After winning a record number of 14 grand slams, Pete Sampras is arguably the greatest tennis player of all time. Having held the world number 1 ranking for 6 consecutive years, he dominated the tennis arena for most of the 1990s. In recognition of his outstanding achievements, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007.
Born in Washington D.C on the 12th of August 1971, Sampras is of Greek parentage. He started playing tennis at the age of seven, idolising Rod Laver. Showing promise as a junior, he was coached by Peter Fisher, who was responsible for making changes in his style of play, most importantly the conversion of his double handed backhand to a single handed one and turning Sampras from a baseliner into a serve and volleyer. During his childhood, he competed alongside players such as Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Jim Courier. This would set the scene for the development of legendary rivalries between these players in the 1990s.
In 1988, Sampras turned pro aged 16. The next year Sampras turned heads by upsetting Mats Wilander, the defending champion at the US Open. It sent out a clear warning that he would be a force to be reckoned with on fast surfaces. He backed up this threat by winning his first professional title at Philadelphia in 1990; in the same year Sampras ended Ivan Lendl’s 8 year streak of consecutive US Open final appearances by beating him in the quarter finals.
He also defeated John McEnroe and Andre Agassi, in the semi-finals and finals respectively, to win the US Open aged only 19, helping him to finish the year with a top 10 world ranking. He caused controversy in the following US Open, by claiming he was relieved that the pressure of defending his US Open title was taken off him, after his loss to Jim Courier in the quarter finals. He won the first of his record five Tennis Masters Cup titles that same year.
By now Sampras had become an established player. The following year he was runner-up to Stefan Edberg at the US Open. 1993 was a successful year, in which he was a winner at Wimbledon, the US Open and also a finalist at the Australian Open. This led to Sampras securing the world number one ranking for the first time in his career, a ranking that he would hold on to for a record 6 straight years.
In 1994 he won his first Australian Open title defeating Todd Martin, and repeated this feat in 1997 when he beat Carlos Moya. One of the best remembered incidents in Pete Sampras’s career took place in 1995. That year at the Australian Open, his close friend and long standing coach Tim Gullickson was diagnosed with brain cancer and had to leave the tournament due to complications. During his quarter final match against Jim Courier, Sampras was losing when a fan shouted “Do it for your coach”. On hearing these words he burst into tears, and finding new strength, he managed to overcome his emotions to defeat Courier from a 2 set deficit and then went on to make the finals of that tournament, eventually losing to Agassi. Tim Gullickson passed away the following year.
When one mentions Wimbledon, it is invariably associated with Sampras and his stunning domination of this tournament. With 7 Wimbledon titles to his name, he shares the record for most Wimbledon titles with William Renshaw. He won every Wimbledon from 1993 – 2000, except in 1996, when he was beaten in the quarter finals by the eventual winner, Richard Krajicek.
The Elusive French
The French Open has always been seen as his Achilles’ Heel. Although Sampras has never won at Roland Garros, he has had some strong results there with consecutive quarter final appearances from 1992 to 1994. Perhaps his best chance of winning the French Open was in 1996 when he lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semi finals.
Twilight of his career
Sampras lost his world number one ranking in 1999 to Andre Agassi. This was because he could not defend points he had earned from the Australian and US Open that year and also due to a herniated disc in his spine. After his Wimbledon title in 2000, he underwent a title drought in the following years, with redeeming performances in the 2000 and 2001 US Open, where he was a runner up. In 2001, his 31 match winning streak was ended by an up and coming player named Roger Federer. This epic five setter in the 4th round of Wimbledon was the only encounter between these two players, probably the best in each of their generations. People assumed he was past his prime but then Sampras shocked the world by beating Andre Agassi to capture his 5th US Open title. Sampras officially announced his retirement in August 2003. It was considered a fitting end to a stellar career, as he had won his first and last grand slam against Andre Agassi, someone he had enjoyed a career-long rivalry with. This rivalry was relished by tennis fans, as every time these two giants collided in the tennis arena, tennis of the highest quality was guaranteed: Sampras with his dominating serve and volley style, and Agassi, the counter puncher.
Style of Play
With a booming service game, Sampras was deadly on fast courts. Serves so accurate that he could ace his opponents at will on both serves, made him hold his serve easily. It was rumoured that Sampras would place coins on the court and practise hitting them to improve accuracy. Combining his fluid service motion with solid volleys, he dominated the net. He also had a classic style forehand, using an Eastern grip. His trademark on-the-run forehand left many players stranded at net, helplessly watching the ball fly past them for a winner. He also had the ‘Slam dunk smash’, which was arguably the best overhead in the history of the game. Although his aggressive style was perfect for faster courts it was not as effective on slower surfaces such as clay. His classic style, discipline on court and tremendous work ethic has made him a role model for many young tennis players.
Life outside tennis
Sampras has an elder brother and sister who are involved in the tennis scene. He also has one younger sister. He is married to American actress Bridgette Wilson and has two sons, Christian Charles and Ryan Nikalaos. He is involved in charity work. Sampras suffers from a genetic condition called thalassemia minor. He did not reveal this to the public for a large part of his career as he did not want it to affect the image of invulnerability he projected on court.
Sampras participated in an exhibition match against Robby Ginepri in 2006. In 2007 it was confirmed that Sampras would take part in a series of exhibition matches against Roger Federer, in venues around the world. He has also agreed to take part in the Outback Champions Series
Records and Statistics
- In a career spanning 15 years, he has won 7 Wimbledon, 5 US open and 2 Australian Open titles totalling a record 14 grand slams. He has also featured in 3 US Open finals and 1 Australian Open final.
- He is the only player to finish the year, ranked world number one for six consecutive years (1993-1998) and for a record 286 weeks
- He has earned a record U.S. $43 million in career prize money
- He is the youngest winner of the US Open at 19 years and 28 days.
- He has won the Tennis Masters Cup a record 5 times (1991, 1994, 1996-97 and 1999)
- In 1993 he became the first player to serve more than 1000 aces in a season.
- He has won 64 ATP titles in his career and has a career win loss record of 762-222
“I realized that I had given up in the match, just a touch, but enough to lose. I came to the realization that getting to finals wouldn’t be good enough anymore”- Sampras after losing to Stefan Edberg at the 1992 US Open final
“I hate to lose, and I do whatever I can to win, and if it is ugly, it is ugly,” – After defeating Alex Corretja in five sets, being match point down, during the 1996 US Open quarter final. Sampras vomited on court twice during the 4 hour match; he went on to win the US Open.
“There’s a certain aura about the place that you don’t feel anywhere else, the echo of the balls hit on Centre Court; it just feels significant’’ – Sampras on the Centre Court at Wimbledon where he was a 7 time champion.
“For me he was always the most complete player. He has the power, he has the speed, he has the touch. He is the best player ever.” Boris Becker in an interview with Sports Illustrated.
“It may be boring that people cannot get his serve back, but don’t call Pete boring!” – The great Rod Laver
“I put him in the godlike stratosphere with Laver and Borg. You have to put those people in the upper echelon. The French would obviously be the icing on the cake. It would be easier to argue he’s the best if he won it.” – John McEnroe in an interview with CBS sportline.
“When Pete is playing his best, he’s practically impossible to pass on volleys. What can you do? Maybe go over the net and break his strings?” & “Pete has one weakness though, he can’t cook” – Michael Chang
“The greatest tennis player for the period 1965 through 2005”- Tennis Magazine’s 40 greatest players of the Tennis Era.