Pete Sampras and Boris Becker were familiar foes by the time they faced off at the 1996 ATP Tour World Championships, and their rivalry was becoming more intense with every match they played.
Becker had edged the American in two close tie-breaks during the round robin stage of the tournament, and had also beaten Sampras in a five set classic in Stuttgart just a few weeks earlier. The German’s famous “boom boom” serve was on song at the start of the showpiece match in Hannover: he served four aces in a row in his first service game, and then broke Sampras to take the opener 6-3.
As the Tennis Dome echoed with the sound of powerful serves and cleanly hit volleys, the second set went to a tie-break. This time, it was Sampras who prevailed, putting away yet another crisp volley to even the match and subdue the raucously pro-Becker crowd for a game or two. The lightning-quick tennis continued in the third set, but neither man could manage to break his opponent’s serve. In the second consecutive tie-break, Sampras carved out a seemingly comfortable 3-0 lead, only for Becker to erase it with some courageous hitting. However, an inopportune double fault handed the advantage back to Sampras, who sealed the set with a sublime backhand pass.
Becker, down to sets to one, could have been forgiven for losing heart, but instead he continued to thrill the home fans with pinpoint serving and net-rushing heroics. As the fourth set entered yet another tie-break - the fifth in the last six sets the pair had contested - the tension became unbearable for many of those watching. Sampras held two match points, but went long on both. Four set points for Becker also came and went, but when Sampras overcooked a volley at 11-12, the crowd erupted.
The rallies lengthened in the deciding set, as each man lunged and sprinted in search of the elusive break of serve. At 4-all, Becker saved two break points, but Sampras converted the third with a magnificent backhand pass. An exhausted Becker hit a final backhand into the net in the next game, and Sampras, having clinched his third World Championship title, raised his arms in elation. It was one of the hardest fought, highest quality ATP finals of the decade, and a match neither player would ever forget.