In another of our Love All series, Tomasz Lorek recalls the career of Pete Sampras, one of the best male players of the Open era.
Walt “Hurricane” Landers, an American with Polish roots, was a likeable personality among tennis circles. He had a reputation of a world-class trainer and a wonderful massage therapist.
Landers lived life at a fast pace. Walt had a successful career while working with champions like Marat Safin, Andre Agassi, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Lleyton Hewitt, Carlos Moya and Tommy Haas. But the most fruitful time Walt Landers spent was with Pete Sampras.
Landers was a perfectionist, but as he could create miracles with player’s body, he had a unique sense of humour. Typical for a genius… When Pete was celebrating one of his 14 Grand Slam titles, Landers once asked him: “Hey, Pete. Do you know who Lenin was? Any ideas who Stalin was?” – that was typical Walt. Sampras replied: “I have no idea who these guys were. I’d love to win as many tennis matches as possible. Let the racket do the talking…”
Walt Landers wanted Pete Sampras to broaden horizons and learned more about history, not only about the Soviet Union, it’s not the duty of a multiple Grand Slam champion, though. Of course, history knowledge would be a nice perquisite to his on-court skills, but you can’t blame Pete for not being interested in eastern European history.
Sampras is regarded as one of the best male tennis players of all time. Pete was a master of aggressive power on the fast surfaces. A very dynamic, beautifully constructed service action, crunching forehand, precision volleys and above all, his famous “slam dunk” jumping smash made him the winner of 64 career singles titles. With his iconic movement, Sampras would have impressed such “slam dunk” specialists as Michael Jordan, the late Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter or Dwight Howard.
Sampras won 14 Grand Slam championships, a record he took over from a talented Aussie – Roy Emerson by winning Wimbledon in 2000. That year Pistol Pete, as he was nicknamed, won a contest against another Aussie champion – Pat Rafter beating a serve and volley specialist in four sets.
Pete was the year-end No. 1 for six consecutive years. Moreover, Sampras is the only player to win all seven Wimbledon finals he played. Interestingly, the Swiss maestro from Basel – Roger Federer – did go past Sampras’ ranking record of No. 1 for 286 weeks, but the year-end mark seems beyond Federer’s reach.
Of course, it’s hard to compare seven Wimbledon titles by William Renshaw to Pete Sampras’s achievements. Renshaw was a talented player, but his seven titles between 1881 and 1889 were achieved at a time when the reigning champion had to play only one match to defend the crown. In the Open Era players have to win seven rounds each time. Sampras’ only defeat at SW 19 between 1993 and 2000 was a quarterfinal loss to a Dutchman Richard Krajicek in 1996.
Funny fact: Pete achieved the first and last of his Grand Slam titles at the US Open. In 1990, at 19 years and 28 days, Pete became the youngest ever champion there with a straight-sets victory over Andre Agassi. Does he remember how he felt in the first round match during that 1990 US Open – an encounter against Dan Goldie from Sioux City?
“Well, I remember in the stands there were about 100 people watching. I was seeded 12 or 13. The expectations weren’t really that high for me to really do anything. I was hoping to get to the quarters, near the round of 16 and give a good show. Next thing I know I beat Lendl in the quarters. It was a whole new ball game. I was two matches from winning the US Open,” Pete recalled.
The draw wasn’t easy for Sampras. Straight sets victory against Goldie, Peter Lundgren in the second round, Jakob Hlasek in the third, Thomas Muster in the fourth, Ivan Lendl in the quarters, John McEnroe in a semi and finally a straight sets win over Agassi, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.
“In 1990, the victory in New York almost kind of happened too fast and too easy, where I really didn’t have any time to think about what is exactly happening,” Sampras said.
The beauty of Pete’s career… He faced the same opponent – Andre Agassi in the 2002 US Open final and triumphed again in what proved to be his last match in an official tournament. Sampras fired 144 aces during that tournament, including 33 in the final to capture his fifth US Open crown.
Agassi invented a new style of tennis, attacking from the baseline. Among the fittest and most disciplined of players, Agassi worked assiduously to keep himself in shape in order to compete at the highest level into his mid-thirties.
The outstanding motif of Agassi’s mid-career period in the 1990’s was his rivalry with Pete Sampras. They played 34 times between 1989 and 2002 and Pete had the upper hand with 20 wins, including four out of five Grand Slam titles. Andre won 14 matches against Pete.The quality of these matches was such that the rivalry was the men’s equivalent of Chris Evert v Martina Navratilova. On court it was a fierce battle with no mercy, but now, does Pete consider to go out for a dinner with Agassi and his family?
“Funny enough, I could. When you’re competing against each other, you can’t. When it’s all said and done, I’ve got a lot of respect for Andre. I’ve never disliked Andre. He’s one of the nicest guys out there, and my rival. I can see us having dinner together. I don’t know about Christmas, but I don’t see any reasons why not,” Sampras said.
Quite possibly, the best and the most thrilling moment of their glittering rivalry was the 1995 US Open final. Incredible rallies, great volleys, phenomenal groundstrokes. A set point number two in a first set was unique.
“Probably one of the best points I have ever been a part of. If I would have lost it, it would have felt a lot worse, that is for sure. We are both running each other around and I just flicked off a good backhand. I was pretty winded after that, regained my composure and played a pretty good first game. That was a huge point. I certainly hope that makes the play of the day,” Sampras said after collecting his third trophy at Flushing Meadows.
Pete had a huge respect for Andre. The competition between the two champions made them better in every aspect of the game.
“When Andre and I play each other, I find that he is the one guy I can go out and play good tennis. He can still beat me and I can’t say that about a lot of the guys on the tour. He has the best return of serve in the game. Walking out today I feel like I needed to be at my best. That is really the bottom line when I play Andre. If I am not at my best, the way he has played this summer, I felt that I was always under a little bit of pressure today. I was up two sets and a break and I really didn’t feel at that point that I had him. This is a rivalry that I hope gets more and more popular. So, I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” Sampras said during 1995 US Open.
In 1995 Pete became the first player to surpass $5 million prize money in a season.
What was the most gratifying moment of his career? “Beating Andre. I mean, it would have been different if I would have played Boris and beaten him. I would have been just as happy, but it is always a little bit different when I can beat Andre. 1 and 2 in the world, both American. And to beat him makes me feel a little better than if I had beaten someone else,” Sampras said.
So, what were two or three qualities that made Pete such an outstanding champion according to Andre Agassi?
“Certainly his serve. He’s a good pressure point player. He senses the important times of a match and puts pressure on you, then elevates his game. He can play for an hour where you don’t even break a sweat sometimes, because he’s just taking the rhythm out of the match. He’s playing quick points, getting in, missing a few. Then all of a sudden he plays a good game and he’s off,” Agassi said in summing up Pete’s game.
There’s no doubt the 1993 Big Apple campaign was a huge relief for Pete. Another US Open final and again a straight sets win against Frenchman Cedric Pioline. A perfect moment to show who he idolised: Two fabulous Aussies.
“If I can maintain this level of play for ten years, then I will be in their company. I have three Grand Slams titles: two of the biggest ones in the world (Wimbledon and the US Open). My goal one day is to be in the same set as Laver and Rosewall. Those guys were class acts. That is something that I try to present when I play.”There’s no secret Sampras did everything he could to emulate two fantastic Australians. And it seemed it was not only a question of technical skills, but also a personality thing.
“Obviously I looked up to Connors and McEnroe. But the coach that I was working with – Pete Fischer (the one who converted Pete’s two-handed backhand to one-handed backhand) really liked the way the Australian guys acted. I try to conduct myself in a classy manner. That is one thing that they did and so there wasn’t really an American that I really idolised. Sure, I respected McEnroe’s talent and Connors’ intensity, but the Aussies, those guys were great,” Sampras said during the 1993 season.
He grew up idolising Rod Laver and often watched video tapes of him. Although a lefty from Rockhampton in Queensland – Rod Laver was an icon for Pete, it was his quarterfinal victim from the 1990 US Open – Ivan Lendl – who offered him a big help.
Lendl doesn’t have a great record against Sampras (3 wins, 5 losses), but Ivan was a fantastic Grand Slam champion, Davis Cup winner and a former World No. 1, so he had plenty of wisdom and experience to share with Pete.
Sampras is 11 years younger than Lendl, so it’s been a perfect combination: teacher & pupil. In 2011 Sampras was asked at a press conference: “How important was going to Lendl’s place and practising with him when you were really young and seeing his work ethic and so forth, was that a key?” Pete replied in style: “It was just a good eye-opener for me being around the best player in the world. Seeing the way he prepares for his matches, seeing how he trains, just getting to know him a little bit and how organised he was. At 16 you’re not grasping what’s really going on with your career, you’re just trying to play some good tennis. It was a good eye-opener for me to see a legend in the game in his prime.
“Seeing him play, talking about the sport, talking about my game, going on these 25-mile bike rides in the middle of winter in Connecticut … a good eye-opener for me to get an insight into Ivan and the respect I have for him and someone that wasn’t blessed with the talent of a McEnroe, but overcame it with hard work and dedication, and I saw that first hand.”
Agassi, Ashe, Borg, Borotra, Courier, McEnroe, Nastase, Tilden, Vilas. “We all want to compare generations and what I do against Borg or McEnroe or Laver. It’s hard to compare it,” said Sampras. “The game has changed, the technology has changed. But I feel like we all felt that in my prime I felt unbeatable, as does Roger, as did Lendl, as did Laver. I think it’s just the way we look at our decade and to say one’s better than the other, it’s hard to compare.”
1989 Roland Garros champion Michael Chang is a good friend of Sampras. We’ll never find out what might have happened had Chang converted into a one-handed backhand like Sampras did. Despite a fruitful competition between Pete and Michael, they became good buddies. “I have always had a very good rivalry with Michael Chang,” Sampras said in 1992.
Michael Chang defeated Stefan Edberg in the 1989 French Open final in five sets. Edberg, who appeared in 54 consecutive Grand Slams between 1983 and 1996 was a phenomenal player. A Swede who played a classic serve and volley game with a style that was almost an anachronism in an era when power hitting from the baseline became the norm.
Stefan Edberg had a beautifully timed serve and his backhand volley was one of the best shots the game has ever seen. Stefan was en exponent of chip and charge tactics to gain the net whenever possible. Edberg, a magician from Vastervik, was also responsible for one of the best learning curves in Pete’s professional career – the 1992 US Open final. After two hours and 55 minutes it was Stefan Edberg who won a very important match: 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2.
“I hit a lot of double faults the whole match. Serving for the third set at 6-5, I double faulted on breakpoints, double faulted the first point of the game. My serve kind of let me down,” Sampras explained.
“I served pretty well at the start, but as the match wore on, I started pressing a little more and more, trying to hit it too good. As the match wore on, especially in the fourth set, I was running out of gas. It is just I have been playing a lot of tennis this summer. Maybe more mentally than physically. I was very exhausted. I had a very long night last night. I didn’t get too much sleep, but I am not giving any excuses. He won the important points.”
In the semifinal clash, Pete won the battle against Jim Courier. But the two hours and 41 minutes encounter against his fellow countryman took its toll.
“I beat Courier, but I was very dehydrated, had some diarrhoea, a stomach virus. I guess I left about midnight. I got back to my room , had a massage and probably ended up going to sleep about 3.30am. I wasn’t drinking enough probably. I’m not giving any excuses,” he said after the final.
Later he stated that his loss to Edberg was a wake-up call and he needed to figure out how to become the best player on a planet.
“At 19 I won The Open, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I won’t say I got lucky. I played two great weeks of tennis. When I lost to Edberg at the US Open in ’92, I knew that’s what I wanted. That loss made me change my career. It made me hate to lose. At that point it was good enough getting to the finals. Ever since that moment, I just became obsessed with being the best. It was night and day from 1990 to 1992. I just felt like I was a better competitor. I worked a little harder. After that loss to Edberg, it changed my career.”
It is worth mentioning that in the 1992 season Pete won his first clay court title in the beautiful alpine town of Kitzbuehel in Austria, beating Alberto Mancini from Argentina 6-3, 7-5, 6-3.
Seven years later, in 1999 he won all five finals he appeared in, including his Grand Slam-tying 12th title at Wimbledon (defeating Agassi). Sampras appeared in 14 tournaments and played 48 matches, his fewest since 1989, due to injuries. In April that year, he withdrew from two clay court events due to lower back spasms. And in August Sampras retired in a match against Vincent Spadea in Indianapolis with a right hip flexor strain, a day before the start of the US Open. He had suffered a herniated disc injury while practising.
A shocking defeat in the 2000 US Open final against the charismatic Russian Marat Safin was another eye-opener. Seven years later Safin was asked at the US Open: When you won here in 2000, Sampras said you were able to be No. 1 in the world for as long a time as you wanted to. Do you think you still can go to the top?”
Safin replied in a typical manner: “See, even the geniuses make the mistakes. He was wrong.”
One of the most dramatic matches Pete had ever played was a memorable quarterfinal against a Spaniard – Alex Corretja – during the 1996 US Open. Sampras was a set down (1-2), but somehow managed to turn it in his favour. 7-6, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (9-7).
“My stomach was hurting. I almost had enough. And I never really agreed with playing a tiebreaker in the fifth set, but this is the one time I agree. I couldn’t have played it out, I don’t think.
“Down a match point, he hit forehand down the line, went cross-court. I picked it off. Ironic point, match point he gave it to me, and that is weird. In the third and fourth sets, I was starting to drink a little bit of Pepsi, which wasn’t the smartest thing to do. I felt like I needed a kind of caffeine to get me going, and then it was just dehydration, very humid that day.
“I hadn’t eaten all day. Maybe I should have had a banana or something, but in the heat of the moment, I was just drinking water and Pepsi and I just ran out of gas. Well, I think the way I felt that was probably the worst I felt. I was done. If it was a boxing match, I think the ref would have called it. But thank God we are not boxing.”
Sometimes people criticised Pete’s will to win or suggested a lack of ambition, which was never the case.
“Well, I think there are times in the past five, six years I think people have kind of questioned my heart and my desire and I think throughout the past six months to a year, I have battled through some tough moments, on and off the court and fought hard. I think people see that I do care and I do want to win and that I do have a heart, so that is one thing that I have never really questioned. I think people see me play, they see me kind of being pretty lackadaisical. That is really not the case. The matches I have won is just an indication that I have and I refuse to lose,” – Sampras said after a victory over Corretja in New York.
Both parents were extremely proud to see Pete competing on such a high level in a professional sport. It’s hard to imagine that without their wisdom and life experience, Pete would have been in a different position.His sister Stella played tennis, which was a bit of an inspiration. Older brother, Gus, was a tournament director at a Scottsdale ATP event (where ironically Agassi was a four times winner).
Pete loved his parents. He tried to invite them to many prestigious matches and finally was successful when his mum Georgia and dad Sam arrived to London to watch the 2000 Wimbledon final when Pete won against Pat Rafter, 2 hours and 58 minutes of a fabulous tennis. Pete’s parents didn’t watch Sampras play often, because it made them nervous, but they attended their son’s record-breaking title performance against a great athlete from Mount Isa in Australia. A British audience of 12.5 million viewers watched the 2000 Wimbledon final on the BBC, the highest figure since 1992.Pete also enjoyed playing golf. He won a celebrity Long Drive contest, 332 yards, in Lake Tahoe, Nevada in July 1996, and he is a big fan of Formula 1 and an avid supporter of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Sampras claimed five ATP Tour Championships and was twice a member of the USA’s winning Davis Cup team. Sometimes it’s easy to forget he was a very good doubles player. He was pretty versatile winning two doubles titles on various surfaces – on clay in Rome in 1989 with Jim Courier and on grass in London at Queen’s Club in 1995 with Todd Martin.
He played against some masters of a doubles game: Anders Jarryd & Stefan Edberg and an unforgettable five-setter in Minneapolis in 1992. Questions were flying during the 1992 US Open: “Pete, you will probably play doubles with McEnroe for Davis Cup. What kind of a team do you think you will be and how effective will you be against Edberg and Jarryd?”
Sampras replied: “I have never played with John. We have to go to Minnesota and have a solid week of practice. Hope for the best. I kind of know what to expect. Never been in this situation as far as just playing doubles because I haven’t played too much doubles all year. I am playing with probably the greatest doubles player of all time – John McEnroe. Hopefully our games will kind of click. He is more of a touch finesse player. I am a little bit more power, so hopefully that combination will work.”
It clicked perfectly. In September 1992 at Target Centre in Minneapolis, USA won a tie against Sweden 4-1. McEnroe/Sampras v Edberg/Jarryd – what a fantastic rubber. 6-1, 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. The Americans were a set down, but still managed to win.
The duo played another thriller in a World Group final in December 1992 in Fort Worth, Texas. USA v Switzerland. One-all after the first day. The pressure was mixed with an air of excitement.
McEnroe was furious, shouted and tried to use his explosiveness in a positive way. The Americans lost two very tight tiebreakers on a fast surface. “Let’s kick their asses,” McEnroe said. And suddenly the match had a completely different scenario. The pair won a third set and after compulsory 10 minute break played beautifully in the fourth and fifth, winning one of the best spectacles in Davis Cup competition.
“We were like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” Sampras said after the win.
The pinnacle of Pete’s Davis Cup efforts happened three years later on a very slow clay court in Moscow. In that final Pete almost single-handedly beat the Russians, winning three points for his side in a 3-2 victory.
Sampras beat Andrei Chesnokov in a gruelling five-set opening rubber and the next day joined Todd Martin to win the doubles over Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Andrei Olhovskiy. Then downed Kafelnikov to regain the Davis Cup on the final day.
Before the 2003 US Open commenced, Sampras made an announcement. Perfect timing. Another American lifted the trophy – Andy Roddick.
“I’m not retiring because I’m married or I have a son. I’m retiring because I have nothing to prove to myself,” Sampras said.
“I’ve always had challenges ahead of me, either staying No. 1 or winning majors. My biggest challenge was last year when I didn’t win an event for a year and a half, and the challenge of winning one more. Once I did that, I felt I really had climbed a mountain. If there’s something out there I wanted to achieve, I would go and do it.
“The support of my wife and family, to go and travel, to go and focus, do everything I need to do. I’m a hundred per cent content with everything I’ve done. This is something that I love to do and I’ve been doing since I was seven. Saying good-bye is not easy, but I know it’s time.”
As usual, behind every great man, there’s a great woman. A highly talented actress, Bridgette Wilson showed what true love means.
She supported Pete in every single step of his career.
“She has been my rock,” Sampras said. “At a time where I was struggling, my heart wasn’t into it as much, I feel like I achieved a lot and sacrificed a lot. She got blamed for it, which is absolute bullshit. It wasn’t easy to deal with. But she stuck with me and we got through it together.
There are times where I felt like I did want to stop over the past couple years.
“One thing she told me was, ‘You know, I want you to stop on your terms, not what the press is saying, not any of that, just on your terms.’ I needed to be reminded of that. I think I’m going out on my terms.”
It’s interesting no one has seen Pete the tennis coach. His great rivals have done it: Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl.
Why haven’t we seen Pete in the player’s box at majors?
“I do know the sport, and I know the ins and outs and the mentality. But no one’s approached me as far as coaching. I think they’re all a little scared to,” Sampras explained.
“But I love helping some young guys and being on the court with them. It’s fun for me. And I could shed a little bit of my knowledge. When I was a youngster, I was more concerned about playing well than winning. I think parents and kids today are so worried about winning when they’re 12, 13, 14. I wasn’t worried about winning when I was young. That’s something I would emphasise to youngsters, improving, not winning everything.”
Pete is a very sensitive bloke. During his career he lost two fantastic friends – “the Lithuanian Lion” – Vitas Gerulaitis and Tim Gullikson.
Sampras made a phone call to Vitas’s mum straight after he found out Gerulaitis has passed at only 40 years of age.
Tim was a lot more than a mentor and friend. He sadly died aged 44 with a brain tumour. Pete donated his time for a tennis lesson at the 2002 US Open, a session that was auctioned, with proceeds benefiting the Gullikson Foundation.
Sensitive off the court, a hard worker and a true battler on it. A true champion. Seeing Pete’s heroics in Moscow in a thrilling match against Andrei Chesnokov was a great experience. Sampras had to be carried off court suffering cramp after an exhausting five-set victory.
Who knows, maybe even Lenin opened an eye to be a witness of the last few rallies of that extraordinary encounter?
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