Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Pete Sampras: Reflections on a Career



Pete Sampras: Reflections on a Career

NB. All statistics about still active players are up to and including Wimbledon 2013!

It must seem terribly old-fashioned to write anything about Pete Sampras nowadays. In the single decade since his retirement the amazing Roger Federer has surpassed, or at worst equalled, virtually all of his records, from the number of Grand Slam titles to the number of weeks at No. 1. Connoisseurs of tennis widely regard Federer as the “GOAT”, a mysterious acronym that presumably means the “Greatest Of All Time”. Why bother with old stuff like Sampras? Well, I have several excellent, if personal, reasons.

First of all, there is no such thing as the “GOAT”. The reason is simple: you can’t compare different eras. This, of course, is a well-known cliché, yet it is astonishing how seldom people stop to think about it. The enormous amount of intellectual power that is regularly lost in such futile debates makes one despair of the human race. Since the beginning of the Open Era in 1968, the game has changed almost out of recognition; the rules and the court’s dimensions are just about the only things that have remained the same. (And even that isn’t quite true; the tiebreak, for example, is a relatively modern invention; it’s been used since the mid-1970s.) And different people have very different criteria of greatness. They can talk till they are blue in the face, those knowledgeable fellows on tennis history, but this won’t change the subjective – and, dare I say it, irrelevant – nature of their mighty discussions. So long as they are fun and not taken too seriously, such arguments provide a nice diversion. But they are nothing more than that.

To take but one example, it is generally agreed that the number Grand Slam titles, fondly called Majors, is the best indication of greatness as far as tennis is concerned. This is a very sensible assumption. But the agreement, unfortunately, ends here. What exactly do you count? Roy Emerson used to hold the record for most Majors (12) before Sampras broke it, but all of his titles were achieved before the Open Era even began. There were many great champions between the two world wars, even back in the end of the nineteenth century when Wimbledon began. But the world of tennis – indeed, the world at large – was a vastly different place in those times. Comparisons are out of the question. Even if we agree to consider the Open Era only, another almost obligatory condition, there are other problems as well.

Some people lay great stress on the so-called “Career Grand Slam”, winning the four biggest tournaments on three very different surfaces (grass, clay, hard court), and tend to despise players who never achieved that. This is foolish for several important historical reasons.

First, there is the controversial issue of the so called “convergence of surfaces” in the recent decade or so. I’m not well versed into this thorny problem, but there appears to be some data that do suggest homogenization of surfaces which used to be much more different in the past. Obviously it must have been much harder to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year when grass was much faster than clay, as Bjorn Borg did no fewer than three times in the late 1970s. It is certainly suspicious that most holders of “Career Grand Slam” (Federer, Nadal) have emerged only in the last few years. Agassi is the only one who could complete his Grand Slam as early as 1999 when he finally won the French Open. This actually makes his achievement all the more impressive. He seems to be the only player in history who managed to win the four biggest tournaments on three very different surfaces.

Why nobody did it before Agassi? Why two fellows have done it since? Are players today so much more versatile than they were in the old days? Not really. Another drawback of the surface-orientated mentality is that it often neglects history. The fact that a player has never won Roland Garros does not necessarily mean that he has never won a Grand Slam title on clay; likewise with grass and Wimbledon. People often forget that the “three surfaces” situation is a relatively recent innovation. Until 1974 the US Open was held on grass, for the next three years it switched to clay, and only since 1978 it has been employing hard courts. The Australian Open, unbelievable as this may seem to young tennis lovers not very fond of history, was held on grass until as recently as 1987. So, in short, there are players who never could win Wimbledon yet did win a Grand Slam title on grass (e.g. Wilander in Australia, 1983-4), and there are those who never conquered Roland Garros yet do have a Grand Slam title on clay (e.g. Connors at the 1976 US Open). Indeed, Jimmy is the ultimate versatile player. He is the only one to have won the US Open on three different surfaces: 1974 on grass, 1976 on clay, 1978 and 1983-4 on hard.

Since clay is a most peculiar stuff to play on (very slow speed, very high bounce), Roland Garros has always been the most difficult of the four Majors. It has most often been won by the so-called “clay specialists”, fellows who could hardly reach a final in the other three Majors let alone win a title there (Kuerten, Muster, Bruguera, Moya, and many others), and it has most often been the only Grand Slam title that eluded many outstanding players who at one time or another won all three of the others. Should we question the place in tennis history of Sampras, Becker and Edberg, to name but three, just because of that single omission in their Grand Slam collections? Is the greatness of John McEnroe in some way diminished because he never won either the French or the Australian Open? I should hope not. In this context it must be remembered that John didn’t participate much in the Australian Open during his prime, nor did Jimmy in Paris for that matter. In those days, apparently, breaking GS records was not a priority.

The one-slam snobbery is not limited to Roland Garros. Far from it. There are some people who still cast the shadow of doubt over Ivan Lendl because he never won Wimbledon and indeed was greatly prejudiced against the surface (“grass is for cows”, he once snapped), never mind that the man won the French and the US Open thrice each, not to mention two crowns in Melbourne and eleven lost finals in all four tournaments. Others are fond of putting down Borg because his eleven Majors were confined to Wimbledon and Roland Garros only, so his surface versatility was very limited indeed (even though no two surfaces can be more different than grass and clay). To complicate the situation still further, until well into the Open Era (1974) three of the four Majors, that is all of them except Roland Garros, were played on grass; at that time (1969) and under these conditions did Rod Laver achieve the only Grand Slam in a single calendar year so far. So much for surfaces.

Such arguments about types of surfaces are clearly short-sighted and of little value. Their complete and lamentable disrespect even of post-1968 tennis history renders them worthless, no matter how many times they have been advanced as “objective criteria” by blind fanatics. (However, the type of GS titles, as we’ll see later, is not entirely irrelevant.) A much more difficult proposition is the comparison of the competitions during different eras, and it is this conundrum which, to my mind, makes the whole “GOAT” hypothesis nonsense by default. Sampras dominated the 1990s like no single player had ever dominated the 1970s or the 1980s. Federer went one better by dominating the first decade of the new century like Sampras never had. But no player exists in a vacuum. Quite on the contrary, he does exist only against a certain group of rivals, at least several of whom are almost his equals. Here arises the really difficult question: was Federer (or Sampras) really greater than Sampras (Federer), or was he just lucky to have a weaker set of rivals? Was any of them better/worse than Lendl, McEnroe or Connors?

This is a tautological situation with no solution. The moment you concede a weaker competition, you automatically concede diminished greatness, and vice versa of course. And that’s the problem: even successive generations of rivals cannot really be compared, because they depend as much on the “GOAT” in question as on anything else. For example, I do think that the “weak era” argument does have some relevance to Federer’s unprecedented domination. It took Nadal several years to emerge as a first-rate competitor on surfaces other than clay, and it took Djokovic and Murray the same period, if not longer indeed, to emerge as worthy rivals on any surface at all. Roger was indeed lucky to have his best years largely to himself; his greatest rival was the never-better-than-just-good Andy Roddick whom he could beat handsomely; Safin and Hewitt had made a great stir just a couple of years ago, but both already were past their brief if glorious prime. That said, I do think this argument is often artificially boosted and dishonestly used to degrade Roger’s greatness. This is authentic. He would have been at the top in any era, that’s for sure, although I am quite convinced that he would have needed a longer period to win this jaw-dropping number of Majors.

On the other hand, Pete Sampras spent his whole career surrounded by pretty strong rivals. In the early years Becker and Edberg, and even the past-his-prime-but-still-formidable Lendl, gave him a good deal of trouble; indeed, Becker remained a potential threat until the second half of the 1990s. Andre Agassi was his greatest single rival. He was there all the time, and despite the vicissitudes of his erratic career he was always ready to give his best against Pete. In later years several brilliant youngsters came on the stage too, most notably Hewitt and Safin, both of them full ten years younger, who beat him heavily in two consecutive finals at the US Open. In addition to all that, there was a whole galaxy of lesser players who could always be counted on giving him a hard time on the court. These included Goran Ivanisevic, the Croatian with stupendous serve, the great Aussie Patrick Rafter, the Dutch Richard Krajicek and the German Michael Stich, all of them exemplary serve-and-volleyers, the stubborn Michael Chang, the tenacious Petr Korda, the unpredictable Yevgeny Kafelnikov. None of these players ever won more than one Major in his career yet all of them were more than the derisive label “One Slam Wonder” might suggest, and there were plenty of others who didn’t achieve even that but were always ready to put a strong fight against the great (e.g. Henman, Rios, Ferreira, Philippoussis, Rusedski, Bjorkman, Larsson, Enqvist, Corretja, Schalken, Haarhuis, Medvedev and so many others).

All this is by the way. To get back to the beginning, while I greatly admire Roger Federer, it is Pete Sampras who is my “GFOAT” (Greatest Favourite Of All Time). This is because statistics don’t really tell the whole story, and because this is purely personal opinion that makes no claims to be objective, let alone relevant to anyone but myself. Roger may hold the records, and so far as I can see he may hold them for quite some time, but it is Pete who – personally for me, I repeat – transformed tennis into art. There was something feline in his movements on the court, some effortless grace coupled with awe-inspiring power that made his game perfectly compelling. That’s why I’m paying him this little tribute, if the random reflections that follow can be called thus. I will deal almost exclusively with statistics, of course, but I will try, as far as I can, to put Pete’s achievements in their right order and against the proper historical context of his life and career. I will also try to keep detailed descriptions of the game itself to the minimum, for there is nothing more tedious and there is plenty of material on YouTube.

NB. Please keep in mind that the video quality on YT is usually far from stellar. In many cases the tennis ball may be hardly visible!

1988-89: Years of Obscurity

Pete’s career started inauspiciously. He turned pro in February 1988, at the tender age of 16 (born August 12, 1971), and quickly lost his first match at the tournament in Philadelphia (4-6, 3-6 against one Sammy Giammalva Jr., a compatriot then 105th in the world but today vastly forgotten). The very next week he made a little stir in Indian Wells, no less, when he reached the third round defeating one Top 40 and one Top 30 player, but he then lost to one Top 20 guy (the Spaniard Emilio Sanchez, 5-7, 2-6). At that time, Pete himself was No. 893 in the world!

During those early years of obscurity Sampras didn’t even have a positive win-loss balance (29-32 for both years), and he didn’t advance beyond the quarterfinals (QF) in 32 out of 33 tournaments played; the only exception was the small (and now defunct) tournament in Schenectady, NY, where he did reach the semis but lost to No. 11, Tim Mayotte, 6-7, 2-6. He did attract some attention, though. In 1989 he reached the fourth round (4R) at the US Open, defeating the defending champion Mats Wilander in the 2R, 5-7, 6-3, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4. Since the Swede was No. 5 at the time, this was also Pete’s first win over a player from Top 10. It is quite safe to assume, however, that nobody at the time suspected that this scrawny kid from California would one day win the US Open five times. Nor did anybody think that Pete will end his career with 63.6% (124-71) success versus Top 10 players. This puts him at No. 6 in the Open Era, after Borg, Nadal, Becker, Federer and Lendl. Note two things: 1) two of these players are still active; and 2) Borg played more than twice fewer matches versus Top 10 players, 67-28 (70.5%).

It’s interesting to note one last detail about those early years. In 1989 Sampras met for the first time two of his long-term rivals: Michael Chang and Andre Agassi. Despite a very small difference in the age (Chang is one year his junior, Agassi one year his senior), both of them were already promising young stars in Top 10, while Pete was struggling to be in Top 100. He lost pretty badly to Andre in Rome, 2-6, 1-6, and he was absolutely wiped out by Michael in their first encounter: 1-6, 1-6, 1-6 in the 2R of the French Open. (It was at the same Roland Garros, of course, that the 17-years-old Chang became the youngest Grand Slam (GS) champion ever.)  They met twice more on hard that year, twice more Pete couldn’t win even a single set; indeed, Michael Chang is one of the very few players who can boast to have taken a set with 6-0 against Sampras.

We may deal briefly with the Sampras-Chang rivalry here, for it is the least dramatic among the great ones. They met 20 times in the course of 13 years (1989-2001), Pete leading 12-8. At first glance, this looks rather close. Not so at second glance. Five of Chang’s wins were in 1989-90, a period during which Sampras beat him only once. However, from the next 14 meetings, Michael won only three: QF in Miami (1992), SF at the Masters (1995) and R16 in Rome (1998). Otherwise, Pete demolished the little guy of Asian descent any time they met on court. They played at three finals – Tokyo in 1994, Hong Kong in 1996, and most significantly the US Open later on the same year – but Chang managed to win but a single set in all three matches. Except for the crushing defeat at Roland Garros mentioned above, there were three further encounters in GS events, but Chang proved to be a slightly difficult obstacle in only one of them, QF at the 1993 US Open, 6-7(0), 7-6(2), 6-1, 6-1; Pete won without much trouble in the semis of the 1995 Australian Open, 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, and he simply run over Michael in the quarters of the 1994 Wimbledon, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3. I reckon Chang must be feeling very uncomfortable when he is described as one of the Golden Generation for American Tennis that produced Sampras, Agassi, Courier and him. The other three, taken together, have no fewer than 26 (!) GS titles. Michael has one.

1990: First Grand Slam Title

1990 was the breakthrough year for Pete. In February, exactly two years after his professional debut, he won his first title in Philadelphia, a small indoor tournament on carpet; in June he caught another one on grass in Manchester. But this was just a little horse d’oeuvre. In the beginning of September Sampras took the tennis world by storm. Less than a month after his 19th birthday, Pete became, and still is, the youngest man to win the US Open. And it wasn’t just a fluke for the skinny guy. On his way to the title he beat two former champions, indeed two of the greatest players in the history of the game, Ivan Lendl in five sets in the quarters and John McEnroe in four in the semis. In the final he had no problems whatsoever with Agassi, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

It is true that by the time this US Open began on 27th of August, partly due to his first two titles and partly due to several semi-finals (Rome, Cincinnati, Los Angeles), Pete had reached No. 12 in the world. But surely nobody expected him to go that far that soon. Lendl and Agassi were No. 3 and No. 4, Thomas Muster, whom Pete beat in four sets and in the 4R, was No. 6, and though McEnroe had fallen to No. 20 he wasn’t exactly harmless either. His first Grand Slam title sent Sampras straight in Top 10, where he remained for the next ten years, and gave him the opportunity to participate in his first Masters (aka ATP World Tour Finals), the year-end tournament where the first eight in the world play for lots of money and lots of points. He didn’t advance beyond the round-robin phase, but he finished the year in style by winning the so-called Grand Slam Cup, an ITF alternative to the Masters (which is organized by the ATP, of course). This short-lived tournament was once notorious for the astronomical money prizes it offered: even in 1990 the winner took $2 000 000, just about the same amount that is received today by the US Open champion. In his autobiography, A Champion’s Mind (2008), Pete called the Grand Slam Cup’s prize “insane” and quoted McEnroe who denounced it as “obscene”. But he had to work hard to get it, beating Cherkasov, Ivanisevic, Chang and Gilbert in a row.

The 1990 US Open final was the third meeting between Sampras and Agassi, but it was the one that really started their tremendous rivalry, one of the finest during the 1990s and indeed in the whole history of the game. For the 14 years between 1989 and 2002, Pete and Andre played 34 times against each other, Sampras leading 20-14 in the final score. No fewer than 15 of these matches were finals. Here Pete leads only 8-7, but it should be noted that in Grand Slam finals the result is 4-1. Only at the 1995 Australian Open final could Agassi win, while Sampras was victorious three times at the US Open (1990, 1995, 2002) and once at Wimbledon (1999). They played only three more GS matches. Agassi won a SF at the 2000 Australian Open, Pete prevailed in two QFs, 1993 at Wimbledon and 2001 at the US Open. There will be many occasions in the next paragraphs to recall unforgettable matches between these tennis colossi. Their rivalry exemplified the collision between the two basic types of tennis, serve-and-volley versus baseline, and the results were invariably riveting.

Pete’s first Grand Slam title nearly proved to be his undoing. Many times has he stated, in his autobiography and in interviews, how difficult it was for him to cope with all the publicity that came together with the title. Suddenly he was expected to win more and more, to defend his title on the next year, to be a force in men’s tennis. He wasn’t ready for that. He was still a 19-year-old kid from California, rather shy and introverted, not at all fond of being the centre of great attention. These were not empty confessions. Statistics are there to prove it. Pete had to wait two full years to reach his next Grand Slam final. He had to wait even longer to win one.

1991: The First Title at the Masters

During the first half of 1991 it was evident that Sampras was under pressure. He reached the finals in Manchester and Philadelphia but failed to defend either title; Ivanisevic in straight sets (4-6, 4-6) and Lendl in an epic five-set thriller (5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6), respectively, were insurmountable obstacles. Until the end of this year he lost two finals more, both of them important tournaments (Cincinnati, Paris) and both of them to the same tough Frenchman, the left-hander Guy Forget (one of Pete’s most inconvenient rivals, by the way, 5-4 head-to-head between 1990 and 1996). Isn’t it strange that a player who finishes the year without a single loss in a final match then goes on to lose four in the next year? To me it is. And the only reasonable explanation I can think of is that the young Pete was under the pressure of huge expectations he was not ready to meet.

Worst of all, Sampras reached only the US Open’s quarterfinals that year, losing to Jim Courier in straight sets. He was unwise to state later in an interview that he was relieved by his loss because he no longer had to fulfil all those high expectations. The statement caused a good deal of criticism, including by Courier himself, and I daresay many specialists were ready to write Pete off. I suppose on the next year they had the satisfaction of being able to tell their incredulous colleagues “I told you!”, for even greater disappointment awaited Pete for his 21st birthday. But first things first.

Fortunately for Sampras, in the second half of 1991 he won three titles and so could finish the season in Top 10 (at No. 7, to be exact). Two of these were minor tournaments (Indianapolis, Lyon), but the third was his first Masters crown. He beat Stich and Agassi in the group, smashed Lendl in the semis, 6-2, 6-3, and finally took revenge for the loss at the US Open by defeating Courier in a tense final, 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-4. (Question: is there anything more nerve-wracking than a second-set tiebreak to stay in the match?) After that he ended the year with a pretty nice win-loss balance – 52-17 (75.36%) – even better than the fine ratio from the previous year (51-17, 75.00%).

(As a matter of fact, however, the year ended with two painful losses for the Davis Cup. The USA met France on their own territory, and the vocal French crowd so irritated Pete that he couldn’t win more than a single set against Henri Leconte or Guy Forget. Then again, team playing never was Pete’s forte. He was a lone wolf. All great champions are. That’s why in this essay matches for team competitions, Davis Cup and World Team Cup, are excluded from the win-loss statistics; the same of course applies to titles. Only singles tournaments are considered.)

1992: The Cornerstone of Pete’s Career

1992 was a better year – sort of. Pete won five titles altogether, the most in his career so far, including reclaiming the crown in Philadelphia and defending the ones in Lyon and Indianapolis (d. Courier, 6-4, 6-4). He also captured his first title from the so-called-then Mercedes Super 9 series (MS9 for short from now on, today known ATP World Tour Masters 1000), the most elite tennis tournaments after the Big Four. This happened in Cincinnati and included memorable victories over Petr Korda (No. 6) in the quarters, Stefan Edberg (No. 2) in the semis, and Ivan Lendl (No. 11) in the final. He also claimed his first title on clay in Kitzbühel, although he lost the final in Atlanta to Agassi on the same surface (his weakest by far).

The year wasn’t was so great Grand-Slam-wise. Pete made some stir at the Roland Garros (QF, l. to Agassi in straight sets) and Wimbledon (SF, l. to Ivanisevic in four sets), but a bitter disappointment stalked him at the US Open. He advanced to the quarters after two strenuous wins over Todd Martin (R32), 7-6(1), 2-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 and Guy Forget (R16), 6-3, 1-6, 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, in both of which he actually ended with fewer won games, a somewhat paradoxical situation. In the quarters he smashed Alexander Volkov with 6-4, 6-1, 6-0, and in the semis he didn’t have much trouble with Courier, 6-1, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2. However, Stefan Edbeg’s blend of elegance and power proved to be impossible to beat in the final. The Swede took the match with 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(5), 6-2, and together with it his second US Open and sixth Grand Slam title overall.

This was the only final among the 14 matches Sampras and Edberg played against each other between 1990 and 1995. They met in six SF (3-3), one of which was their only other match at a GS event, the 1993 Australian Open, and Stefan won that too. Since Edberg, much like Sampras, was one of the most gifted and graceful serve-and-volleyers ever to have stepped on a tennis court, the matches between them were unforgettable feasts of volleys, passing shots, lobs and anything else beautiful the tennis fan can imagine. Unfortunately, Sampras and Edberg share one other similarity: both have been consistently underrated, no doubt because neither was fond of putting an antic disposition on-court or playing a flamboyant rock star off-court.
                                                            
The loss at the 1992 US Open’s final was the watershed in Pete’s career. He has stated so himself a number of times, and statistics again corroborate his words. I guess, for this is of course sheer speculation, that many tennis specialists were at the time ready to mark Sampras with the derogatory label “One Slam Wonder”. After all, he hadn’t won another one in the two years after his fairy-tale like triumph in 1990, and now he lost the only final he had reached ever since. Pete had other plans, however. With a final win-loss balance 68-16 (80.95%), 1992 was a fine year, certainly an improvement over 1991. But 1993 was a huge quantum leap.

1993: No. 1 in the World

1993 was the first Anno Mirabilis in Pete’s career. That painful loss to Edberg did indeed create miracles with his motivation and determination to win; it raised both to unheard-of-before heights. Nothing shows this more convincingly than his results during this miraculous year. On April 12 Pete became No. 1 for the first time in his career. He stayed there for total of 286 weeks (then a record, later surpassed by Federer), finishing No. 1 for six consecutive years (still a record). The Grand Slam dry ended abruptly, too. In 1993 Pete won two Majors in one calendar year for the first time in his career, and he continued to do so for three of the next four years. No single player had ever dominated the world of tennis more strongly before, only Roger Federer has done it since.

The year started promisingly. Pete won his 14th title in Sydney and reached the semis at the Australian Open for the first time (but there Edberg was lurking, again). Despite another painful loss, this was enough to make Sampras No. 2 in the world. A 16-matches winning streak and three titles (Miami, Tokyo, Hong Kong) in March and April put him at the very top for the first time in his career. He stayed there for 19 weeks before Courier replaced him. Through the years, Pete was demoted to No. 2 (or even below that, indeed all the way down to No. 7 in 1999) and regained the most coveted place in tennis on ten occasions in the next seven years. It was Agassi, of course, who dethroned him most often (four times), Rios (twice) and Muster, Moya, Kafelnikov, Rafter and Safin (once each) also contributed.

In June he captured his first Wimbledon title. Nobody knew it at the time, but this was the beginning of a new era at the All England Club. Until 2000 Pete won the unprecedented seven titles in eight years, breaking Bjorn Borg’s record of five (consecutive) titles between 1976 and 1980; Federer has equalled both achievements since. There are only two players in the Open Era who had won Wimbledon three times (McEnroe, Becker), and only a handful of guys who have managed to duplicate their titles (Laver, Newcombe, Connors, Edberg, Nadal). Wimbledon is the most exclusive of all Grand Slam events. The number of “interlopers” is very small, and they are hardly second-rate players: Stan Smith, Jan Kodesh, Arthur Ashe, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray. And the number of “one slam wonders” is almost non-existent. For 46 Wimbledons since the beginning of the Open Era, only four players (Cash in 1987, Stich in 1991, Krajicek in 1996, Ivanisevic in 2001) have won their single Major at the All England Club. Obviously the competition at Wimbledon has always been merciless. Consider what it takes to win seven titles in eight years there…

Pete’s first Wimbledon was no fluke. The defending champion Agassi in the quarters, 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, the three-times former champion and No. 4 in the world Becker in the semis, 7-6(5), 6-4, 6-4, and finally No. 2, Courier, 7-6(3), 7-6(6), 3-6, 6-3, were beaten on his way to the title. He did have some luck two months later at the US Open where only one Top 10 player (No. 7 Chang in the semis) stood in the way to his second title in New York. But he earned his luck in the next ten years, winning three titles more and thus sharing a record with Connors and Federer, the only other players to have won the last Grand Slam event for the year five times. Between 1990 and 2002 Sampras played altogether eight US Open finals, thus joining Ivan Lendl in another awe-inspiring record, although the great Czech-American did it in consecutive years. Fortune favours the brave, they say. One could claim with equal justice that fortune favours the great, too.

If the above logic about Wimbledon is accepted, namely that the importance of one Major is estimated best by its exclusiveness (i.e. been won most by the best in certain era and least by “one slam wonders”), then the US Open is every bit as prestigious as Wimbledon. During the 45 editions in the Open Era so far (1968-2012), only four players have won the US Open (one of them twice) and no other Major in their careers. These are Manuel Orantes (1976, on clay), Patrick Rafter (1997-8), Andy Roddick (2003) and Juan Martin del Potro (2009). Two important things should be noted. First, the last of these fellows is still active and may improve his GS record. Second, at least two of the other three were far from mediocre. Rafter played in two Wimbledon finals, Roddick in three.

It may be profitable to apply the same method to the Australian Open and Roland Garros, and thus show why they may be regarded as the two least important Grand Slam events. (For Roland Garros this has been alluded to above, but now it will receive a strong support.) However, first it must be noted that during the 1970s and the early 1980s many of the greatest players, at least the non-Australian ones, seldom went “down under”. For example, Borg participated in only one Australian Open (1974), Connors in two (1974-5), McEnroe in five – but only two of them (1983, 1985) were in his prime. Likewise, Roland Garros was sometimes skipped by great players in top form because of contractual complications, the classic example being Jimmy Connors who was banned from the tournament between 1974 and 1978.

Keeping all this in mind, it is still astonishing to find so many nobodies among the winners of the Australian Open and Roland Garros, and not only in those ancient times referred to in the above paragraph but also in the last quarter of a century when all four Grand Slam events have, with but very few exceptions, been booked by everybody every year. Among the Australian Open champions are names like Thomas Johansson (2002), Petr Korda (1998), Johan Kriek (1981-2), Brian Teacher (1980) and Roscoe Tanner (1977). No doubt excellent players, all of them, but if they never won another Major they couldn’t have been that good, could they?

As for Roland Garros, its champions’ list is full of “clay court specialists” who never did anything remarkable on other surfaces; and we should remember that only one fourth of the Grand Slam, and no more than one third of the regular ATP season, is on clay. Recent “one slam wonders” include Gaston Gaudio (2004), Juan Carlos Ferrero (2003), Albert Costa (2002), Carlos Moya (1998), Thomas Muster (1995), Andres Gomez (1990) and Michael Chang (1989). Again, many of these fellows did win important titles on hard (e.g. from the ATP Masters Series), some of them even reached other Grand Slam finals (e.g. Chang at the 1996 US Open, Moya at the 1997 Australian Open), yet never did they achieve anything more memorable in the other three Majors. This is true even of some of the greatest Roland Garros champions from those recent times. Gustavo Kuerten (3 titles, 1997, 2000-1) and Sergi Bruguera (2 titles, 1993-4) did have some success on hard, but neither of them ever left a significant trace in the other Majors.

This long digression has served the purpose to show one thing: the fact that most of Pete’s Grand Slam titles are confined to Wimbledon and US Open is not without significance. Now let’s get back to his career.

Sampras entered the 1993 US Open as No. 2 in the world, but after winning the title he was of course back at the top. This time he held it for the remarkable 82 consecutive weeks, from September 13, 1993, to April 9, 1995. Excluding the two Majors, however, the second half of 1993 wasn’t all that impressive. He won two small titles more, in Lyon and in Antwerp, and lost his only final for the year at the Masters where Michael Stich defeated him, 7-6(3), 2-6, 7-6(7), 6-2.

Nevertheless, 1993 was a great year for Pete. He played in 23 tournaments (including 4 GS), winning eight titles (2 GS) and reaching one final, seven semi-finals (1 GS) and 3 quarterfinals (1GS); only in four tournaments did he fail to reach at least the quarters. His win-loss balance in the end of the year reached the impressive 84.54% (82-15). Most important of all, he finished at No. 1 and made a strong claim to be one of the all-time greats. Yet I doubt there were many tennis specialists who expected Sampras to become a living legend, undoubtedly the greatest player of his era.

1994: Annus Mirabilis #2

1994 was the most miraculous of all miraculous years. Pete won 10 titles (personal record) on three different surfaces, including two Grand Slams, three Mercedes Super 9 tournaments (personal record), and the Masters. No wonder that he didn’t drop the No. 1 for a single week this year. He won fewer matches but he also lost fewer and his year-end balance was better, percentage-wise: 73-9 (89.02%). This was a personal record also. Although Pete continued to win more than 80% of his matches in five of the next six years, he never again achieved quite so high a percentage. In this respect, he remained far from the records set in the 1980s. McEnroe’s 1984 season holds the record with 96.5% (82-3), followed by Jimmy Connors’ 1974 with 95.9% (93-4). Even Roger Federer couldn’t quite match these staggering figures, although in 2005 (81-4, 95.3%) and 2006 (92-5, 94.8%) he did come close.

The year started with Pete’s longest winning streak in his whole career. After losing in the first week of the year and in the first round of the tournament in Doha (to No. 205, the Moroccan Karim Alami), he lost only once more in his next 40 matches; 27 of these wins were consecutive. They brought him 5 titles (Indian Wells, Miami, Osaka, Tokyo, Rome), three of them from the Masters Series, beating in the finals Korda, Agassi, Roux, Chang and Becker, respectively. Among other things, this was the only year in which Pete could triumph in both Indian Wells and Miami, two great tournaments held in two consecutive weeks including a journey from California to Florida. Were it not for another first-round loss, to the tough Dutchman Jacco Eltingh (No. 89) in Philadelphia, Pete would have had 40 wins in a row, but it was not to be.

Until the Philadelphia hitch in mid-February, Sampras defended his title in Sydney (d. Lendl, 7-6, 6-4, in what turned out to be the last – 146th! – final in his long career) and won his first Australian Open. In Melbourne he was nearly knocked out in the 2R by the completely unknown Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, then No. 60 but soon to find a place among the first ten, but he got away with 9-7 in the fifth (after he’d lost the fourth with 1-6). Pete dropped but one set more during the whole tournament (against Magnus Gustafsson in the quarters), beating in straight sets Lendl (No. 17 but still strong) in the 4R, Courier in the semis, and Todd Martin in the final.

Apparently fatigue accumulated, for after this stunning series of titles Pete’s performance started to wane. He reached another quarterfinal at Roland Garros and his first final at the Queen’s Club, but lost on both occasions. In the 2R in Paris he beat the long-haired Chilean Marcelo Rios who at the time was No. 283 but a few years later would contest the No. 1 place with Pete; three rounds later he lost to Courier in four sets. On grass he was defeated by his friend and sometime doubles partner Todd Martin, but when they met again at Wimbledon a few weeks later Sampras was victorious again. He defended his Wimbledon title by defeating three Top 10 players in the last three rounds, including Todd, No. 9 at the time, in the semis against whom he lost his only set in the whole tournament. Ivanisevic was his rival in the final, but despite his stupendous serve the Croatian couldn’t achieve anything more than tiebreaks in the first two sets; he lost the third to love. But Goran and Pete would meet again in a Wimbledon final, this time as equals.

The second half of the 1994 was far less successful than the first. Perhaps most painful of all, Pete couldn’t defend his US Open title, having been defeated by the tough Peruvian Jaime Yzaga (No. 23) in the 4R. Nor was the European indoor season any better. He took part in two big tournaments from the Mercedes Super 9 series but reached only the semi-final in Stockholm (l. to Becker, 4-6, 4-6) and the quarterfinal in Paris (l. to Agassi, 6-7(6), 5-7). Defending his title in Antwerp was a small consolation: he didn’t have to beat anybody even in Top 20. The stubborn and technically very well-prepared Swede Magnus Larsson (No. 22) fell in the final, as he had done on two previous occasions in the last two months or so. Magnus took his revenge by defeating Sampras in four sets in the final of the lucrative Grand Slam Cup, the last tournament for the year. Pete might well have been tired from the epic five-set thriller (10-8 in the last set) with Ivanisevic in the semis. But before that final loss for the year, there was one great triumph.

In 1994 Pete won his second Masters, the only ATP tournament that may be compared to the Grand Slam events. It is much less strenuous of course (five matches at most: three in the group, semi-final and final, only the last one is best-of-five), but it does collect together the eight best players in the world. Pete started with a loss to Becker (5-7, 5-7) but later beat him in the very final in four sets (4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4). Meanwhile the road to the last match was hard indeed. His second match was with the great Stefan Edberg who, as was his wont, gave him a lot of trouble with fabulous passing shots and impeccable volleys. Sampras fought hard to win with a third-set tiebreak. In the semis he defeated Agassi but only after losing the first set and taking the second with a tense tie-break (7-5 points).

Thanks to this Masters and to the glorious first half of the year, 1994 was in the end perhaps the greatest of all 15 years that Pete spent in the professional tennis. He didn’t know it at the time, but the next year would bring personal grief mixed with the professional glory.

1995: Personal Grief and Professional Glory

1995 started with the Australian Open and one of the most famous – and certainly the most affecting – personal episode in Pete’s whole career. In the fifth set of the quarterfinal against Courier, having just learned that his coach and friend Tim Gullikson was terminally ill, Sampras broke down completely on the court and could barely finish the match. The incident made sensational news. The world at large was finally convinced that Pete Sampras was human after all. He always was, if not criticized, at least thought boring because he seldom showed emotion on the court. Evidently most people are simple-minded enough to think that if one doesn’t express one’s feelings with histrionic outbursts one doesn’t have any. I’d rather think the opposite is true. But what does it matter anyway? Pete was well aware of all that and in his autobiography, with his typically quiet self-assurance, he put it very well:

Players like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Boris Becker won legions of fans because they so freely vented their emotions. I understood that they needed to do that to play – or feel like they were playing – their best tennis. And, of course, it always made good copy, and added an extra layer of interest to the personalities of those guys. I never begrudged or envied that. But I also felt that the media could have done more to appreciate that I was the yin to their yang.

In tennis, you always have two opponents out there – the other guy and yourself. […] The most important guy you have to beat is yourself – the part of you that’s prone to doubt, fear, hesitation, and the impulse to give up. If you’re too busy struggling with yourself, like some players, you can hardly be expected to beat your opponent.

[…]

I also was less interested in being appreciated or understood than in being a champion, and I didn’t mind being an exemplary one. I wanted to wring every ounce of potential from the Gift, and the only way I could see doing that was through self-control. I also believed that if I just lived up to my potential, appreciation and even understanding would follow. That was my blueprint for success, and it created a backlash once it began to pay off. It didn’t help that guys like McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were around bemoaning the lack of “personality” in tennis.

[…]

Besides, who said a tennis player was obliged to show personality (if that’s what you want to call it)? I wasn’t in tennis to win popularity contests, to show how interesting a person I was, or to be an entertainer. I was in the game to play tennis at the highest level within my reach, and to win titles. Tennis was my first love and also my professional business. And I never confused that with show business. If I wasn’t going to be remembered for my game, I wanted to be remembered for the way I carried myself. If I wasn’t going to be remembered for that – I didn’t want to be remembered.

I can only add that John and Jimmy obviously confused the personality on court with the one off court. The fact that most tantrums did happen on court doesn’t mean they have anything to do with the game. The funny thing is that in those times, the 1990s, there was a great variety of different playing styles among the great; in other words, there was a good deal of “personality” on the court. This is hardly the case today when three of the “Big Four” share the same kind of dreadful anonymity as do the matches in a single matchbox. What would McEnroe and Connors say today? Well, I don’t know about Jimmy, but John regularly praises highly the current crop on the top. Then again, he is a commentator for great companies. He’s on a payroll.

Even the British, whom one might expect would appreciate reserve, always thought Sampras a bit of a bore. Why? Because he didn’t make brilliant speeches at the Champions’ Dinner. In fact, through the years they have shown themselves, and their precious, tradition-stuffed Wimbledon, no different than any mindless crowd involved in a highly publicized event. Sampras played some of his finest tennis on the grass of the All England Club, yet never did he become half as popular as Becker or Agassi, both of them born showmen who always entertained the crowd. It should be the game that matters first, right? Well, it seldom does. At least the titles more often do. Somewhere around the third or fourth title, the former Empire Makers finally realised, if dimly, that Sampras really was a great player.
  
As a matter of fact, Sampras has shown lots of emotion on the court. He just did it  only after really important points, and even then it was far from the elaborate gymnastics or frantic shouting employed by many others. Most of the time while playing his demeanour was cool, collected, almost indifferent. He never smashed rackets or shouted to umpires; I saw him only once to just drop his racket on the ground after missing a very easy point at the net, and in the rare cases when he did argue with the man in the high chair he kept his voice at normal levels. But all this, I repeat, is entirely irrelevant. Of course in those exceedingly rare instances when Pete’s game was discussed, it was deemed tedious because it’s only “serve, ace, serve, ace, serve, ace” and nothing more. This may mean only one of two things: 1) YouTube is a figment of my imagination and it doesn’t really exist; or 2) most people are blind.
                  
In spite of such emotional disturbances, and in spite of the fact that Pete didn’t defend his title, the 1995 Australian Open was one of his strongest Grand Slam performances. He reached the final where he lost to Agassi in four sets. But the real gems were the 4R and the QF against Larsson and Courier, respectively. Pete won both from two sets down: 4-6, 6-7(4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-4 against the Swede, 6-7(4), 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 against his compatriot. The latter was an incredible all-court drama, some three and a half hours long, that continued until well after midnight and left the audience, nearly intact despite the late hour, completely drained. There was everything in this match: from Pete’s emotional breakdown to an obscenity warning for Courier (who at one place, after he made an easy forehand mistake, was frustrated enough to exclaim quite audibly “Fuck”) – and lots of great tennis of course. It’s a pity that such glorious achievements – two comebacks from 0-2 sets in a row – had to end without a title, but that’s tennis. After the 1990 US Open, this was the first time when Pete and Andre contested a GS crown. The score now was 1-1, but little did Andre know that until the end of their careers he would lose three more of the most priceless finals in tennis. As for Pete, he didn’t lose another one for more than five years.

By the way, in 1995 the Sampras-Agassi rivalry reached its absolute peak. After the final in Melbourne they met four times more, all of them in high-profile finals. They dominated completely the California-Florida coupling of Masters tournaments, Pete winning in Indian Wells, 7-5, 6-3, 7-5, Andre prevailing in Key Biscayne a week later, 3-6, 6-2, 7-6(3). Agassi also won in Montreal, another elite tournament of the Masters series and one that always eluded Sampras. Pete had the last word for the year, however. He defeated his greatest rival in the US Open final with 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, and claimed his third title at Flushing Meadows. Only after this crucial win did he regain the No. 1 place. For the greater part of the year, 30 consecutive weeks from April 10 to November 5, Andre had been at the top.

The 1995 clay season was a total disaster. Pete entered five tournaments and lost in the first round four times – including at Roland Garros by the Austrian Gilbert Schaller (No. 24). The only slight spark in the clay darkness was the semi-final in Hamburg, but Andrei Medvedev put an end to all hopes for something more, 4-6, 6-2, 4-6.

In stark contrast, the grass season on English soil in June could not have been better. Pete won his first title at the Queen’s Club (d. Guy Forget, 7-6(3), 7-6(6)) and his third one at the All England Club (d. Becker, 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 with one of the finest performances in his whole career). Both winning streaks were notable for marathon semi-finals. At Queen’s No. 73 in the world, the relentless German Marc-Kevin Goellner, didn’t give up until he lost the third set with 11-13 games. At Wimbledon Ivanisevic was twice trailing only to come back in the match by winning another set; he finally lost the fifth, 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. It is worth noting that Pete also beat two Britons during the early stages, No. 174 Tim Henman, 6-2, 6-3, 7-6(3), and No. 60 Greg Rusedski, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5. Both would soon be much higher in the ranking and both would create a good deal of court trouble for Pete, especially Henman in two memorable, four-set SF in 1998 and 1999 in which he was supported by the frenzied English crowds.

The post-Wimbledon part of the year was a mixed bag. Pete lost two finals (in Lyon to the freckled Wayne Ferreira, and in Montreal to Agassi as already mentioned) and won two titles (in Paris, d. Becker in straight sets, 7-6(5), 6-4, 6-4, and at the US Open as already mentioned). At Flushing Meadows, he met his last-year’s executor, Jaime Yzaga, in the 2R, but this time he dispatched the Peruvian in straight sets, letting him take but eight games. Pete was lucky with the draw, but winning the tournament still required four-sets victories over Philippoussis in the 3R and Courier in the semis. The year-end was lacklustre – a semi-final at the Masters (l. to Chang, 4-6, 4-6) and a quarterfinal at the Grand Slam Cup (l. to Ivanisevic due to injury and withdrawal from the match).  

In 1995 Sampras also won the Davis Cup with the USA team. They defeated Russia on their own soil (and on clay) in the final, Pete winning both of his singles matches, in straight sets against Kafelnikov (now No. 6) and in five long ones against Andrei Chesnokov, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4. In the latter match, the exhaustion proved a little too much and Pete collapsed on the court while raising his hands after the last point; he was immediately taken away for medical examination but fortunately there was nothing serious. Earlier during this year, he won two singles against Sweden (Enqvist, Wilander) and Italy (Furlan, Gaudenzi). This time, unlike the debacle in France four years ago, he clearly was the right man for the job.

Taken as a whole, 1995 was a very strong year indeed. Despite Agassi’s leading their head-to-head with 3-2 and holding the No. 1 for most of the year, it was Pete who ended as No. 1 for third consecutive time, and justly so, although he regained the place as late as November 6 (just after his title in Paris). Altogether he won five titles, including two GS and two MS9 events, and he lost four finals more, including one GS and two MS9 tournaments. He finished with 66-16 (80.49%) win-loss record (72-16, 81.82%, if you count the Davis Cup).

1996: Downfall?

1996 was the year of the first signs that Sampras’ domination would not be everlasting. He won eight tournaments and 87.84% of his matches (65-9), lost only one final, and ended as No. 1 for fourth consecutive year and indeed held the place during all the time except for eight weeks in the first few months. Yet there were subtle but disturbing differences with previous seasons.

The Grand Slam campaign was only moderately successful, to begin with. For the first time in four years he won “only” one title. In Melbourne he was knocked out in the 3R, beaten in straight sets (including two tie-breaks) by the Australian (but fellow of Greek descent) Mark Philippoussis, a big man with a big game, especially his bullet-sending serve, who could avenge himself for the loss at the US Open on the previous year and at the same stage of the tournament. (The overall head-to-head between Sampras and Philippoussis is 7-3 for Sampras, 5-2 in GS matches.). In Paris he reached the only semi-final in his career, defeating the twice ex-champion Jim Courier from 0-2 sets in the quarters, but lost in straight sets to Kafelnikov (who later won the tournament). By far the most painful loss was in London, where the Dutch Richard Krajicek, another big man with a big serve, eliminated Pete in the quarterfinal and stopped his series of 25 consecutive match wins at the All England Club.

This quarterfinal in Paris was the last important meeting between Sampras and Courier; they played only two matches more, in 1997 and 1999 in Rome and Miami respectively, both times at R64, their earliest ever. Friends off court (well, sort of) and Davis Cup partners, Pete and Jim played no fewer than 20 matches in the course of 12 years (1988-1999), Sampras leading 16-4 in the final run. One of the main reasons why Courier could never repeat his impressive success from the early 1990s, when he won 4 GS titles (2 AO and 2 RG), is that he managed to beat Pete in only 20% of their matches. His victories were usually big – QF at the US Open, 1991; SF at the Masters, 1992; QF at the Roland Garros, 1994 – but they were the exception rather than the rule. Pete leads 5-2 in GS matches, 4-0 in finals overall (including one GS, the 1993 Wimbledon, and one Masters, 1991), and 7-1 in semi-finals overall (3-0 in GS). Courier, much like Agassi, was a powerful baseliner who always brought the best in Pete and made him work hard to win. Unlike Andre, however, Jim was rather weak mentally and, perhaps, he developed something of a Sampras complex. (So, to some extent at least, was and did Andre?) Courier is the only player against whom Pete has won two matches from two sets down (Australian Open 1995, QF; Roland Garros 1996, QF).  

When the US Open came, it was time for Grand Slam retribution. Neither Ivanisevic in the semis nor Chang in the final could stop Pete from winning his fourth title at Flushing Meadows. But the real masterpiece was the quarterfinal against Alex Corretja, an unseeded clay-courter from Spain and possessor of extraordinary stamina. After more than four hours of superb tennis, the match had to be decided with a fifth-set tiebreak. (As is well-known, the US Open is the only GS tournament in which there is such a thing; the other three employ two games difference in the deciding set.) Pete was obviously struggling with great physical exhaustion, he could barely stand on his feet in this tie-break. At one point, he actually felt sick and threw up on the court! Not much came out of his mouth while he was bending over, using his racket as a crutch, but nevertheless he was taken away by the medics immediately after the match was over. Somehow, by sheer effort of will, he managed to finish this tiebreak against the Spaniard who looked impossibly fresh and fit. Only in the very end of this epic match, surely one of the greatest and most moving in the history of the US Open, did Providence smile at Pete: Corretja made a double fault on match point. The final result, 7-6(5), 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6(7), and the touching hug Pete and Alex exchanged over the net, are things hard to forget.

Six of the rest seven titles this year were relatively minor (San Jose, Memphis, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Indianapolis, Basel), certainly none was from the MS9 series, something that happened for the first time in five years (he reached one final, in Stuttgart, but he lost it). This is not to say that these were easy wins of no significance. Far from it. In many of them Pete had to negotiate victories against some of his strongest rivals, including Agassi, Ivanisevic and Chang. But the real jewel in the 1996 crown was Pete’s winning his third Masters, not only because this is the most prestigious tournament after the Big Four, but because of the way he did it.

The end of the year was marked by two grand, five-set clashes in finals with Boris Becker. The first one was in Stuttgart, where the blond giant won, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, and the second one was at the Masters in Hanover, again on German soil where the crowd was cheering every point of their favourite with something much like hysteria. Just like 1994, Pete lost to Boris in the round-robin but later defeated him in the match for the title. He would later repeat the stunt with Agassi in 1999.

Stretching to some four hours and including three tiebreaks, the 1996 Masters final has become the stuff tennis legends are made of. Certainly, it is one of the greatest matches in the history of the game. Like the quarterfinal against Corretja at the US Open, Pete won this battle by his iron will alone. He was not quite in top form. During the whole match his serve was shaky, while Becker’s was stupendous: he outaced Sampras by a factor of two! Pete also made unusually many not-so-forced errors, not least in the marathon tiebreak in the fourth set where he missed two match points. The final score was 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(4), 6-7(11), 6-4, but a more telling statistic is the number of points won: 178 to 166 for Becker! Only 10 of all 344 points in the match were breakpoints; only two of them led to breaks (one for Becker in the first set, one for Sampras in the final one). In other words, this was the kind of match decided by no more than three or four critical points. It is not a coincidence that when Pete finally broke Becker’s serve, in the ninth game of the decider thanks to several precise passing shots, he expressed his satisfaction with a violent fist pump and a nearly savage cry: one of his least restrained moments on court ever.

It was not for nothing that Pete titled his autobiography A Champion’s Mind. Physique and technique are very important, no question about that, but it is the strength of mind, the champion’s mentality, that forges the great victories on the court. It’s not enough to love tennis. You have to love winning also. I have never seen a better proof of that than this tremendous final.

This is the place to say a few words about the Sampras-Becker rivalry, the second most important after the one with Agassi. Pete and Boris played two matches more in 1997, but the 1996 Masters final was their last epic battle. Between 1990 and 1997 they met 19 times on the court, Pete leading the head-to-head with 12-7 (6-1 in finals). Except for the aforementioned tournament in Stuttgart, Becker never won a final against Sampras, losing six times through the years (twice at the Masters, and once at Wimbledon, Paris, Rome and Indianapolis). Oddly enough, Wimbledon was the only GS event where they shared a court, so to say. Pete won all three encounters: SF in 1993, F in 1995, QF in 1997. The rivalry reached its peak during the period from 1994 to 1996 when they played ten times. In all cases, these were great spectacles between all-court titans. Both could serve-and-volley and grind from the baseline as well as anyone. These matches are classics now, especially in the present era of appallingly cautious and monotonous tennis.

1997: Resurgence?

1997 opened with a bang: 17 straight wins and three titles, including Pete’s second (and last, alas) triumph at the Australian Open. He also beat Greg Rusedski to defend his title in San Jose and Pat Rafter to claim his third crown in Philadelphia, one of his favourite tournaments, perhaps partly for sentimental reasons for it was there, of course, that he won his first professional title in 1990.

He had some really tough moments in Melbourne. In the 4R he met the 19-year-old Slovak Dominik Hrbaty, No. 70 in the world, who in time was leading with a break in the final set. Truth to tell, Pete was to blame himself, for his playing was apathetic this day, but in the end he could take advantage over the young man’s inexperience and close the match with 6-4 in the fifth. Afterwards the cocky Slovak boasted that the next time he would teach Pete how to play tennis, or other words to that effect, but in fact he lost in straight sets in Wimbledon’s first round (1998); in 2000 he could finally beat him, 0-6, 6-4, 6-4, but that was for the entirely unimportant World Team Cup. Hrbaty made a decent but entirely unremarkable career, reaching No. 12 in 2005 and winning altogether six minor singles titles. Five-set drama, too, had to be played in the quarters against Albert Costa, one of those Spanish clay court specialists who could always be relied on making your life hard on any surface. But then Pete speeded up, giving only 10 games to Muster in the semis and only eight to Moya in the final.

The 1997 San Jose final is notable because it is the only one Pete ever won because of his opponent’s injury and retirement. Rusedski took the first set, 6-3, was playing really well, and had no reason to funk it. However, it is interesting that the problems with his wrist started only at 4-0 for Sampras in the second set, and he retired when the result swelled to 5-0 and 0-30 on Rusedski’s serve. The Canadian Brit won their only other final, in Paris on the next year, 6-4, 7-6(4), 6-3, but this was his only success in ten matches between 1995 and 2002. Only two of them were at GS events, 1995 at Wimbledon’s R16 and 2002 at the US Open’s R32. The former was a routine win in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5, but the latter was perhaps the most difficult step to the last title in Pete’s career.

The rest of the hard court season was disappointing. Pete reached a semi-final in Miami but lost to Sergi Bruguera, a clay court specialist (twice champion at Roland Garros) who “was better than that” and “moved like a deer” as Sampras recognised in his autobiography. In Indian Wells he lost his very first match (the one from the second round, the top seeds generally starting from there) against the Czech Bohdan Ulihrach. The clay court season didn’t fare any better. He lost three first matches at three consecutive tournaments (Monte Carlo, Rome, World Team Cup) and reached only the 3R of Roland Garros.

Pete then failed to defend his title at the Queen’s Club, losing to Jonas Bjorkman in the QF, but he more than compensated for that by winning his fourth Wimbledon a month later. It must have been tough to resume his “subscription for the title” after the 1996 loss, but Pete did it with his characteristic thoroughness. He won four consecutive titles more, achieving 31 match wins in a row until Roger Federer stopped him in the 4R of the 2001 tournament. Back in 1997, while he beat Becker in the QF, the really hard match to win was the one with Petr Korda in the 4R. Pete took the first two sets but lost the next two, a rare thing indeed, before taking the match with 6-4, 6-3, 6-7(8), 6-7(1), 6-4. In the last two rounds he had little trouble with lucky losers like Todd Woodbridge and Cedric Pioline; both of them were indeed lucky to reach such stages at Wimbledon.

The rivalry between Pete Sampras and Petr Korda is one the most underestimated in the tennis history of the 1990s. Perhaps it is inaccurate to speak of rivalry because the final score is 12-5 in Pete’s favour, but it’s a fact that the lanky Czech nearly always made his life on court pretty miserable. Korda was not exactly nobody, to begin with; at one time (February 1998) he was No. 2, and he finished his career with ten singles titles (including 1 GS and 1 MS9) and 14 finals (including 1 GS and 2 MS9). Of the 17 matches they played, 11 reached a deciding set; four of these turned into nerve-wracking five-set thrillers (including their only meeting in a final, Indian Wells, 1994). After the 1997 Wimbledon they met at the US Open two months later and Korda took a bitter revenge. He dethroned the defending champion in the 4R after three and a half hours and three tiebreaks, 6-7(4), 7-5, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 7-6(3). A little consolation for Pete was that he won their last meeting in Paris later on the same year.

Probably the most mesmerising, though certainly not the most important, match between Sampras and Korda was the 1993 SF at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich. This really was the tennis equivalent of a Greek tragedy, or a Wagnerian drama if you like. After four and a half hours Korda won with the highly unorthodox result 3:6, 7:6(3), 3:6, 7:6(10), 13:11. Merely to enumerate the highlights would take pages. It is enough to say that Pete lost altogether five match points, three in the monstrous tiebreak of the fourth set and two in the 16th game (8:7) of the last set. Missing so much was rather unusual for Pete, to say the least. This may indicate the kind of special pressure he must have been under when playing against Korda.  

In the second half of 1997 Pete won four titles more, all of them important ones, and aside from the US Open and the Davis Cup he played and lost early in only two other tournaments (Indianapolis, Stuttgart). He captured 2 MS9 events after two great series of wins against formidable rivals from the top of the ranking. In Cincinnati he defeated Rafter (No. 19, R16), Kafelnikov (No. 6, QF), Costa (No. 17, SF) and Muster (No. 4, F); three months later in Paris he “took the scalps” of Becker (No. 38, R32, their earliest match ever, round-wise), Korda (No. 8, R16), Muster (No. 12, QF), Kafelnikov (No. 8, SF) and Bjorkman (No. 10, F). In addition to all that, he took his second Grand Slam Cup and fourth Masters, again after impressive series of wins: Mantilla (No. 14, R16), Bjorkman (No. 13, QF), Rusedski (No. 10, SF), Rafter (No. 3, F) in Munich; and Rusedski (No. 5, RR), Rafter (No. 3, RR), Bjorkman (No. 4, SF), Kafelnikov (No. 6, F) in Hanover. He lost to Moya in his first match at the Masters, but that was of no consequence except that it gave the Spaniard an opportunity for a mild revenge for the crushing defeat in the Australian Open final nearly 11 months earlier. In other words, in 1997 he achieved the finest indoor season in his career: almost two months of awesome consistency and three titles out of four tournaments entered (l. to Krajicek in Stuttgart).

Taken as a whole, 1997 was Pete’s last truly glorious year; from 1998 onwards he started having more and more problems with his game, became more inconsistent, and had to put up with some embarrassingly long “dry” periods (i.e. without winning a title). He ended as No. 1 for fifth consecutive year, at the time sharing a record with Connors, and didn’t relinquish the top place for a single week. He won eight titles including 2 GS, 2 MS9 and the Masters, as well as 84.13% of his matches (53-10). He didn’t lose a single final. A glorious year indeed!

1998: The Beginning of the End

1998 was spent under record pressure. Pete was chasing one of the greatest records in the Open Era: six straight years ending at No. 1, one more than Jimmy Connors between 1974 and 1978. Together with Roy Emerson’s 12 Grand Slams, this was the ultimate challenge for Sampras. In his autobiography, he makes a most fascinating comparison between the records. Twelve GS crowns are impressive achievement, he says, but that actually means winning two for six years, consecutive or not, and you have at least ten years career at your disposal. But ending at No. 1 for the year – now that is different. It requires a much greater consistency of performance. Even if you are not No. 1 for the greater part of the year, you still have to keep yourself close enough to attack the top at the end. You can afford neither to miss many tournaments nor to lose many times in the early rounds. If your aim is to win two grand slams a year, you can afford both.

Again in his autobiography, in the same low-key but highly revealing on careful reading style, Pete makes it clear what an enormous pressure this record put on him at the time. It was quite nerve-racking. He well knew that this was an opportunity that opens but once in a career, and he was probably right that had he missed it he would have been sorry forever. But of course he didn’t. Only one player superseded him at No. 1 that year, the Chilean Marcelo Rios who won an impressive string of titles but no Slams at all. So he became only the second player, after Lendl, to become No. 1 without a single GS title, and he has remained the only No. 1 who never did get one. Rios spent no more than a few weeks (six overall, to be exact) at the top, but the short and swarthy Chilean remained a potential threat until the end of the year.

Finally, it was sheer luck that kept Pete on the top. He had to win the Masters at all costs, but then Rios injured his back and withdrew from the tournament. Devoid of incentive, Sampras won all three of his round-robin matches but lost to Alex Corretja in the semis with a third-set tiebreak. In a way, Pete was right and this was his most remarkable achievement. Not even Roger Federer could match it: he has “only” four straight years as No. 1 on his account. As a matter of fact, no player has ever finished six times as the year-end No. 1, in a row or not; Federer and Connors have five years each, Lendl and McEnroe have four. This achievement speaks perhaps even more tellingly of Sampras’ domination than his titles, finals and win-loss balances.

Otherwise 1998 was full of ups and downs. Pete won only four titles altogether, the fewest since 1991! Three of these were relatively minor tournaments (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Vienna), the fourth was Wimbledon, his only GS title for this and the next two years. Pete was lucky to win all those titles by beating only one Top 10 player! He lost no fewer than three finals, including the MS9 events in Cincinnati and Paris (he was also demolished by Agassi in the San Jose final, 2-6, 4-6); he had lost more finals only twice before, in 1991 and 1995. Pete’s win-loss balanced dropped below the 80% mark (61-17, 78.21) for the first time since 1991. Clearly, his career was in decline. And he knew it.

There are few highlights worth noting. Pete lost to the Slovak Karol Kucera in the Australian Open QF, 4-6, 2-6, 7-6(5), 3-6, but when they later met at the US Open, again in the quarters, he was in much better form and didn’t give Karol a single set, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. The climax of this mini-rivalry came on the fast indoor carpet in Vienna where they met in the final. Again, Pete had no mercy, 6-3, 7-6(3), 6-1, though he certainly wasn’t in his best form. This was his last title for the year and the only one from the gruesome indoor season that fall. In a desperate attempt to secure the No. 1 in the end of the year, Pete played six tournaments in a row in five different countries, criss-crossing nearly the whole of Central Europe (Basel, Vienna, Lyon, Stuttgart, Paris, Stockholm). He reached the final in the French capital (l. to Rusedski, 4-6, 6-7(4), 3-6) and the semis in Stuttgart (l. to Krajicek, 7-6(2), 4-6, 6-7(5)), but in Basel and Stockholm he was knocked out in the first round, in the former case by the South-African Wayne Ferreira, a rather mediocre player who always outdid himself against Sampras. In Lyon he “lost” without play to Tommy Haas (then No. 53) in the quarters.

1998 also marked the first more serious clashes with Pat Rafter, even though they had already played eight times, Sampras leading 7-1 (2-0 in finals, Philadelphia and Grand Slam Cup, 1997). The great Aussie was in his absolute if short prime, practising with great skill the art of serve and volley, a little dated even then and completely extinct today. He beat Sampras in two very important matches, the final in Cincinnati and a SF at the US Open. The latter was a particularly impressive five-set epic, 7-6(8), 4-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. The aggressive play at the net and his remarkable athleticism later brought Rafter his second US Open title in a row. It was to be his last GS, not least because Pete defeated him in the 2000 Wimbledon final.

The Sampras-Rafter rivalry is a curious one, partly because of the unusual personal tension that accompanied the professional relationship in 1997-98 and partly because of the unusual time course. Rafter won their first meeting in 1993 (Indianapolis, QF) in three sets with three tiebreaks, but he lost the next seven matches from 1994 to 1997. The final in Cincinnati was where the off-court fight started, and it was Pete who did it. Asked what the difference between him and Pat was, he replied truthfully but very tactlessly: “Ten Grand Slams”. This Pete acknowledges in his book, but he doesn’t mention that after the US Open SF he tried to excuse his loss with some dubious leg injury or that he disputed the umpire’s call at Rafter’s match point in Cincinnati (which may explain why he was somewhat flustered at the press conference later). So Pat, who is a model of sportsmanship by the way, was naturally hurt on both occasions. Pete was generally a gentleman when it came to losing, and that’s why these careless, not to say insulting, remarks may perhaps be explained if not condoned with his overwrought condition during much of this record-breaking year. Anyway, later they spoke on the phone and patched up their differences, so the handshakes over the net became noticeably warmer.

On-court Pete acquitted himself much better. He won four of their next (and last) five matches. Pat’s only victory was for the World Team Cup, a tournament of lesser import. They met again in a Cincinnati final in 1999 and Pete won in straight sets. He couldn’t achieve that at GS events, but he did manage in four sets, although at least once he was forced to the wall. The 2000 Wimbledon remains the hardest of all seven final matches that Pete played at the All England Club. Rafter, much like Agassi, always brought the best in him. For once, the starved public must have been satisfied. Rafter took the first set with a lengthy tiebreak, 12-10, but lost the second with a shorter version, 5-7. That’s where Pat’s resistance broke, but the next two sets were tougher than the score suggests, 6-4, 6-2. A year later Pete and Pat met for the last time in the 4R of the US Open, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7(5), 6-4. In between there was one far-from-easy QF in Indian Wells (2001), one of those mentally exhausting cases of second-set tiebreak to stay in the match, 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-4. I have never seen a Sampras-Rafter match that is not a feast for the eye of the tennis fan.
                                     
(Meanwhile, it is interesting to note how many times Sampras lost in quarter- and semi-finals to future champions. In addition to the just-mentioned case of Rafter in the 1998 US Open, there are plenty of other examples. For instance, Kafelnikov at the 1996 Roland Garros, Agassi at the 2001 Australian Open, Krajicek at the 1996 Wimbledon and in 1998 in Stuttgart, Corretja at the 1998 Masters, and many others. On the whole, however, Sampras used to lose relatively little at later stages; most of his losses were in early rounds and often to insignificant opponents who seldom achieved anything more than the short-lived fame of “the man who defeated Sampras”. This is a well-known phenomenon characteristic of quite a few great players: they give their best against the great rivals but often lose to nobodies, either because they underestimate them or because they fail to reach their own peak performance. To my mind, however, this is testament also to Pete’s outstanding mental strength, one of the most important components of his long-lasting success; the same is true of the winning percentage in finals that will be discussed in the last section of this piece. When he advanced to the quarters, especially of a GS tournament, it is safe to say that Pete was more committed to win the title than most players.)

The 1998 Wimbledon has entered tennis history because its final between Sampras and Ivanisevic was reportedly so terribly ace-driven and it bored the audience so much that it became one of the main reasons for the notorious slowing down of grass and hard courts during the last decade or so. Be that as it may, I remember the final as a suspenseful drama of great magnitude, especially the first two sets, 6-7(2), 7-6(9), 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. If anything, this final actually proved that great service alone can’t win you a Wimbledon title. Ivanisevic served thrice more aces than Sampras. Nothing doing. Perhaps Goran is the only GS winner in the Open Era of whom it could be said that he had little but his mighty serve. It is notable that he won his only Wimbledon (and his only GS title) in 2001 and only after Sampras was eliminated in the 4R by Federer. Other stupendous servers from this era, such as Philippoussis and Rusedski, didn’t achieve even that. Draw the conclusions yourself and compare with today’s tennis scene where serve-and-volleyers are an extinct species (because you can’t play that way without powerful serve and fast surface) and grinding from the baseline – powerful, unimaginative, tedious grinding – is the name of the game.

1999: The Last Masters

1999 was Agassi’s year. He won the French Open, thus completing the first Career Grand Slam in the Open Era, later claimed the US Open as well, and he finally ended the year as No. 1 for the first time in his career. But Pete had the last word at the expense of his great rival. They met twice at the Masters, and Sampras applied the tactic that had brought him success against Becker in 1994 and 1996. He lost the round-robin match, and lost it badly too, 2-6, 2-6, but in the final he gave Agassi no chance whatsoever, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4. On the whole, Pete played much better this year than he did in 1998, as if he was relieved that the stress of the record was no longer there. Those guys who still claim that records don’t affect players, in whatever sport you care to name, should think again. A record is nothing less than a passport for history, one of the finest forms of immortality there is. One must be inhuman not to let this (pardonable vanity) affect one’s performance. The great ones have merely learned how to use it in a positive direction, to raise their morale and strengthen their ambition.

In this year, Sampras experienced his first serious physical setback, an ominous reminder that old age was knocking on the door. Of course he was but 28 years old, but after nearly a decade of professional tennis in an era as physically draining as the 1990s (as opposed to the more leisurely 1980s, not to mention the 1970s) he was beginning to feel, if only slightly, the burden of the years. He had to miss the US Open and much of the indoor season because of a severe back injury. After he was forced to retire during the tournament in Indianapolis (QF vs Vincent Spadea) in mid-August, he didn’t play again until the beginning of November in Paris (and there he had to withdraw from his match with Tommy Haas at the R16 stage). It’s a minor miracle that he was able to win the Masters and finish the year at No. 3.

It was a year of stark contrasts indeed. The hard court and the clay seasons were disasters. Pete played six tournaments but couldn’t achieve anything more than two QF, in San Jose (l. to Philippoussis, W/O) and in Miami (l. to Krajicek, 2-6, 6-7(6)). Then something happened. I don’t know what it was and I doubt Pete himself did. Suddenly he achieved the second longest winning streak in his career (after the one in 1994): 24 match wins in the course of two months. It brought him four titles: second in Queen’s (d. Ivanisevic in the QF, Hewitt in the SF, and Henman in the F, 6-7(1), 6-4, 7-6(4)), sixth at Wimbledon (d. Henman in four sets in the SF and in the middle of pandemonium on Central Court, and Agassi in the F, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, in what he has rightly described as “the best tennis I ever played”), third in Cincinnati (d. Rafter in the F but also Agassi in the SF and Krajicek in the QF) and first in Los Angeles (d. Agassi in two tiebreak sets). Who knows how long this series might have continued if Pete hadn’t been forced to withdraw from the QF with Spadea in Indianapolis.

It was an awesome series in every way. Agassi, Henman and Rafter were in Top 10 at the time, Krajicek and Ivanisevic – in Top 20. Pete ended the year with 4-1 head-to-head with Agassi (3-0 in finals: Wimbledon, Masters and Los Angeles), Andre’s only win being the entirely unimportant one in the round-robin stage of the Masters. It was the most intense year of their on-court war since 1995, and Pete came out as the absolute winner, even though Andre finished the year at No. 1. Having broken Connors’ legendary record, Sampras surely didn’t care about that anymore. In his autobiography, with typical graciousness and charm, he mentions casually that Andre deserved it. In the same stylish and restrained way he praised Kuerten for reaching No. 1 in the end of 2000 by one last supreme effort: winning the Masters on the very inconvenient for him fast indoor carpet.

By the way, the QF at Queen’s was the last match between Sampras and Ivanisevic, the ultimate rivalry to prove the difference between a great server and a great all-around player. In the course of ten years (1990-99) they played 18 matches, Sampras leading 12-6 (4-1 in GS; 3-1 in finals overall, including the two Wimbledon ones; 4-3 in SF). It’s interesting to note that Goran won five of their first eight matches until the end of 1993. But then Pete’s maturity started and Ivanisevic managed to win only one of their last ten matches, a SF in Miami (1996). The Croatian has another win also, a QF in the 1995 Grand Slam Cup, but that was after withdrawal (W/O) and is not in the official statistics. Cf. Sampras’ highly successful head-to-head stats with other fellows who possessed serves as deadly as cannons, Rusedski (9-1) and Philippoussis (7-3) for instance.

Taken as a whole, despite some hardships, 1999 was a great year Pete. He won five titles, three of them very important ones (1 GS, 1 MS9 and the Masters). For the first time since 1989, his second professional year, he played fewer than 50 matches per season. But he won 84.44% of them (38-7). Quite apart from the titles, he scored a great success at personal level. It was during his recuperation from the back injury that he met Bridgette Wilson, his future wife. They are now happily married and have two children. Pete knew that his career would never again be the same cornucopia of success as in the mid-1990s; he was too smart not to know that. But he also knew, or sensed to be more precise, that he could win more Majors (“they are the ones that matter”, as he simply put it once). He was determined to get them at any cost. Now that he had equalled Emerson’s record 12, he wanted to break it.

2000-2002: Indian Summer at Flushing Meadows

The last three years of Pete’s career were, of course, by far the most difficult for his fans – and especially for himself. He still played great tennis, but he played it far less consistently. One of the things most difficult to cope with in professional tennis is the tournament system. To win a title, you have to win at least five matches in a row; or seven in GS events, all of them exhausting best-of-five affairs. And you have so to organise your energy and concentration as to give your best in the very last match, the final. This is fearsomely difficult at both physical and mental level; that’s why so very few players in the 1990s, and even fewer today, could do something memorable after the age of 31-32.

Furthermore, in the first few years of the new millennium a new crop of young and talented players arrive. The best of them could – and did – give Pete the best running for his money he’d had in years. It is not a coincidence that the slightly-better-than-mediocre Andy Roddick (2-1), the cocky Aussie Lleyton Hewitt (5-4) and the hugely talented Russian Marat Safin (4-3) all have positive head-to-head balance against Pete. They have earned it with some spectacular wins, but I can’t help wondering how they would have measured up to Sampras in his prime. From Pete’s own generation only a handful of players with more than three matches against him can boast positive head-to-head records, namely Sergi Bruguera (3-2), Richard Krajicek (6-4), Michael Stich (5-4) and Paul Haarhuis (3-1).

At least Stich and Krajicek deserve a few words of their own. The Dutchman, a most talented player who never fulfilled his potential due to many injuries, was Sampras’ most inconvenient opponent by a wide margin. Nine of their ten matches were high-profile (Masters series and GS), and though there are no finals among them, there are five quarters and two semis. At one time between 1996 and 1999 Krajicek achieved four consecutive wins: no other player has ever done that in Sampras’ prime. Pete may derive some pleasure from the fact that he won the last two encounters, including their only meeting at a GS event (US Open, 2000) other than that unfortunate QF at Wimbledon (1996). As for Stich, this prodigiously gifted but seemingly indifferent to fame German is the only player who has beaten Pete in a Masters final (1992). Oddly, they met but once in a GS tournament, a QF in the 1992 Wimbledon when Stich was the defending champion, and Pete gave no quarter, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. Then again, the German had a really off day and played lousy through the whole match. Finally, it’s worth noting that a sizable portion of Pete’s balance against Stich (1 win and 2 losses, that is one third of all matches!) happened at the World Team Cup.

Sometimes statistics can be truly revealing. In 2000 Sampras won only two titles; he’d never won fewer in his career so far. In 2001 he won no titles at all. Now that hadn’t happened for the last 12 years since 1989, his second pro year. In 2002 he won but one title, the last one. All these titles were big – 2 GS and 1 MS9 – but Pete had to pay for them with 7 lost finals (2 GS, 1 MS9, and four minor tournaments). In other figures, in his last three years (23% of his career!) he won less than 5% of all his titles and lost nearly 30% of all his finals! In 2000 he could still finish at No. 3, but in the end of 2001 he was already No. 10; in 2002 he dropped to No. 17 before the beginning of the US Open. He won only 71.43% of 140 matches played during those three years (100-40), the lowest percentage since his rookie years. Between Wimbledon 2000 and US Open 2002 he experienced the second longest “dry season” in his career: 34 consecutive tournaments without a single title, again the worst since 1988-1990 (36). For every admirer of Pete Sampras these are depressing stats. But he has compensated for them with the finest retirement in the Open Era.

In February 2001 Pete won his third title in Key Biscayne and last, 11th, from the MS9 series. He beat Rusedski and Hewitt on his way to the final where he barely managed to defeat Gustavo Kuerten, the flamboyant Brazilian, in four sets, three of them with tiebreak, 6-1, 6-7(2), 7-6(5), 7-6(8). It was yet another match that Pete won, not so much with his playing, which was becoming increasingly erratic, as with his psychological power to concentrate and put pressure on his opponent in the most important points. He failed to defend his title at the Queen’s in June (l. to Hewitt, 4-6, 4-6) but he claimed his seventh and last Wimbledon on the next month. Despite Rafter in the final (who had dropped to No. 26 but was still playing great tennis), he had a relatively easy draw. In the quarters he played No. 56, Jean-Michael Gambill, and in the semis he defeated No. 237, Vladimir Voltchkov from Belarus, one of the most surprising GS semi-finalists in history.

The Wimbledon fairy tale ended abruptly in the 4R of the 2001 tournament. The hangman was a 19-years-old Swiss fellow named Roger Federer. After five tremendous sets, he put an end to Pete’s 31 straight wins at the All England Club, 6-7(7), 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(2), 5-7. Seldom, if ever, has there been a more perfect transition from one generation to another. Nobody could even conceive it back then, but in the next decade Federer played seven straight finals (2003-9), winning six of them and thus joining Borg in terms of consecutive wins yet surpassing him as far as total crowns are concerned; he later claimed one title more and equalled Pete’s unbelievable seven titles. We are not likely to see such Wimbledon masters for many generations. As for Sampras, he returned on the next year only to lose in the 2R by another Swiss, George Bastl, No. 145, in five sets. This was considerably more humiliating; Federer had been No. 15, after all. When he next came to the All England Club, it was as a VIP spectator of the men’s final in 2009 in order to see how Federer breaks his record of 14 GS titles.

Apart from the US Open and (to a lesser extent) Wimbledon, Pete’s Grand Slam performance during the last three years was dismal. Only one SF at the Australian Open in 2000 stands out. He lost to Agassi, the eventual champion, in only the second of their 34 matches that went into five sets, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(0), 6-7(5), 1-6. Andre in his late years was playing some of the finest tennis in his whole career, so did Sampras, and that was a fabulous match to watch. It was a painful loss for Pete, but he was to have the last word as far as Grand Slams are concerned. I’m sure Agassi would willingly give away his wins in the 2001 finals in Indian Wells (7-6(6), 7-5, 6-1) and Los Angeles (6-4, 6-2) if he could change the history of his rivalry with Sampras at the US Open in those years. Pete was also beaten in another two small-scale finals in 2001-2, in Long Island by Tommy Haas, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, and in Houston by Andy Roddick, 7-6(11-9), 6-3.

Without any doubt, however, Pete’s best playing in his twilight years – indeed, some of the greatest performances of his career – was at Flushing Meadows, the park in New York City where the US Open takes place. Perhaps he had some sixth sense that Wimbledon, though the scene of his greatest successes, was already gone and the place of his first great triumph in 1990 was a better way to end his career. If he ever thought so, if only subconsciously, he was certainly right. Between 2000 and 2002 Pete played three straight finals in New York, losing the first two and winning the last. He now shared two great records with Lendl (eight finals) and Connors (five titles overall, later joined by Federer). He still does.

It is sad that Pete’s wonderful series of wins at the 2000 and 2001 tournaments should have gone unrewarded with the title. In the first case he defeated Krajicek in one of the greatest serve-and-volley battles ever, 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4, 6-2, and Hewitt (No. 9) in the semis, 7-6(7), 6-4, 7-6(5), but he only reached the final to have Marat Safin knock spots off him, 4-6, 3-6, 3-6. (It is another almost tragic story that Safin won only one Major more, and that was five years later; the man had the gift – but not the mentality – for so much more.) In 2001 Pete defeated three Top 10 players to reach the final. First it was Rafter, who was No. 6 at the time, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7(5), 6-4, then came what is quite possibly his greatest battle with Agassi, 6-7(7), 7-6(2), 7-6(2), 7-6(5). Four tiebreak sets – now that’s something you don’t see often in tennis. To top it, Pete didn’t give even a set to the defending champion Safin in the semis, 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3. Unfortunately, all this tremendous effort was largely wasted, because in the final Lleyton Hewitt completely demolished him with his precise passing shots, 7-6(4), 6-1, 6-1.

But then came 2002. Pete was the unprecedented number 17 in the draw and few expected him to reach third final in a row, let alone win it. Yet he did. This tournament wasn’t quite as stunning as the previous two, but neither was it a fluke. Rusedski and Haas (No. 3 at the time!) were beaten in the 3R and 4R, respectively, the former in five sets, 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-4. In the quarters he made an exhibition of No. 11, Andy Roddick, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, and in the semis he defeated the tough Dutchman Sjeng Schalken (No. 25), 7-6(6), 7-6(4), 6-2. The cherry of the cake was the final against Agassi, No. 6, which finalized their rivalry to 20-14 in Pete’s favour, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

Could there have been a more perfect ending of Pete’s career than a GS title at the tournament of his first great success 12 years ago and, most amazingly of all, against the same guy who just happened to be the greatest rival for the whole of his career? No screenwriter could improve on it. Pete played no more professional tournaments, although he didn’t retire officially until the 2003 US Open when he was given tumultuous ovation and fine speeches by McEnroe, Becker (who flew from Germany for the occasion) and Agassi (who was still active and wasn’t present but sent a video message). Pete, for once, forgot his restraint and cried a good deal while the Arthur Ashe Stadium was shaking with applause. When life offers experiences of such emotional intensity and dramatic impact, you really don’t need Hollywood.

The Summing-Up

Now let’s stand back and look at Pete’s career as a whole. How does he measure up to the best of his generation and the greatest of all time? Well, he does pretty well. It may be claimed quite safely that he was the greatest of his era and one of the greatest of all time (in the Open Era, that is). Whether one likes or dislikes Pete’s playing style is of course a matter of taste and personal opinion. It’s important to stress, yet again, that such “criteria” are entirely irrelevant to the present discussion; its aim is to supply something useful, not just to the present author, but to anybody interested in tennis history. Statistics is the closest to objective truth, provided of course that it is presented in a fair way, and it is statistics that I will continue dealing with in this summing-up. I have so far tried to keep my personal opinions in the background – for everybody is entitled to their opinions but nobody should inflict them on the others – and I will keep doing so even more rigorously here.

Numbers are very revealing for those who can use them. And yet, one of the greatest dangers in statistics is the preoccupation with numbers. Therefore, the first thing to look at is the number and the type of titles.

Pete won altogether 64 singles titles, more than any of his contemporaries*. Only Agassi came close (60), but that’s partly due to the fact that he won his titles over a three-years-longer span. Becker, Edberg and Chang, not to mention Kafelnikov, Courier, Hewitt, Krajicek, Rafter or Ivanisevic, trailed far behind. In the whole of the Open Era, Pete shares the 5th place with Bjorn Borg, although it is very likely that both will soon be superseded by Rafael Nadal (57). Pete’s outdoor-indoor ratio is 41-21, and the distribution of the surfaces, despite the scarcity of titles on clay, does demonstrate his considerable versatility: hard court (36), carpet (15), grass (10), clay (3).

Singles Titles (time span between first and last title)

Contemporaries:
               1.   Pete Sampras 64 (1990-2002)
               2.   Andre Agassi 60 (1989-2005)
               3.   Boris Becker 49 (1985-96)
               4.   Stefan Edberg 42 (1984-96)
               5.   Michael Chang 34 (1988-2000)
               6.   Lleyton Hewitt* 28 (1998-2010)
               7.   Yevgeny Kafelnikov 26 (1994-2002)
               8.   Jim Courier 23 (1989-98)
               9.   Goran Ivanisevic 22 (1990-2001)
          10.   Carlos Moya 20 (1995-2007)
          11.   Marcelo Rios 18 (1995-2001)
          12.   Alex Corretja 17 (1994-2002)
          13.   Greg Rusedski 15 (1993-2005)
   Marc Rosset 15 (1989-2000)
   Marat Safin 15 (1999-2008)
   Magnus Gustafsson 15 (1991-2000)
          14.   Richard Krajicek 14 (1991-99)
   Sergi Bruguera 14 (1991-94)
          15.   Magnus Norman 12 (1997-2000)
          16.   Patrick Rafter 11 (1994-2001)
  Tim Henman 11 (1997-2003)

Open Era:
               1.   Jimmy Connors 109 (1972-89)
               2.   Ivan Lendl 94 (1980-1993)
               3.   John McEnroe 77 (1979-91)
   Roger Federer* 77 (2001-)
               4.   Bjorn Borg 64 (1974-81)
   Pete Sampras 64 (1990-2002)
               5.   Guillermo Vilas 62 (1973-83)
               6.   Andre Agassi 60 (1989-2005)
               7.   Rafael Nadal* 57 (2004-)
               8.   Ilie Nastase 56 (1970-78)
               9.   Boris Becker 49 (1985-96)
          10.   Thomas Muster 44 (1986-97)
          11.   Stefan Edberg 42 (1984-96)
          12.   Rod Laver 41 (1968-75)
          13.   Stan Smith 37 (1969-80)
          14.   Novak Djokovic* 37 (2006-)
          15.   Michael Chang 34 (1988-2000)
          16.   Manuel Orantes 33 (1969-83)
   Mats Wilander 33 (1982-90)
          17.   Arthur Ashe 32 (1968-78)
   Andy Roddick 32 (2001-12)
          18.   John Newcombe 31 (1968-75)
          19.   Ken Rosewall 29 (1968-77)
          20.   Andy Murray* 28 (2006-13)

* Still active player

The situation at the top is pretty much the same – well, it’s better actually – when we look at the type of titles. Pete has won more Majors (14) than any of his contemporaries, and he is firmly 2nd in the Open Era after Federer, even though Nadal (12) is close behind him. It will be noticed that Pete and Roger share the record for most Wimbledon and US Open titles (the latter is shared with Connors also). It may be mentioned in passing that Sampras’ five crowns at the ATP World Championship (aka the Masters) in the end of each year have been surpassed only by Federer (6) and equaled by Lendl. Among the contemporaries second is Becker with three wins (and five lost finals; Pete lost only one). But, of course, it is the Grand Slam titles that really do matter.

Grand Slam Singles Titles

Contemporaries:
               1.   Pete Sampras 14 (2AO – 7W – 5 USO)
               2.   Andre Agassi 8 (4AO – 1RG – 1W – 2USO)
               3.   Boris Becker 6 (2AO – 3W – 1USO)
   Stefan Edberg 6 (2AO – 2W – 2USO)
               4.   Jim Courier 4 (2AO – 2RG)
               5.   Gustavo Kuerten 3 (3RG)
               6.   Patrick Rafter 2 (2USO)
   Sergi Bruguera 2 (2RG)
            Yevgeny Kafelnikov 2 (1AO – 1RG)
               7.   Michael Chang 1 (RG)
   Richard Krajicek 1 (W)
   Carlos Moya 1 (RG)
   Petr Korda 1 (AO)

Open Era:
               1.   Roger Federer 17 (4AO – 1RG – 7W – 5USO)
               2.   Pete Sampras 14 (2AO – 7W – 5USO)
               3.   Rafael Nadal 12 (1AO – 8RG – 2W – 1USO)
               4.   Bjorn Borg 11 (6RG – 5W)
               5.   Ivan Lendl 8 (2AO – 3RG – 3USO)
   Jimmy Connors 8 (1AO – 2W – 5USO)
            Andre Agassi 8 (4AO – 1RG – 1W – 2USO)
               6.   John McEnroe 7 (3W – 4USO)
               7.   Boris Becker 6 (2AO – 3W – 1USO)
   Stefan Edberg 6 (2AO – 2W – 2USO)
            Novak Djokovic 6 (4AO – 1W – 1USO)

Agassi and Becker may be mollified at least a little bit by their better balances at the nine tournaments from the so-called ATP World Tour Masters 1000, the most important events after the four from the Grand Slam and the year-end Masters. Pete has reached “only” 19 finals, winning 11 of them (11-8, 57.89%; titles: Key Biscayne and Cincinnati thrice each, Paris and Indian Wells twice each, and Rome once). This guarantees him 10th place in the Open Era. Becker occupies No. 9 with 13-8 (61.90%), while Agassi is seventh with the remarkable 17 titles and only five lost finals (17-5, 77.27%). The Top 10 since 1968, sorted by the total number of titles, looks like this (the winning percentage in finals is given out of curiosity).

ATP World Tour Masters 1000*

             1.  Rafael Nadal** 24 (24 titles – 11 finals, 68.57%)
             2.  Ivan Lendl 22 (22-11, 66.67)
             3.  Roger Federer** 21 (21-13, 61.76)
             4.  John McEnroe 19 (19-5, 79.17)
             5.  Jimmy Connors 18 (18-11, 62.07)
             6.  Andre Agassi 17 (17-5, 77.27)
             7.  Bjorn Borg 15 (15-4, 78.95)
             8.  Novak Djokovic** 14 (14-10, 58.33)
             9.  Boris Becker 13 (13-8, 61.90)
        10.  Pete Sampras 11 (11-8, 57.89)

* This name has been employed only since 2008. There have been several others through the years:
  • 1970-1993: Grand Prix Championship Series
  • 1993-2000: Mercedes-Benz Super 9
  • 2000-2004: Tennis Masters Series
  • 2005-2008: ATP Masters Series
** Still active player

It may be useful to give here the distribution of Pete’s titles by numbers. I know of very few criteria that demonstrate his greatness better than that. Sampras has won five times or more only three tournaments. It just happens that they are the three most important ones: Wimbledon, US Open, the Masters. Pete’s ability to give his absolute best on the best of occasions more than compensates for his relatively modest achievement in the MS9 series.

7 titles:
  • Wimbledon (1993-95, 1997-2000)
5 titles:
  • US Open (1990, 1993, 1995-96, 2002)
  • Masters (1991, 1994, 1996-97, 1999)
4 titles:
  • Philadelphia (1990, 1992, 1997-98)
3 titles:
  • Indianapolis (1991-92, 1996)
  • Cincinnati (1992, 1997, 1999)
  • Key Biscayne (1993-94, 2000)
  • Lyon (1991-93)
  • Tokyo (1993-94, 1996)
2 titles:
  • Australian Open (1994, 1997)
  • Paris (1995, 1997)
  • Indian Wells (1994-95)
  • San Jose (1996, 1997)
  • Grand Slam Cup (1990, 1997)
  • Los Angeles (1991, 1999)
  • Queen’s (1995, 1999)
  • Hong Kong (1993, 1996)
  • Antwerp (1993-94)
  • Sydney (1993-94)
1 title:
  • Manchester (1990), Kitzbühel (1991), Osaka (1994), Rome (1994), Basel (1996), Memphis (1996), Vienna (1998), Atlanta (1998).

I believe the winning percentage in finals is an important stat that is often underestimated. If we take, not just the nine Masters tournaments as above, but all career singles finals and calculate how much any given player has won, we find Pete at No. 3 among his contemporaries who managed to reach at least 25 finals. However, percentages can sometimes be misleading. Note that No. 2, Thomas Enqvist, has a better won-lost ratio, but that’s because he has played only 26 finals in his career. One has to set the limit somewhere – I chose 25 merely because it was the smallest number that allowed me to include Pat Rafter – and watch for misleading exceptions like that. For the whole Open Era I have naturally – but arbitrarily – chosen a higher threshold (<40 finals), and I have found that Pete shares the second place with the great Bjorn Borg; both of them, amazingly, have won the same number of titles and lost the same number of finals in their careers. No. 1 is the King of Clay from the 1990s, the massive Austrian Thomas Muster, who has won the astonishing 44 titles out of 55 finals. We are not likely to see this record broken in the near future.

Singles Finals Winning Percentage (Won-Lost)*

Contemporaries:
               1.   Thomas Muster 80.00 (44-11)
               2.   Thomas Enqvist 73.08 (19-7)
               3.   Pete Sampras 72.73 (64-24)
               4.   Andre Agassi 66.67 (60-30)
               5.   Jim Courier 63.89 (23-13)
               6.   Boris Becker 63.64 (49-28)
               7.   Michael Chang 58.62 (34-24)
               8.   Marcelo Rios 58.06 (18-13)
               9.   Yevgeny Kafelnikov 56.52 (26-20)
          10.   Greg Rusedski 55.56 (15-12)
   Magnus Gustafsson 55.56 (15-12)
          11.   Stefan Edberg 53.85 (42-36)
          12.   Carlos Moya 45.45 (20-24)
          13.   Goran Ivanisevic 44.90 (22-27)
          14.   Patrick Rafter 44.00 (11-14)
          15.   Sergi Bruguera 40.00 (14-21)
          16.   Tim Henman 39.29 (11-17)

Open Era:
               1.   Thomas Muster 80.00 (44-11)
               2.   Bjorn Borg 72.73 (64-24)
   Pete Sampras 72.73 (64-24)
               3.   John McEnroe 71.30 (77-31)
               4.   Rafael Nadal** 71.25 (57-23)
               5.   Rod Laver 69.49 (41-18)
               6.   Roger Federer** 68.75 (77-35)
               7.   Jimmy Connors 68.13 (109-51)
               8.   Andre Agassi 66.67 (60-30)
               9.   Novak Djokovic** 66.07 (37-19)
          10.   John Newcombe 65.96 (31-16)
          11.   Andy Murray** 65.85 (27-14)
          12.   Ivan Lendl 65.28 (94-50)
          13.   Lleyton Hewitt 65.12 (28-15)
          14.   Boris Becker 63.64 (49-28)
          15.   Andy Roddick 61.54 (32-20)
          16.   Guillermo Vilas 60.78 (62-40)
          17.   Ilie Nastase 60.22 (56-37)
          18.   Michael Chang 58.62 (34-24)
          19.   Yevgeny Kafelnikov 56.52 (26-20)
          20.   Mats Wilander 55.93 (33-26)
          21.   Stefan Edberg 53.85 (42-36)
          22.   Manuel Orantes 48.53 (33-35)

* At least 25 finals for contemporaries, at least 40 for all time
** Still active player

I like this parameter because I think it says something about a player’s mental strength, perhaps the most important feature of all great champions, if he is able to concentrate and give his absolute maximum at the most important match. What could be more important than a Grand Slam final? Surprisingly or not, Pete Sampras is the undisputed leader in the Open Era as far as final matches at GS events are concerned. He lost only 4 of the 18 finals he reached, and two of these, let’s remember, were in the end of his career against players ten years younger. This makes for 77.78%, more than 17% better than his best contemporary (Becker, 60%) and about 7% better than the finest players today (Federer and Nadal, with 70.83 and 70.59 respectively).

Strictly speaking, Rod Laver is No. 1 with 83.33% success in this respect, but in the Open Era he reached only six finals. When we take into account his pre-1968 achievements, both amateur and professional, his ratio drops to 61.11%. So this is “The Enqvist Paradox” again. It is given here for completeness, but it should be observed that the number of finals is much smaller (<5 being set as a threshold) and thus the percentage is less impressive that it might look at first glance.

Singles Grand Slam Finals Winning Percentage (Won-Lost)*

               1.   Rod Laver 83.33 (5-1) – Open Era only! (Otherwise 11-7, 61.11%)
               2.   Pete Sampras 77.78 (14-4)
               3.   John Newcombe 71.43 (5-2) – Open Era only! (Otherwise 7-3, 70.00%)
               4.   Roger Federer** 70.83 (17-7)
               5.   Rafael Nadal** 70.59 (12-5)
               6.   Bjorn Borg 68.75 (11-5)
               7.   Novak Djokovic 66.67 (6-3)
               8.   John McEnroe 63.64 (7-4)
    Mats Wilander 63.64 (7-4)
               9.   Boris Becker 60.00 (6-4)
          10.   Stefan Edberg 54.55 (6-5)
          11.   Jimmy Connors 53.33 (8-7)
   Andre Agassi 53.33 (8-7)
          12.   Guillermo Vilas 50.00 (4-4)
          13.   Ivan Lendl 42.11 (8-11)
          14.   Ilie Nastase 33.33 (2-4)
          15.   Andy Murray** 28.57 (2-5)
          16.   Andy Roddick 20.00 (1-4)

* At least five finals
** Still active player

With the obvious exception of Roland Garros, Pete’s match winning percentage at the Grand Slam tournaments easily ranks with the best in the Open Era; and it may improve still further in the next few years if several currently active players fail to maintain their high standards. After the end of Wimbledon 2013, he is the second most successful player at the All England Club. Having won seven titles and reached 1SF and 1QF from altogether 14 tournaments, Pete has won the staggering 90.00% of his matches there (63-7). Only Bjorn Borg has ever done better – the unsurpassable 92.73% – but note that he played 15 matches less (51-4). Before this year’s Wimbledon, Federer’s stats were better (65-7, 90.28%), but after his shocking loss in the 2R they no longer are (66-8, 89.33%) – which is as fine a proof as anything how gravely do a single bad result affect a great career achievement. It remains to be seen, unlikely as it looks, if Roger would be able to improve those stats in the twilight years of his career. The Top 10 of the finest players on Wimbledon’s grass in the Open Era looks like this:

Match Winning Percentage at Wimbledon*

                              1.  Bjorn Borg 92.73 (51-4)
                              2.  Pete Sampras 90.00 (63-7)
                              3.  Roger Federer 89.33 (66-8)
                              4.  Rod Laver 88.00 (22-3)
                              5.  John Newcombe 86.49 (32-5)
                              6.  Boris Becker 85.54 (71-12)
                              7.  Novak Djokovic 84.44 (38-7)
                              8.  John McEnroe 84.29 (59-11)
                              9.  Andy Murray 84.09 (37-7)
                         10.  Rafael Nadal 83.72 (36-7)

* At least 20 wins

At the US Open Pete does trail Roger, but this may well change after the very next tournament, for Federer has to win the title if he wants to keep his winning percentage on the rise. Even one loss, in the final match, would be enough to diminish his current achievement (88.89%) if only with 0,28 (88.61%). If he loses in the 2R as he did at Wimbledon, his percentage will drop with more than 1% (87.84%). As for Pete, for 14 US Opens (1988-2002, without 1999) he has won five titles and reached 3F, 1SF and 1QF at Flushing Meadows, achieving 71-9 record (88.75%). Note that Jimmy Connors, the record holder for most match wins (98!), comes only sixth percentage-wise, whereas the second in this respect, Agassi with 79 wins, is not even in Top 10, though with 79-19 (80.61%) he follows closely. (Remember, however, that Jimmy won five titles altogether, but Andre managed to scrap only two.)

Match Winning Percentage at the US Open*

                              1.  Roger Federer 88.89 (64-8)
                              2.  Pete Sampras 88.75 (71-9)
                              3.  Ivan Lendl 84.88 (73-13)
                              4.  Novak Djokovic 84.78 (39-7)
                              5.  John McEnroe 84.42 (65-12)
                              6.  Jimmy Connors 83.76 (98-19)
                              7.  Ken Rosewall 83.33 (30-6)
                              8.  John Newcombe 81.82 (27-6)
                              9.  Bjorn Borg 81.63 (40-9)
                         10.  Rafael Nadal 80.95 (34-8)

* At least 25 wins

Agassi is the absolute leader at the Australian Open with 48-5 (90.57%). Only Djokovic (88.64, 39-5) has a real chance to surpass this achievement, but he’ll have to toil a lot (two titles more) to do that. Note that Roger is “only” third (87.18) but has won more matches (68) than any other player; indeed, he has played 26 matches more than Agassi and his total wins dwarf Andre’s 48. Having played in 11 tournaments, won two titles and reached 1F, 2SF and 1QF in Melbourne, Pete shares the 6th place with Nadal. Both have achieved 83.33% success, though Sampras has 12 matches and 10 wins (45-9) more than Rafa (35-7). Again, this sharing may cease to be at the very next Australian Open. The Top 10 looks like this:

Match Winning Percentage at the Australian Open*

      1.  Andre Agassi 90.57 (48-5)
      2.  Novak Djokovic 88.64 (39-5)
      3.  Roger Federer 87.18 (68-10)
      4.  Stefan Edberg 84.85 (56-10)
      5.  Mats Wilander 83.72 (36-7)
      6.  Pete Sampras 83.33 (45-9)
      7.  Rafael Nadal 83.33 (35-7)
      8.  Ivan Lendl 82.76 (48-10)
      9.  John Newcombe 81.82 (27-6)
 10.  Jim Courier 81.40 (35-8)

* At least 25 wins         

Pete’s overall GS record stands at 203-38 (84.23%) and grants him the prestigious 5th place in the Open Era. But note that two of the first four have played much fewer matches (157 for Borg, 141-16, and only 70 for Laver, 60-10), while the other two are still active and their winning percentages may be expected to drop toward the end of their careers. On the other hand, the sixth Djokovic is pretty close (152-29, 83.98%) and he is likely to supersede Pete in the near future. Here’s the Top 10:

Match Winning Percentage in Grand Slam Tournaments*

      1.  Bjorn Borg 89.81 (141-16)
      2.  Rafael Nadal 87.70 (164-23)
      3.  Roger Federer 86.53 (257-40)
      4.  Rod Laver 85.70 (60-10)
      5.  Pete Sampras 84.23 (203-38)
      6.  Novak Djokovic 83.98 (152-29)
      7.  Ken Rosewall 82.88 (92-11)
      8.  Jimmy Connors 82.62 (233-49)
      9.  Ivan Lendl 81.92 (222-49)
 10.  John Newcombe 81.60 (93-21)

* At least 60 wins

Since Pete’s career was neither the longest nor the most strenuous in the Open Era, it comes as no surprise that he, together with Nastase and Becker, is member “only” of Club 700 as far as total match wins are concerned. Again as expected, he does improve percentage-wise. Note that both Agassi (870) and Edberg (801) are members of Club 800, but neither of them has quite as high winning percentage (76.05 and 74.91 respectively). In fact, Pete’s winning 77.44% of his career matches is unmatched among his contemporaries; in the Open Era he trails only after the true Big Four of tennis: Borg, Connors, Lendl, McEnroe (all but Borg also have considerably more match wins, which makes their percentages even more impressive).

From the still active players only Federer, so far, compares with the greats from previous generations. He is only the second member of Club 900 (together with Guillermo Vilas) and with 81.45% (905-206, including Wimbledon 2013) he is following closely John McEnroe. It remains to be seen, however, if Roger would be able to keep this balance until his retirement. The same is true for, and even more relevant to, Rafael Nadal who currently has the best match winning stats (threshold >450 wins) in the Open Era. This amounts to the stupendous 83.34% (622-124). If Rafa manages to keep it for the three or four (at least) years of active tennis that still lay ahead of him, this will be one of the greatest tennis miracles of all time.

Career Matches*      
  • Match Wins
                              1.  Jimmy Connors 1246
                              2.  Ivan Lendl 1071
                              3.  Guillermo Vilas 926
                              4.  John McEnroe 875
                              5.  Andre Agassi 870
                              6.  Stefan Edberg 801
                              7.  Ilie Nastase 775
                              8.  Pete Sampras 762
                              9.  Boris Becker 713
                         10.  Michael Chang 662

  • Winning Percentage (Won-Lost)**
                              1.  Bjorn Borg 82.72 (608-127)
                              2.  Jimmy Connors 81.81 (1246-277)
                              3.  Ivan Lendl 81.76 (1071-239)
                              4.  John McEnroe 81.55 (875-198)
                              5.  Pete Sampras 77.44 (762-222)
                              6.  Boris Becker 76.91 (870-274)
                              7.  Guillermo Vilas 76.43 (924-285)
                              8.  Andre Agassi 76.05 (870-274)
                              9.  Stefan Edberg 74.91 (806-270)
                         10.  Ilie Nastase 72.29 (754-289)

* Still active players are deliberately excluded for two reasons. First, their win-loss balance changes almost on a weekly basis. Second, it’s one thing to estimate this balance in the peak of one’s career, it’s quite another story to do it after his retirement.
** At least 500 wins during the Open Era. That is why Rod Laver (414-107, 79.46%) and John Newcombe (455-156, 74.47%) are excluded.

The above data come from the site of the ATP World Tour and I cannot vouch for their accuracy. I have checked Pete’s career match by match as given on this site, and indeed there is a slight discrepancy. The overall balance turned out to be 763-225 (77.23%). (Wins and losses without opponent (W/O, 3-8) are of course subtracted by default, as they should be in official statistics). The reason for the difference remains to be explained. For the record, when the balance from team competitions (World Team Cup and the Davis Cup, 25-20) is also subtracted, because I still think Pete never was a team player, the ratio becomes 738-205 (78.26%). Even without the dubious benefit of comparisons, this is a spectacular achievement.

And don’t forget the priceless legacy captured on video.

==============================================================


*I use the word “contemporaries” with some trepidation. Strictly speaking, every player whose career overlaps with Pete’s is, at one time or another, his contemporary. That includes legends like McEnroe, Lendl and Wilander who were way past their prime when he came on the stage, but also youngsters who reached their peak when Pete was already past his prime (Hewitt, Safin) or retired (Federer). I use the word to refer only to those players whose careers overlapped significantly with Pete’s, for at least 5-6 years; for example, Edberg, Becker, Agassi, Chang, Ivanisevic, Rafter, Stich, and Courier. Hewitt and Safin are included among the contemporaries because some of their greatest triumphs did happen before Pete’s retirement, but Federer and Roddick are excluded because none of theirs did.

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