The older generation will stick by Rod Laver, the moderns will point to the exceptional abilities of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. For those in the middle it has to be Pete Sampras.
Whether he was the greatest tennis player of all time is, of course, open to lengthy kafeneio debate. Would Laver have been even better with modern kit, diet and training? Would Rafa have been quite at home with a wooden racket? Who knows? But there can be no doubting that Sampras is up there with the very best.
And of one thing there is absolutely no doubt at all: ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras is the greatest Greek-heritage tennis player ever. Don’t even try to argue that one.
Seven Wimbledon titles, five US Opens and two Australian Opens gave Sampras 14 Grand Slam victories between 1990 and 2002. At the time it was a record, breaking the 13 of Roy Emerson who competed before the Open era which allowed professionals to play. Federer has since claimed the record for himself but for over a decade Sampras dominated the game.
Others had their moments – Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Pat Rafter among them not to mention the queue of Spaniards who flourished at Roland Garros where Sampras never ruled – but the Greek kid was the measure of brilliance and consistency against which all others were measured.
Sampras was born in Washington DC on August 12, 1971 and grew up in Palos Verdes, California, an American kid with a big, fat Greek heritage. Actually not just Greek.
“I’m 75 per cent Greek, 25 per cent Jewish,” he has said. “My dad’s Jewish. My mom was born and raised in Greece. She’s 100 per cent Greek. My dad’s mother was Jewish but his father is Greek. That’s where we got the Sampras name. A Greek Jew.”
His mother Georgia arrived in the US at the age of 25 and ensured that he and his three siblings received an education that was steeped in Greek culture. She instilled in him the spirit of Leonidas, the strength to fight on and never give up.
The best illustration perhaps came when he beat Alex Corretja at the 1996 US Open after vomiting on court during the fifth-set tiebreaker in the quarter-finals. After spilling his guts, Puking Pete went on to reach the final where he claimed his fourth US crown.
“I’m a bit like my mom as a competitor,” said Sampras during an interview in 2007 when he returned to Athens for a veterans’ tournament.
“That toughness, dedication, competitiveness, to leave your homeland and not speak a word (of English). That’s where I get a lot of my toughness, deep down in my belly.”
Surprisingly, he never learnt the Greek language. Nor did he ever visit his parents’ homeland while he was at the peak of his powers. That trip in 2007 when he was 35 was his first to Greece.
“I’m here to explore my heritage more. I’m proud to be here for the first time,” he said before beating Todd Martin in the final.
Sampras began playing at the age of seven and adopted the Australian legends Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall rather than the big name Americans of the time as his early heroes.
“It wasn’t just the way they played but how they carried themselves off court. They were humble. (Jimmy) Connors and (John) McEnroe were both great, but they were, how shall I put this, more abrasive.”
Thoughout his career Sampras upheld that humble approach. He never roared and screamed at his opponents or the umpire. A fist pump was about as expressive as he got which may have been why many tennis fans never truly took to him. Many consider him a boring player.
His on-court activity was languid between points, the stooping, slightly hunched shoulders, the permanent five o’clock shadow, but once settled, ready, he was the big cat, preparing to pounce into action. His service was perhaps his greatest weapon. Economical in movement but unerringly fast and accurate, it was the reason for his nickname Pistol Pete. Sheriff Sampras, quick on the draw.
The running forehand was also impressive, the best in the business and at its most effective on the faster courts. Perhaps that was why he never enjoyed the slow kicking surface at Roland Garros, the red clay taking the pace off the ball.
He turned professional at 16 and then slowly worked his way up the rankings. In retrospect it is easy to finger two years which were to raise him to the heights. The first was in 1990 when he won his first Grand Slam at Flushing Meadows and the second was three years later.
Beginning the year ranked 81 in the world, the Sampras game began to come together as he won his first ATP event in Toronto beating McEnroe on the way. In New York, he was seeded 12.
“I arrived at the US Open as an outsider,” says Sampras. “No one realistically thought I would have a chance to go really deep in the draw, let alone win it. I think the experts figured I wouldn’t play that well and that I was going to roll over.”
He worked his way through to the quarter-finals where he gave away a two-set lead before beating Ivan Lendl in five. Then in the semis he came up against four-time winner McEnroe again.
Seventeeen aces and an array of passing shots proved too much for the 31-year-old and sent the 19-year-old Sampras into the first all-American final since McEnroe beat Vitas Gerulaitis back in 1979.
He was up against Agassi who admitted in his autobiography Open that he expected to win easily, having demolished Sampras a year earlier.
“Then a different Pete shows up. A Pete who doesn’t ever miss. We’re playing long points, demanding points and he’s flawless. He’s reaching everything, hitting everything, bounding back and forth like a gazelle. He’s serving bombs, flying to the net, bringing his game right to me. he’s laying wood to my serve. I’m helpless. I’m angry. I’m telling myself: this is not happening.”
But it was happening. Sampras trounced Agassi 6-4 6-3 6-2. He hit 13 aces and won 92 percent of the points off his first serve. He was on the road, the youngest man ever to win the title at age 19 years and 28 days.
it was to be another three years, however, before he collected his second Slam. And he needed to lose a final first – the US Open in 1992 when he was beaten in four by the experienced Swede Stefan Edberg.
“It changed my whole mentality, when I kind of gave up in that fourth set,” he said later.
“I just promised myself I would never let that happen again. I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to stay number one. That 1992 loss to Edberg was the wake-up call that I needed to really figure this thing out.”
Figure it out he did, heading to Wimbledon where he triumphed in four sets over Courier to win his first Wimbledon title.
It was the start of an extraordinary run at the All England Club that saw him lose just once – to Richard Krajicek in 1995 – in eight years.
Following his win at Wimbledon, Sampras then marched on to victory at Flushing Meadows and established himself as the best player in the world for the remainder of the millennium.
He was to be number one in the world for a then record 286 weeks in all, 102 straight from April 15, 1996, to March 30, 1998.
At Wimbledon in 2000 Sampras, battling injury, won his seventh and final All England title, breaking Emerson’s record of 12 major victories when he beat Pat Rafter in four sets.
“It was pretty painful, I almost had to withdraw from the tournament,” said Sampras. “I got injected (with cortisone), but it was raining and it wore off. I remember just the pain, just getting through it, toughing it out.”
His final triumph fittingly came at Flushing Meadow in 2002 when he again beat Agassi, the man he had beaten 12 years previously for his first victory. He didn’t play again before announcing his retirement a year later just before the 2003 US Open.
As a little footnote to all this individual glory, Sampras was also a member of the team that won the Davis Cup in 1992 and 1995. Sadly it was the US team rather than a Greek team but we won’t hold that against him.
© Barney Spender 2013
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