When the ball tumbled past and he finally could put down his saber of a tennis racket, Pete Sampras didn't move. He had sacrificed his mind, body and probably what was left of his lunch for a place in the semifinals and something far more meaningful.
He did it for Gully.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You don't survive 7-6 in the fifth set of a 4-hour, 9-minute match the way Sampras did against a relentless Alex Corretja on Thursday evening without some sort of spiritual arm to fortify you when all seems lost.
That would explain why, shortly after the 7-6 (7-5), 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (9-7) quarterfinal match, Sampras, still weighted down by the loss of coach and mentor Tim Gullikson to cancer May 3, reportedly ducked into a private room inside the stadium court and cried with girlfriend Delaina Mulcahy, telling her over and over that this one was for Gully.
Gullikson, whose twin brother, Tom, was in attendance, would have celebrated his 45th birthday Sunday.
"Tonight was the culmination of a lot of things. It's been a rough 18 months," said Sampras' new coach, Paul Annacone, referring to when Gullikson first became ill. "I think all of us tend to have a pretty good feeling that Tim has got a big smile on his face from watching, so I think that's pretty special."
Goran Ivanisevic ended Stefan Edberg's U.S. Open in three sets later Thursday, but Sampras, 25, already had made everyone's day, even though he was unable to talk about it with reporters afterward.
It seems silly now to think people once called Sampras stoic and unemotional on the court. That was before he broke down and cried during that Australian Open match with Jim Courier last year just after learning that Gullikson was deathly ill.
And before Thursday, when he dragged himself around the court when it seemed he would collapse at any minute, ignoring his volatile stomach that reacted at 1-1 of the fifth-set tiebreaker.
That he was able still to wield his racket and slam 122-mph serves was a wonder in itself. That he was able to vanquish the percolating 22-year-old Corretja, who led two sets to one and later held a match point in the final tiebreaker, was what turns champions into legends and makes 19,854 weary fans go home feeling as if they have had some sort of out-of-body experience.
"I'm not sure there are any words in the dictionary" to describe Sampras, Annacone said. "I mean, the guy is just pretty special. And special people can do special things.
"There are certain times where you shut your mouth and just kind of sit there and take it all in. I think (this match was) one of them."
Sampras, who doctors say suffered from no particular illness but simply had a queasy stomach, never looked himself from the beginning. Not when his serve was broken in the opening game. Not when he was broken to end the second and third sets at 7-5. And certainly not when he was piling up any of his 68 unforced errors.
But you knew he wasn't going to bag it either, not when he found the groove on his otherwise shaky serve and grabbed an early 3-1 lead in the fourth set. And not when he continued to serve big in the fifth, dragging Corretja into a gargantuan tiebreak he knew Gully never would let him lose.
He had us worried plenty, though, especially when he vomited at 1-1 and doubled over, his racket now a crutch, after every energy-draining point.
He found reserves none of us, including possibly Sampras, knew were there, like when he flung a 122-mph service winner to go up 4-3 and when he fooled Corretja with a 90-mph second-serve ace to gain his second match point at 8-7.
Sampras had missed on his first one at 6-5 when he plunged a seemingly routine forehand into the net. He survived long enough to get the second because Corretja sent an approach shot wide on his only match point at 7-6.
It was probably just as well Sampras didn't have to summon any more energy to finish off Corretja, because he probably couldn't. It was all he could do to walk to the net and hug him after Corretja double-faulted to end the match.
The 31st-ranked Corretja, like Sampras, wrestled afterward with conflicting emotions.
"It's really tough to explain right now, because it was probably the best match of my career and probably the worst one," Corretja said. "I have to feel happy because I almost knocked out the No. 1 in the world, but it is really difficult right now. It's disappointing, because you feel like you got it and suddenly it escapes."
Sampras' heroics overshadowed the departure of one of the game's most respected champions. Stefan Edberg, playing the 54th and final Grand Slam tournament of his illustrious career, fell to fourth seed Goran Ivanisevic 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11-9) in the late quarterfinal Thursday.
The two-time U.S. Open championgot a warm send-off from the crowd after the 30-year-old Swede punched a half-volley into the net to end the match and send Ivanisevic into his first semifinal here against Sampras on Saturday.
"It is great to play the last year and play great tennis," Edberg said. "Every match was special here, even though I lost tonight."
Edberg didn't go easily. He did the impossible, fending off Ivanisevic's service bombs to break him when he was serving for the match at 5-3. And he forced the tiebreaker, then fought off two match points, one with a ferocious return winner, before finally bidding farewell after the missed half-volley.