Nowadays BARRY COWAN talks a good game but loves playing in Liverpool. But it’s not so long since Sky TV’s informed and engaging commentator was playing a mean game of tennis. And there is one game in particular for which he became famous. It was a real David and Goliath clash – and while Goliath eventually triumphed, he had to climb back off the canvas to do so
After representing GB at the Sydney Olympics, Barry gained a wild card entry into Wimbledon 2001 where he won his first SW19 singles match in a battle of Britain against Mark Hilton in straight sets. The significance of that victory quickly became apparent. It set up a dream second round match against Pistol Pete Sampras, ultimately a seven-time Wimbledon champion, and at the time undefeated at Wimbledon since 1996. There were 264 ranking places between the two – and, as expected, Sampras dominated the first two sets on Court 1 to lead 6–3, 6–2. But taking inspiration from the words of his beloved Liverpool FC anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” Barry rallied.
“It had taken me 20 years to get to experience this, and under no circumstances was I going to let it go,
“When you have worked as hard as I had to get to play Sampras – I always wanted to play the best players on the biggest stage at Wimbledon.
Cowan saved seven break points in the third set to force the match to a tiebreak, and staring defeat in the face, triumphed in an epic tiebreak to take the third set. The crowd on Henman Hill began to grow, and sensing an upset, the atmosphere began to resemble a crowd at a football match, which was highly appropriate given Barry’s inspiration. During breaks in the match he quickly donned a pair of headphones and focused his mind with bursts of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ stirring Anfield anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ With Sampras on the ropes, Cowan pressed on, proving a match for Sampras’ powerful serve, and against all the odds snatched a break before holding his nerve to level the match.
“I found myself two sets to love down, but I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t really look at him and that by the start of the fifth set he was rattled, but I had never been in that position before,
“I was two sets down but I have always fought and was prepared to fight to the death. A great example of that was the FA Cup final when Liverpool were being battered by Arsenal for 80 minutes, so much so it was a mismatch, but came back to win. Sportspeople often say you get in the zone where although you are aware of the crowd, you don’t really notice them and that was the case for me. Anything could have happened in there and it wouldn’t have distracted me.
Sampras was rattled, but he soon had things back on his terms as he stormed to a 4-0 lead in the deciding set. Cowan battled valiantly, breaking back, but despite a partisan crowd, back-to-back aces from Sampras saved two break points in his next service game. Cowan saved an astonishing 14 break points, but ultimately Sampras proved too strong as he claimed a 6-3 6-2 6-7(5) 4-6 6-3 victory to avoid what he admitted what would have been the ‘upset of the century’.
“I was so excited going into that match, but I didn’t want to just go onto the court with a smile on my face and last less than an hour,
Cowan admitted. But regular visitors to The Liverpool International have seen Barry recreate the form which once took one of the greatest players in the history of the sport to the brink. Barry said:
“It’s always great for me to come back to Liverpool, but when I play against some of these legends it gives me a massive reality check because you quickly realise just how special they were, and still are.
Barry will be up against some very competitive legends tennis in former Liverpool favourite Robert Kendrick from USA and Guillermo Canas from Argentina.