When Pete Sampras, No 5 on our top 10 greatest tennis players list, won his 13th Grand Slam title amid failing light at Wimbledon in 2000, it felt like a moment of tennis history that may not be matched for a generation or more.
Edging past Roy Emerson’s long-standing record of 12 major titles, Sampras elevated himself to a fresh pedestal among the game’s icons, yet few could have imaged then that his record would be surpassed three times in the two decades that were to follow.
Born: August 12th 1971 in Lake Sherwood, California
Year turned pro: 1998
Grand Slam wins: 14
Australian Open: 1994, 1997
Wimbledon: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000
US Open: 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2002
Davis Cup: 1992, 1995
Total tour titles: 64
Win/loss record: 762–222
“When Pete was 17-years-old, I watched him practise. I hadn’t seen him since he was a kid playing 12 and under tennis. I see him at a professional tournament and I am ranked three in the world at the time and, honestly, I felt sorry for him. I looked at him and thought this guy is not going to get anywhere. I feel so bad for him. He is not going to amount to anything.”
The words of Andre Agassi as he spoke to Tennis365 about a player who would become his great rival make for fascinating reading as the champion handed the suitable nickname of ‘Pistol Pete’ was to defy all his doubters and become a true tennis legend.
With bullet-like serving power and fine volleying skills, Sampras fine-tuned all aspects of his game as he surpassed all expectations in magnificent fashion, with Wimbledon’s Centre Court the scene of many of his greatest triumphs as he won seven times at the All England Club.
Shy, reserved and often seemingly keen to dodge the spotlight the likes of Agassi and Boris Becker enjoyed, Sampras had a power-packed forehand to back up his fizzing serve and a steely mental strength that didn’t appear to fit with his laid back demeanour.
His battles with Agassi were laced with animosity between the pair that was evident for all to see, with his winning record of 20-14 against great biggest rival confirming he got the better of the duel, even though Sampras failed to complete a career Grand Slam as his game did not convert well to the red clay at the French Open.
The evening he beat Pat Rafter in the Wimbledon final to move past Roy Emerson’s Grand Slam record saw the stone-cold Sampras demeanour crack as he embraced his parents Sam and Gloria, with the Centre Court crowd seeing a human side to this serial winner that he had succeeded in disguising during his eight-year eight as the player to beat at The Championships.
“I would have liked my record of 14 Major titles to never be beaten, but I could see the way the game was going when Roger Federer burst through after me and starting winning major after major,” says Sampras. “Then Rafa (Nadal) started dominating at the French Open and finally Novak Djokovic came through and proved himself to be one of the best players of all-time.
“I didn’t see it coming that three guys would go past me when I getting towards the end of my career, but these three guys are special.”
Sampras was a master of peaking for the events that meant the most and his sparkling record at Wimbledon and the US Open is a testament to his ability to rise to the big occasion, with his 11 Masters series titles confirming they did not mean as much to him as the majors.
Even in defeat, Sampras was part of tennis history as his loss against Federer at Wimbledon 2001 is viewed by many as the day that the great Swiss champion was transformed from a potential champion to a genuine contender. It felt like the moment when Sampras reluctantly handed the baton over to his successor, even though he still had one final major left to win.
The conclusion to his career was so very special. Few sportsmen bow out after achieving one of their greatest wins, but Sampras bucked that trend when he beat old foe Agassi in a memorable 2002 US Open and final to claim his 14th major title.
He would not hit another ball in anger as his retirement was confirmed the following year.
Were it not for the three giants of the current era, Sampras may well have made the top two of our Tennis365 all-time list, but he is a worthy entrant at No 5.
Follow Kevin Palmer on Twitter @RealKevinPalmer
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