Before Roger Federer came along, many were hailing Pete Sampras as the greatest player ever. At the time, Sampras’ 14 Grand Slam singles titles were a record (the previous record of 12 having been held by Roy Emerson back in the 1960s). Standing atop the world of tennis from the mid-1990s to the early years of the Noughties, Sampras looked unassailable.
Many outstanding players had come through the game since the era of Emerson and Laver, but up until the early 1990’s, no one had the same stellar record at the top tournaments and for such a sustained period of time as Sampras. Many players in the past had played with ruthless dedication, but no one seemed to do it with the machine-like efficiency of Sampras: he was something different.
As a player, his game was well-rounded and without any major flaws. If he had one drawback, it was his underperformance on clay – of the four Grand Slam titles, the only one he never won was on Roland Garros’ clay. He adopted a serve/volley strategy and his serve was one of the best in the game. Adept at knowing when to pull out an ace at the appropriate time, his second serve was also a potent weapon against opponents. Strong too from the baseline particularly on the forehand side, he often used his ground strokes, through the use of ‘chip and charge’ as a lever to get him to the net to deploy his volleying skills. Only of average build, he was not a player to dominate by his physical presence, but did so by his relentless power, determination and consistency. His will to win was legendary.
Like so many young players, Sampras’ game developed in the sunny climes of Southern California. Like two near-contemporaries (the Williams sisters), he moved there with his family as a young boy where he came under the tutelage of a good coach, Peter Fischer, who stayed with him until shortly after Sampras turned professional in 1988.
A mark of his explosive talent was his trajectory in his first year as a professional. On joining the Tour in 1988 at the age of 16, he was ranked 893. By the end of that first year, he had risen to 97. This was clearly a player to watch.
The year 1990 was to prove his groundbreaking year. Starting the year ranked No. 61, he ended the year ranked world No. 5. On the way, he won his first US Open, beating Andre Agassi in straight sets in the final. His win at Flushing Meadows at 19 made him the youngest ever men’s singles winner. The following year, he disappointed many by his loss to Jim Courier in the quarters of the Open. Many were asking whether his previous year’s win was simply a ‘one hit wonder’. Learning from the experience, Sampras went to work on his approach and attitude. A new, ruthless determination which was to become his hallmark, was the result.
Sampras’ tally of 14 Grand Slam singles titles stands out as one of the most impressive achievements in the game – only Roger Federer has surpassed that record. Seven of those titles were at Wimbledon, five at the US Open and two at the Australian. With his ‘made for grass’ game, he dominated Wimbledon for most of the 1990s and the early 2000s. With Federer, he shares the record for the open era of most men’s singles titles there. His record of five US Open titles, he also shares with Federer and Jimmy Connors. He also won four Tour Finals and two Davis Cups with the US, but was never able to win an Olympic medal.
Despite his outstanding record at the Grand Slam events, if there was one gap in Sampras’ record it was his inability to have ever won the French and thus, never to have won a career Grand Slam. His game was not suited to clay and this lack of adaptability puts him behind the likes of Laver, Federer and Nadal on that metric. The intriguing fact is that he had won a number of tour events on clay in his career, but was never able to translate this into the competitive cauldron of Roland Garros.
His chief rivals at the peak of his career were Andre Agassi and Pat Rafter. Against Agassi, Sampras holds a 20-14 head-to-head lead and against Rafter, Sampras had a more convincing lead of 12-4. While Sampras’ rivalry against Agassi was the most definitive and important of his career, it had none of the animosity of his long-running feud with Rafter. Based on a sleight Sampras made about Rafter after the latter’s defeat of Sampras in the 1998 Cincinnati Masters final, there was no love lost between the American and the Australian thereafter. Not the most fulsome and warm personality, Sampras had few close friendships on tour and was prone to make ‘off-key’ comments which often created controversy. That said, he showed genuine emotion at the news of his long standing coach, Tim Gullikson, collapsing during play at Wimbledon 1995 with what was subsequently diagnosed as cancer. All in all, although a popular champion, it is fair to say he was more respected than loved.
Sampras has to be among one of the greatest players of all time. Like Roger Federer, he dominated the world game in his prime. Dominating the game from the early 1990s right up to the early Noughties, only Andre Agassi during that period could really challenge his dominance on a regular basis. While up until the time of Sampras, the likes of Borg, McEnroe, Connors and Lendl were outstanding in their era, none so dominated the game in their time as did Sampras.
He was a ‘winner’ who always wanted to win and he had the all-round game and temperament of a champion. His Grand Slam total puts him right up there with the very best, even if it has been surpassed since. Since the retirement of Rod Laver all those years ago, his career stats, longevity and consistency make him part of a select group at the very top of the game in the Open era along with Federer and Nadal (and perhaps, Djokovic pending his Grand Slam future).