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Pete Sampras: Best of All Time?
by Vince Barr

You know that it had to end the way it did. When Pete Sampras defeated his archrival Andre Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in the 2002 US Open men’s final, it was the crowning achievement for the greatest player to ever play men’s professional tennis. It also represented a career that, in many ways, had come full circle. In 1990, a 19-year old Pete Sampras defeated Agassi for his first major singles championship. It was only fitting that his last come during the same tournament, against the same opponent, twelve years later.

No one will question Pete’s greatness as a player, though some might take some shots at his perceived deficiencies. Critics of Pete will be quick to mention that he never completed the career grand slam since he never won the French Open, unlike Andre Agassi. Certainly, Andre’s accomplishment was perhaps his greatest achievement. However, it would be difficult to argue that Andre is a better player than Pete if you consider that, head-to-head, Pete has a 20-14 edge in career meetings, 4-1 in major finals, 9-7 in finals meetings, regardless of tournament. That should be the first basis of comparison between two players who play in the same era.

Second, Pete has been able to maintain a higher level of play more consistently than Agassi has. Andre has had periods of time where tennis was not his main priority and, at one point back in 1997, the results showed it. He dropped to # 141 in the rankings and even played on the Challenger level. Contrast that with Sampras’ impeccable record: 286 weeks at # 1, best of all time and will be forever since the ATP abandoned that statistic in favor of emphasizing their Champions Race at the start of the 2000 season. Pete also has the record for # 1 finishes at the end of the year: an incredible six consecutive # 1 rankings from 1993-98.

Comparisons made between players from different eras are dicey at best and invalid at worst. Changes in the game, equipment, circumstances of competition, quality of opponents and so on make a meaningful comparison between players from different time periods impossible. Some say Rod Laver was the best; after all, he won the Grand Slam (all four majors in one calendar year) not once, but twice. They point to the fact that he was ineligible to compete during his best years in the 1960s because of the conflict between "professional" and "amateur" status prior to the Open era.

Yet, like Pete, Rod is deferential in ascribing the title of "best ever". Laver has admitted that frequently, he had a very easy path to the quarterfinals in most tournaments he played in because there was not the depth of talent in the 1960s and early 70s that there is today. In today’s truly international game, there is a distinct group of players in Europe who play only on clay and don’t even try to master the other surfaces. Those players make winning the French Open difficult for anyone who makes a serious effort to play a full schedule. This points to another major difference in the era that Laver played in as compared to Pete’s time in the sport: Laver played three of the Slams on grass while Pete had to play on four different surfaces in each of the slams in which he competed. Credit is certainly due to Laver for winning two Grand Slams. But consider how many slams Pete would have won if he was able to play three slams each year on grass!

Pete’s greatest legacy will be his seven Wimbledon championships; no one really comes close. Technically, of course, Pete is tied with an obscure 19th century Englishman named William Renshaw, who also has seven Wimbledon titles. But again, the circumstances of his wins differ drastically from the modern era. In that time period, it was typical for a champion from the previous year to "challenge" the winner of the current year’s event. In other words, Wimbledon would be played for the right to unseat last year’s winner. Playing one match is hardly as difficult as playing seven matches to defend a title, setting aside obvious differences in the quality of competition. From the 1993 event to his tough five-set loss to Roger Federer in the quarterfinals of the 2001 event, Pete compiled an amazing 56-1 record and retired with a 63-7 record for his career at Wimbledon.

Pete was criticized for his on-court demeanor. He didn’t show enough emotion, looked depressed all the time and appeared as if he never really enjoyed himself. Then, on the few occasions when his emotions were too powerful to suppress, no one believed he was being genuine. Who can forget his epic battle with fellow American Jim Courier in the 1995 Australian Open Quarterfinals? He had just learned that his coach, Tim Gullikson, was dying from a brain tumor. Someone from the stands shouted to Pete "Do it for you coach!" and the tears came. Even Courier was affected by it, calling to Pete across the net that they could always play another day. Amazingly, Pete fought through those tears and went on to defeat Courier from two sets down, losing in the finals to Agassi. Flash forward to 1996: Pete was feeling ill and was becoming dehydrated in the midst of his epic encounter with Spain’s Alex Corretja in the US Open fourth round. He even threw up on court, only to be accused of staging the display to engender crowd support. As if he needed that. He won that battle in five tough sets and went on to defeat Michael Chang in the finals. It was difficult for Pete to get much crowd support at all. He was frequently so dominant that people would root against him just for the sake of seeing someone different hoist a trophy. That was the case at Wimbledon in 1998 when he beat Goran Ivanisevic in five tough sets; most of the crowd rooted for Goran and against Pete. That final was one of his most difficult wins in a major.

Some will say that he did not do enough to elevate the sport in the consciousness of the American public. He didn’t sell enough rackets, do enough personal appearances, endorse products and so on. And of course, the infamous critique of him being "boring" was a legacy that perhaps he was never able to live down. That the comment was even made to begin with is shameful. Since when did the public domain of a professional athlete extend to his personal life? For his part, Ivan Lendl thought the criticism of Pete's on-court demeanor was ridiculous: "It's sickening that someone who is down-to-earth, polite, behaves well, is reasonably clever, and wears nice clothes almost has to apologize for being the way he is."

S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated commented that Pete was not appreciated enough because he was simply so good of a player, that no one really understood how difficult sustaining that level of excellence really was. "He was always the argument you couldn’t win. Tennis purists loved his skill, naturally, and they will unhesitatingly declare Sampras’ second serve, his running forehand and his leaping overhead as treasures that belong under a museum glass. But for a public that didn’t grow up playing, tennis becomes charismatic only when rackets are flying or fists are pumping or new ground in fashion is being broken." (Scorecard, p. 23, Sports Illustrated, 9/1/03).

I was fortunate to see Pete play during the peak of his career. One of his favorite tournaments (outside of the Slams) was the Tennis Masters Series event in Cincinnati, Ohio. He compiled a 38-11 record there with three titles (1992, 97 & 99). Pete often played very casual in practice, saving his best for the matches that counted. One day back in 1997, after he had torched the field at Wimbledon while losing serve twice in 118 service games, he was playing a practice set in Cincy with Andrei Medvedev. Both seemed to be playing the set straight, acting as if they were playing for blood. I was perhaps 15 feet from the net near mid-court and Pete hit a shot right at Andrei, who returned a wicked cross-court smash that would have beaten most every other player on the Tour. Pete raced over, uncorked his running forehand and crushed the return right up the alley, which landed in the corner, right at the intersection of the baseline and doubles alley. From all appearances, it looked like Pete was aiming for the spot a dime would occupy if it were placed just barely in at the corner of the baseline. Andrei did a double take, went over to check the mark, looked at Sampras, then just shook his head and walked away. Pete came to the net with his racket trying to hide one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen cross his face. It seemed to take a great effort to stop himself from collapsing in gales of laughter. Sometimes, even Pete didn’t know how good he really was.

Although the fans and the media sometimes disrespected Pete, he enjoyed a wide amount of respect from his fellow pros. The ATP Tour celebrated its 25-year anniversary in 1997 with a poll to determine who was the best player of the last 25 years. That group was composed of former players, tournament directors and others closely associated with the game of professional tennis. Sampras secured 26 first place votes and won the title, "Best Player of the last 25 years." Bjorn Borg came in second with 17 first place votes, followed by John McEnroe, with 13.

In 1998, Pete was chasing Jimmy Connors’ record for consecutive finishes at the year-end # 1 ranking. He was locked in a tight battle with Chilean Marcelo Rios. In an effort to set the new record, Pete chose to play the fall European indoor season, something he typically did not do. He tried to enter the tennis tournament in Vienna, Austria, but they had no wildcards available for him to play. However, Boris Becker was entered in the field and at that point in his career, he was playing only part-time on the circuit. So Pete called Boris and told him what he was trying to do. Becker graciously ceded his spot in the main draw so that Pete could play. And Pete capitalized on the opportunity as he won the title along with 358 much-needed points to boost his chance of ending the year # 1.

Had Pete not been the type of player he was, Becker (or any other professional tennis player) would not have given up his place in the main draw. But Boris has stated on many occasions that Pete was the best player he ever competed against. Becker was one of the three former players who saluted Sampras (in person) in his retirement ceremony at the 2003 U.S. Open. Becker flew from Munich, Germany to New York City just to be there for Pete’s retirement. That’s quite a gesture of respect from a great player.

My favorite Pete Sampras moment that I was able to personally witness came in the semifinals of the Davis Cup match against Australia in September, 1997. The tie was going to be closely contested and Australian Davis Cup Captain John Newcomb’s strategy was to win both of their matches against Michael Chang and take the doubles point, using the Woodies, effectively giving up on the two points from Pete’s singles matches. But Chang surprised them by beating Mark Philippoussis in the first match of the weekend and Pete was next up against Patrick Rafter. I spoke to former Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson about that tie and he said "That was one of the great Davis Cup matches that I was involved in. In 1997 we beat Australia 4-1 in the semis; Rafter just won the US Open. And I will say that Sampras played the best tennis I’ve ever had the privilege to witness: the last three sets against Rafter."

Gullikson continued, "You know, the first set was incredible tennis, (Pete) lost in a tiebreaker, they both played great. Rafter was hitting diving volleys and overheads and he was just all over the net. And Pete had a bunch of break points and a couple of set points. And I just told Pete after the first set, "Pete, you know, you were really unlucky to lose the first set, but if you can raise your level up a little bit here. You’re coming very close to breaking him almost every time he serves. I mean, if you can just raise your level a little bit, you could really break this guy down. And that’s exactly what he did; he won the next two sets 6-1, 6-2 and played flawless tennis. His winner to error ratio was like four winners for every error. It was the most high quality tennis I’ve ever witnessed. And then he closed out the match 6-4 in the fourth and it was just a great experience."

After winning Wimbledon in 2000, which broke Roy Emerson’s record of 12 grand slam singles crowns, Pete was not sure what other goals he wanted to accomplish in the game. To his credit, he did not become obsessed with winning the French Open. He knew he had given his best effort there and if he never won that tournament, he could retire knowing he gave it everything he had. Other pros were not so content. Bjorn Borg may have walked away from the game early, at the age of 25, partially because he could not figure out how to win the U.S. Open. In the twilight of his career, Ivan Lendl played almost exclusively on grass, trying to win Wimbledon. No one questioned Pete’s desire to win every tournament he entered, but he was not going to pursue one tournament, even one that would have solidified his standing in the annals of men’s professional tennis history, at the expense of competing as hard as he could in every other event he entered.

In September of 2000, Pete lost in the US Open final to Russia’s Marat Safin in straight sets, something that had never happened to him before in a major final. It marked the beginning of perhaps the toughest stretch of his career. He got married a few weeks after that loss to actress Bridgette Wilson, and didn’t play again that year until the season-ending championships in Lisbon, Portugal, when he made it to the semifinals with a loss to Gustavo Kuerten, who ended the year as the # 1 ranked player in the world.

By his lofty standards, 2001 was not a great year. He made it to the finals at Indian Wells, losing to Agassi. Then he lost at Wimbledon to Federer. Suddenly, rumors started that he was going to retire, that he lost a step in his game. He wasn’t winning titles that year. Finally, he lost to Lleyton Hewitt (again in straight sets) at the 2001 US Open Finals. That loss broke his string of winning at least one major from 1993-2000, eight consecutive years. In addition, he failed to win at least one title of any kind for the first time since 1990. After the Open, he played just one more event that year. Pete was adamant about not retiring and thought that the speculation that he was going to do so anytime soon was ridiculous.

What angered Pete most was not the incessant talk of his retirement or the speculation that he had lost a little bit in his game. Rather, it was the unfounded criticism upon his marriage by John McEnroe that really stoked his fire. McEnroe blamed Bridgette for Pete’s poor play (by his lofty standards). Pete defended his wife by pointing out that if anyone wanted to take issue with his results, they need only look to him, specifically, his performance on court. But Bridgette was off limits. She was the best thing to ever happen to him inside or outside the game of tennis. In fact, by the time he finally won his 2002 US Open title, he gave her a lot of the credit for helping him through the darkest time of his professional life. Were it not for her encouragement, support and love, he would have just walked away from the game frustrated by his inability to win a title between Wimbledon 2000 and the US Open of 2002.

For the first time in many years playing, Pete was developing a life outside the game of tennis. Prior to the start of the 2002 U.S. Open, he commented to CBS television analyst Dick Enberg that he had had enough of being the # 1 ranked player in the world. Tennis was not the all-consuming thing it used to be in his life. However, he still believed that he had at least one more grand slam singles crown left in him. And he expressed a great resolve not to leave the game until he had it. Most figured that he would win another Wimbledon crown. No one, outside of Pete, expected him to win in Flushing Meadows again.

Sampras was truly a rare athlete. Few of us can even dream of being professional athletes: men and women paid to play a sport they love. Fewer still achieve greatness. But someone who can climb the pinnacle of his sport and not become jaded by the success, failure, prize money and public acclaim is the rarest athlete of all. At some point, many athletes become almost dependent on being recognized for their athletic prowess; it becomes a matter of their ego, of being validated in some way. That’s why so many find it difficult to just walk away and are usually forced out the door by advancing age or, in the case of team sports, someone playing better than them who eventually takes their spot on the roster.

Pete believed in himself when no one outside his inner circle thought he would ever win another grand slam singles crown. By retiring with a major title, he joins that rare group of athletes who go out on their own terms, winning a major event in the process. Perhaps his greatest and most underappreciated quality was his humility. That’s not a word we often associate with professional athletes. He did not feel the need to tell everyone how great he was, he just let his racket do the talking. Time and again, journalists who covered tennis tried to get him to say that he was the best ever to play the game. And each time, he said such a claim was not his to make and in so many ways, he’s right. Too many things in the game of pro tennis have changed. Comparison between eras is speculative at best, totally inaccurate at its worst.

The best measure of an athlete’s domination of his era is to look at his statistics against the level of competition he played against. Throughout his (pending) Hall of Fame career, he played against 297 different people and had a winning record against 245 of those guys (82.5% winning percentage). If you exclude those opponents who only played one match against Pete (win or loss, both are excluded to be fair; anyone can get lucky in one match, Pete included), his winning percentage rises to 91.6% with winning records against 141 opponents out of 154 different people played. By any measure, that’s pretty dominating, especially since his clay court record is included in that mix, which was his worst surface.

Against the Top 10, he compiled a 114-60 record, good for a 65.5% winning average, regardless of surface. Against players ranked 11 to 100, he posted a 77.1% winning average on 571 matches. Players out of the top 100 had virtually no chance against Sampras, as Pete posted a 132-9 record against them (93.6% winning average). Think about that. How easy would it have been to take a win for granted when playing against an opponent ranked out of the top 100? Nine losses to those players over a 15-year career is nothing short of remarkable. That statistic certainly testifies to his uncanny ability to focus on each match and never giving anything short of his best regardless of the tournament or surface. From 1992-2000, Pete lost only two matches to players ranked 101 or lower and for seven of those years, he was undefeated against that type of player. For his career, Pete Sampras compiled a 762-222 career win-loss record, over $43.2 Million in tournament winnings, 64 singles titles, including the aforementioned 14 grand slam singles crowns, which is the best of all time.

Pete will probably be elected on the first ballot to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, class of 2008. That would be the earliest he could be enshrined with the other immortals of the game, given a five-year retirement rule. I for one will miss seeing him play. I wish others would have appreciated him more while he was playing. But sometimes, it takes awhile for true champions to be recognized and celebrated. His retirement ceremony was very touching and it was great to see him walk around center court at Flushing Meadows one last time with his infant son, Christian, in his hands. Pete’s greatest aspiration now is to be the best father and role model for his son that he can be. We wish him the very best in all his future endeavors.

Pete Sampras Career Retrospective

Total Match

Year

Wins-Losses & %

Top 10 Record

Top 100 Record

Outside Top 100

Unranked

1988

10-10 (0.500)

1-0 (1.000)

5-8 (.385)

5-2 (.714)

0-0

1989

18-19 (.486)

1-4 (.200)

7-17 (.292)

9-1 (.900)

2-1 (.667)

1990

51-17 (.750)

6-5 (.545)

30-15 (.667)

11-1 (.917)

10-1 (.909)

1991

52-19 (.732)

8-6 (.571)

39-15 (.722)

13-1 (.929)

0-3 (.000)

1992

72-19 (.791)

10-6 (.625)

52-16 (.765)

11-0 (1.000)

9-3 (.750)

1993

85-16 (.842)

10-5 (.667)

66-13 (.835)

11-2 (.846)

8-1 (.889)

1994

77-12 (.865)

10-6 (.625)

55-8 (.873)

11-0 (1.000)

11-4 (.733)

1995

72-16 (.818)

12-7 (.632)

56-16 (.778)

8-0 (1.000)

8-0 (1.000)

1996

65-11 (.855)

13-5 (.722)

51-11 (.823)

14-0 (1.000)

0-0

1997

55-12 (.821)

10-1 (.909)

42-11 (.792)

7-0 (1.000)

6-1 (.857)

1998

61-17 (.782)

6-2 (.750)

50-17 (.746)

9-0 (1.000)

2-0 (1.000)

1999

40-8 (.833)

10-1 (.909)

26-6 (.813)

8-0 (1.000)

6-2 (.750)

2000

42-13 (.764)

3-5 (.600)

24-9 (.727)

7-0 (1.000)

11-4 (.733)

2001

35-16 (.686)

8-5 (.615)

30-15 (.667)

3-1 (.750)

2-0 (1.000)

2002

27-17 (.614)

6-2 (.750)

21-14 (.667)

5-1 (.833)

1-2 (.333)

Career

762-222 (.774)

114-60 (.655)

554-191 (.744)

132-9 (.936)

76-22 (.776)


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