It was a glorious sight in the Tennis world. The trigger, the high release point and then the booming serve that sounded like a gunshot. The beauty and impact of his serve were such that he would earn the nickname ‘Pistol’. For a period of 14 years, Pete Sampras dazzled the world of Tennis in a way few have ever done. His exploits in Wimbledon, in which he won seven titles in eight years, made him one of the greatest in the business.
For Sampras, his domination also coincided with the rise of other American superstars like Andre Agassi and Michael Chang. Sampras’ skills made other superstars raise their game to a different level altogether. Agassi and Chang fed on the success of Sampras, who went on to rewrite the history books in Tennis.
Sparta is the place of great warriors when it came to Greek mythology and folklore. Sampras’ mother was from that region. It is possibly that reason Pete had all the qualities of a warrior, never giving up and blowing the opponent away with his powerful serve and accuracy. From the very early days, the focus was on winning Wimbledon. So much so that his early coach, Dr. Peter Fischer, converted his two-handed backhand into a one-handed one for better impact on grass.
The initial years were filled with frustration and disappointment for Pete Sampras. He made his debut at the age of 16 in 1988 but he struggled for impact. In 1989, he did achieve something big when he defeated defending champion Mats Wilander in the US Open but he lost in the next round. After two years of trying in various tournaments, Sampras finally had success in 1990.
In the US Open in 1990, Sampras defeated Thomas Muster to enter the quarterfinal. Sampras, though, had a slice of history in the quarterfinal against Ivan Lendl. The Czech player had been reaching the US Open finals for the last eight years but his streak was ended in dramatic style in a tough five-set encounter. Sampras continued his giant-killing run by beating John McEnroe in the semi-final. In the final, he met his future rival and great Andre Agassi. Sampras achieved history as he won the final in straight sets to become the youngest US Open winner at the age of 19.
When he lost in the US Open in 1991, Sampras surprised many with his comment that he was relieved to not be the defending champion. That attitude led to sharp criticism from many players. In 1992, he was reaching the semi-final and final of Wimbledon and the US Open. During that US Open tournament, Sampras lost in a grueling five-set encounter to Stefan Edberg in the final.
The loss in 1991 plus the defeat to Edberg in 1992 made him realize that he needed to have the determination to become the best player in the business. All that changed in 1993. After losing in the Australian and French Open titles, Sampras finally achieved his glory when he won the Wimbledon tournament for the first time. He defeated Jim Courier in the final and his style of play ushered in a new era of dominance.
Sampras was in fine form as he won the US Open in the same year to attain the No.1 ranking. In 1994, he won the Australian Open for the first time but he stumbled in the French Open. Roland Garros would continue to trouble Sampras, as he did not warm up to clay courts. His dominance in Wimbledon would continue as he defeated Goran Ivanisevic.
The Australian Open in 1995 was a period of turmoil for Sampras. During the tournament, his coach and long-time mentor Tim Gullikson collapsed and was forced to return to the US. It was later revealed that Gullikson was diagnosed with brain cancer. Sampras was shaken and he wept in the quarterfinal against Courier. With spectators urging him on and trying to win it for Gullikson, Sampras managed to win that emotional match. However, he lost in the final to Andre Agassi. As the year progressed, Sampras would win more titles. But, Gullikson died the following year.
Sampras won Wimbledon for the third straight time when he defeated Boris Becker. The American would get his revenge on Agassi when he won the US Open for the third time. In 1996, Sampras would experience heartbreak when his three-title streak was broken in the quarterfinal. Richard Krajicek inflicted a straight-set loss on Sampras. But, Sampras ended the year on a high by winning the US Open with a dominant win over Michael Chang.
From 1997 to 2000, Sampras dominated men’s Tennis. He won Wimbledon four straight times from 1997 to 2000. His last win in 2000 came against Pat Rafter of Australia when he battled tendinitis in his shin and knee. Sampras had now held the No.1 ranking for five years. When he won Wimbledon for the seventh time, he had gone past the record of 12 Grand Slam titles won by Ross Emerson. Sampras was at the peak of his powers in the four-year period, with the exception of the French Open.
In 2001, Sampras lost in five sets to Roger Federer in the fourth round of Wimbledon. That match was labeled as the ‘passing of the torch’ from one generation to the other. Sampras’ loss in Wimbledon meant that for the first time since 1989, he did not win a single Grand Slam title. His ranking slipped to No.10 in the world.
In the 2002 US Open, many predicted that Sampras would not progress ahead. But, in a stunning display, Sampras defied the odds and reached the final at Flushing Meadows. He met Agassi in the final. 12 years earlier, both Sampras and Agassi had contested the final as youngsters. Now, both battle-hardened veterans slugged it out in four sets. Sampras managed to win the title and register his 14th Grand Slam title. It was his fifth US Open, equaling the record set by Jimmy Connors.
After a year, Sampras announced his retirement. It was an end of a glorious career. His rivalry with Agassi transformed the Tennis world, with Sampras holding a 20-14 head-to-head advantage. Sampras’ serve and his ability to volley brilliantly made him a player adept at success in Wimbledon and hard courts. It was a sad fact that Sampras never won the career slam, with the French Open proving to be his stumbling block.
Agassi pipped Sampras when it came to the career Grand Slam. In addition, he won the Olympic gold, something that Sampras never achieved in his career. These are two things that might possibly be a low point in Sampras’ career. But, there is no denying the fact that when it comes to the definition of greatness, Sampras fits it brilliantly. On his 50th birthday, the legend of Pete Sampras continues to grow.