Pete Sampras was the man to beat in the 1990s. The American, who turned professional in 1988, played in 266 tournaments over the course of his 14 year career. He finished as year-end world #1 a record six times and claimed 64 titles, including 14 Grand Slams. Sampras made a fast start to his career, winning his first Major at the US Open just 28 days after his 19th birthday, beating his countryman Andre Agassi 6-4 6-3 6-2 in the final. That made him the youngest man ever to win in New York.
He went onto win four more titles at his home Slam, beating Agassi in the final again in 1995 and in 2002, in what proved to be his final competitive match. But despite all the success he enjoyed in Flushing Meadows, it was at Wimbledon that Sampras proved to be most at home. ‘Pistol Pete’ claimed seven titles between 1993 and 2000, with his only defeat during that eight-year stretch coming at the hands of an inspired Richard Krajicek in the quarterfinals in 1996.
Such was his dominance, that when Sampras hung up his racquet in 2002 after winning his fifth US Open and 14th Major title overall, he was considered by many to be the greatest of all time. The only real blot on his copybook was his failure to adapt his game to the clay. As Sampras never advanced past the semifinals at Roland Garros. Nonetheless, there could be little doubt that he had established himself as the foremost player of his era.
His greatest rival, Agassi, did manage to complete the Career Grand Slam, but won only eight Grand Slam titles to Sampras’ 14. He also trailed in their head-to-head, winning only 14 of their 34 clashes and just one of the five Grand Slam finals they contested, with his only win coming at the Australian Open in 1995. His overall record against Sampras at the Majors was marginally better, but he still finished his career trailing 3-6 in Grand Slam matches.
Sampras, although at his best when playing on the front foot and rushing the net, was more than just a serve-volleyer. That said, his serve is worthy of mention. The American was both powerful and accurate when at the line, often able to ace his opponents with ease, including with his second serve. But he also possessed a formidable forehand, particularly when stretched out wide on the run, with Sampras regularly able to win points when under heavy pressure with scorching forehand winners.
But in the last decade, Sampras’ lustre has faded. Eleven years ago, Roger Federer, who announced his arrival to the world with a stunning victory over Sampras in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2001, surpassed his record of 14 Grand Slams. Perhaps fittingly, the Swiss did so at Wimbledon, beating a big-serving American in the shape of Andy Roddick. Then, in 2017, Rafael Nadal too passed Sampras’ mark, with the Spaniard winning a 10th French Open to take his tally of Majors to 15.
Novak Djokovic then became the third man to win more than 14 Grand Slams, winning his 15th Major title by beating Nadal in straight-sets at the Australian Open. In fact, precious few of Sampras’ hard-won records remain intact. Federer broke his record of 286 weeks at world #1 and Djokovic too looks certain to pass that number sooner rather than later. The Swiss has also passed Sampras’ tally at the ATP Finals, winning six season-ending championships to Sampras’ five.
Which begs the question: what is Sampras legacy now? Never the most outspoken of characters, he has rather faded into the background in recent years, whilst the tennis world has risen to acclaim the men who have surpassed him. And whilst Djokovic, amongst others, cite him as an inspiration, Sampras appears to have left little lasting mark on the men’s game, with only a handful of players emulating his net-rushing style of play.
But if Sampras can no longer claim to be the greatest of all time, does that mean he is no longer a great of the game? Surely not. In the 1990’s, no man enjoyed more success. Sampras also demonstrated a commendable willingness to battle through adversity. In 2001, Paul Annacone, his coach since 1995, left his team to work at the USTA, with Sampras’ form slumping thereafter. An early defeat at Wimbledon in 2002 was particularly damaging, with Sampras describing it as the ‘the lowest point of his career’.
But as mentioned above, he rallied from that frustration to win the US Open in 2002, beating Agassi in the title-match in what was the final match of his career. He ended what was a remarkable career on his own terms with a victory on home turf over his greatest rival. Make no mistake, Sampras’ legacy is secure and should remain so in the generations to come. He was then and is now one of the greatest ever to play the sport.
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