Resurfaced: Richard Krajicek... Remembering 1996 Wimbledon (Part 2)

Twenty years ago, there were no holes in Richard Krajicek's game as he lifted the 1996 Wimbledon trophy, a victory that liberated the giant Dutchman from his childhood and clearly defined the person he was and who he wanted to be.

Editor's Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Wimbledon would now be underway. During the next two weeks will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the grass-court Grand Slam. This story was originally published on 7 July 2016. 

Richard Krajicek returned the next day for a 22-minute installment to complete a 7-5, 7-6(3), 6-4 victory to end Pete Sampras' 25-match winning streak at The Championships.

"I played unbelievable," says Krajicek. "This is the only tournament I've ever played, where every rain delay I played the same or even better than the last one. I remember I played Michael Stich at Hamburg in 1992, but we went off five times. Whoever was losing at each rain delay came back and reversed the score. The momentum switched with the rain. It's quite normal, something happens during the rain delay.

"In 1996, at Wimbledon, nothing fazed me."

"After I beat Pete, I still wasn't thinking too much about winning the title. But once I saw that Goran [Ivanisevic] lost, I thought, 'Hey, this can maybe happen.' Goran was a tough opponent for me."

"In the past, he did look too far ahead in the draw," admits Rohan Goetzke. "But this time, he adjusted his training and the tactics dependent on the courts."

"Richard was very superstitious and we largely stayed at the hotel resting and relaxing," said Deckers. "On the morning of match day, he had ordered pancake from room service and ate them while watching cartoons on the BBC," says Deckers. "He focused solely on each point, game and set. He was very analytical. He never over celebrated a point, feeling that you leave your celebration for the end of the match."

The pressure level has gone up a notch.

"It was a no-win situation, the whole pressure changed," said Goetzke. "I felt whoever he played, he would win it. This was it. He was fired up and ready to get the job done."

Says Krajicek, 20 years on, "I think from the moment I beat Stich, I had the feeling that I wouldn't be happy with any result. I beat Stich and I put my hands up. I beat Sampras, normally I should be ecstatic but I just raised my arms. Nothing more.

"I kept in my brain that I'd been in semi-finals before. A nice result, but I don't want a nice result. I want to go for it all. It can happen, a letdown. I remember the 1993 Roland Garros semi-finals, when I played Jim Courier, a great player, but there I was really happy with a semi-final, which I didn't expect to reach. I wasn't happy, I wanted more.

"I was the underdog when I played Stich and Pete, then I became the favourite - particularly when MaliVai Washington beat Todd Martin," said Krajicek, who returned from his semi-final victory over Jason Stoltenberg on the old Court No. 1, to watch the fifth set in his hotel room. "It suddenly totally turned around."

By improving his backhand return, rather than block returns Krajicek had become able to strike passing shots. The other parts of his game were in place. By returning better, he secured more breaks and it took less pressure off his serve, which included 127 aces during The Championships' fortnight.

Daphne Deckers had met Krajicek at a dinner party hosted by a Dutch skier two years earlier.

"Richard told me he was the World No. 8," remembers Deckers. "I had no idea. I was modelling and had just written my first book.

"He said, 'Models don't write books!' [Deckers has now written 22 books.]

At the Conrad Hilton, a 20-minute drive from The Championships, Krajicek and Deckers are scouring the hotel's VHS collection in search of Braveheart, Mel Gibson's 1995 historical execution of the 13th century Scottish warrior, William Wallace, who led the Scots in battle against the English during the reign of King Edward I.

It resonated for Krajicek, the son of Czech immigrants and a fractured childhood, driven by his father's pursuit of making a champion.

"I had room service that night and because I'd watched Braveheart a few months before, and really liked it, it was inspirational. I watched it in the hotel, on a video that I rented downstairs. It wasn't on demand."

Superstition and routine dominated the Wimbledon fortnight. Krajicek had eaten pancakes for breakfast each day, barring the day off between the semi-final and final. "We realised it could be the biggest moment of our lives," says Deckers.

"On the morning of the final we watched one particular scene from Braveheart again," says Krajicek. "I watched the speech before the Scots battled the English in Stirling...

'Sons of Scotland, I am William Wallace.'

'William Wallace is seven-feet tall,' says a young solider.

'Yes, I've heard. Kills men by the hundreds, and if he were here he'd consume the English with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse. I AM William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What would you do without freedom? Will you fight?'

'Fight?' says an older soldier. 'Against that? No, we will run; and we will live.

'Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll live -- at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!'

'Alba gu bra! [Scotland forever!]'

"Then I was ready to go," recalls Krajicek, who headed out to the All England Club at 10:30 a.m.

Krajicek meets Wessels, who has lost to Ivan Ljubicic in the junior semi-finals, for a one-hour hit. Wessels has a flight home, immediately afterwards. He won't get home to Amsterdam until the third set of the final.

"I was quite relaxed, as much as I could be," recalls Krajicek. "It was my first Grand Slam final and I knew the opportunity to play in the Wimbledon final against someone outside the Top 10, as Mal was, might not happen again. I think it was the first match we played.

"After lunch, Rohan said in general, especially because it was on grass, 'Play your game, be aggressive and come in. But watch out if you come in on his backhand, because he likes to hit a crosscourt pass or into the body. Enjoy it, it will be a great experience. Go and beat him.'"

Deckers vividly recalls, "Following a quarter-final loss [to Yevgeny Kafelnikov] at Roland Garros the month before, I woke to tell Richard that 'I'd dreamed you will win Wimbledon.' He didn't believe me. It has never happened to me before."

It's 2:03 p.m.

As Referee Alan Mills ushers Krajicek and Washington to the net to pose for photographs, Melissa Johnson, a 23-year-old design graduate from Manchester Polytechnic, working as waitress at a pizza stall within the grounds, jumps over the two-foot high wall in a mini pinny and streaks across Centre Court, as the Duke and Duchess of Kent watch on from the Royal Box.

She spends the rest of the final in police custody.

"The streaker broke the tension," says Krajicek. "There was still a bit of tension afterwards, but it dissipated." For Deckers, she was a bundle of nerves. "I was really, really nervous. He had experienced so much pain throughout his career - knees, elbow and shoulder. "

"My rhythm on my serve was good, but I found it difficult to return Mal's serve," said Krajicek. "I wasn't thrown off, because I knew it was going to happen, but I had played a few serve and volley players, which gave me a target. But now, against Mal, it was different. He was staying back. I was returning a bit less, especially in the second set, where I was lucky to get the break. But I was serving very well until 4-1, double break in the third set. I suddenly realised I could win Wimbledon and got pretty nervous. I straight away dropped my serve for the first time in the match, but after that game I calmed down and finished the match with a good service game to break."

It's 6:06 p.m.

Game. Set. Match. Championship, Krajicek. 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. After two rain delays, he drops to his knees just as his childhood hero, Bjorn Borg, did in each of his five successive victories between 1976 and 1980. After 94 protracted minutes, he holds the trophy like a baby. The lid falls off.

"He was always very ambitious," says Deckers, finally able to celebrate. "Despite the pain and a difficult childhood, it was his Dad's dream for him to become a tennis player. Victory liberated him from his childhood and helped him rebuild his relationship with his Dad. Victory changed everything. He broke out of his shell, he was free of pressure and helped him to set him sights on winning another Grand Slam. It ended the negativity of his childhood."

In the locker room, there are hugs and tears. Goetzke told him, "No one can take this away from you. You've proved you can do it!" Franker asks, "'Where is the racquet you hit the last ball with?' Krajicek signs the grip and it's later auctioned for charity in Suriname." Krajicek gets a tux from the old Court No. 2. "Daphne is always ensuring I am dressed smartly," he teases. "But she didn't notice my bow tie was lopsided! It's a funny memory of the Wimbledon Ball."

The prospect of going through The Hague in an open carriage was politely declined, following Krajicek's return to the Netherlands two months later, after the US Open.

"I said, 'No, I don't want to do that', says Krajicek. "But I did say I wanted some interaction with kids to play tennis. I did a clinic in an inner-city neighbourhood in The Hague and spoke with the kids and parents about his little opportunities they had. It inspired me to set up the Richard Krajicek Foundation six months later.

"We built and now work in 112 playgrounds, used for tennis, basketball and football, and give scholarships to kids to become sports teachers," says Deckers, who married Krajicek on 7 July 1999, exactly three years after the Wimbledon triumph. "I've never watched a professional match prior to meeting Richard, but now we're a total tennis playing family." Today, their son, Alec, is at the start of his professional tennis journey, and their daughter, Emma, is heading to university. Both graduated on 7 July.

Krajicek chased his dream and proved through hard work that goals could be realised. Winning Wimbledon was the making of him. As a keen and fierce competitor, Krajicek was also smart. With great economy of movement, he never bulked up but used his lean, rangy frame to maximise his talent. He became the standard-bearer for every Dutch player, and while injuries continued to mount during the rest of his career, he has inspired thousands in his Foundation's work and, since 2004, as the tournament director of the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament.

Krajicek's golden Wimbledon trophy now sits in his living room.

Unpolished after 20 years, but not unloved.

Go Back To Part I