is when you walk out there, you feel like you are in front of 20,000 people. It’s eerie a bit. But for me, it takes me down memory lane. I remember how nervous I was. That’s just human nature. It’s something I have missed in retirement.
Sampras: We created this interactive experience for fans at the Open and I wanted people to know how I felt walking down the tunnel. We wanted to portray the emotion of what a fan might feel like if they were me… there were a lot of nerves and anxiety. I think we pulled it off.
Pete, you’ve spent time with up-and-coming American Taylor Fritz, who is still just 18 years old. (Fritz lost Monday to fellow American Jack Sock in the first round.) What are your thought on him? Is he America’s ‘next big thing?’
Sampras: I have gotten to know Taylor pretty well and I think he’s got a great future. He’s got a good attitude. I hit a few balls with him in Mexico eight or nine months ago and he moves well, hits a big ball. He has some time to grow physically and mentally. I don’t know a lot of the other young Americans, but I do know him. I like what I see from Taylor. I told him that it will only get more intense and stressful as he’s the up-and-coming American. To me, he’s the next great American player to come up.
Monica, what keeps you busy these days? We don’t see you coaching or in the commentary booth.
Seles: Tennis is still my passion, but I love staying involved in different ways. I enjoy writing, and I’ve done a couple of young adult books and hope that I can do a couple more of those things down the road. As a hobby, photography is something I’ve picked up lately. I really enjoy it. I’m still living in Florida.