Sampras competes against best -- ever
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
His opponents aren't Agassi, Rafter and Rios. They are Laver, Rosewall and Emerson.
Pete Sampras isn't playing for today; he's competing for history.
When he won his sixth Wimbledon championship in 1999, it gave him 12 Grand Slam singles titles, tying Roy Emerson ior most majors all time.
Though he had earned more than $35 million in ATP Tour earnings going into 1999, it is Grand Slams that consume him. The easy-going, hard-hitting Sampras would trade a dozen of his 55 Tour victories (through 1998) for one French Open or another Australian. Let others play for money; he's playing for majors.
"I measure my year on how I do at the majors and the more that I have won over the years, the more I want to win," Sampras said. "I don't look at myself as a historical icon, but the reality of it is, yeah, I am playing for history now."
Sampras, 27, is not the indifferent jock he pretends to be. While he gives the impression that he doesn't play with a passion, he deeply wants to be remembered as the best ever. "I don't think it's arrogant," Sampras said. "I'm not ashamed that I feel that I can actually do it."
Yet, he is uncomfortable in the spotlight. He is a throwback to the days when gentleman played the sport of tennis. "I could be a jerk and get a lot more publicity, but that's not who I am," said Sampras, who believes in the past, but came of age in the 1990s.
Although Sampras is tied with Emerson for the Slams record, he was taught to emulate Rod Laver, the winner of two Grand Slams, 11 majors, and generally regarded as the game's greatest.
"There wasn't an American that I really idolized," Sampras said. "Sure, I respected (John) McEnroe's talent and (Jimmy) Connors' intensity, but the Aussies, those guys were great guys." And the players he admired most were the gentlemanly Laver and Ken Rosewall.
Since 1993, when he first claimed the No. 1 ranking, the 6-foot-1 Sampras has stood head and shoulders above his playing opponents. While he has a ferocious forehand and sensational serve, his greatest gift may be his will to win. He's not afraid to leave his guts on the courts -- literally.
He was born Aug. 12, 1971 in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Palos Verdes, Cal. His father, Soterios, called Sam, was an aerospace engineer for the Department of Defense and his mother, Georgia, was a homemaker.
He began playing tennis at seven and when he was nine, his father asked Pete Fischer, a physician and amateur player, to hit with his son. Fischer was so impressed with the youngster's ability, he became his coach.
When Sampras was 11, he had the opportunity to trade groundstrokes with Laver, his idol. "Pete was so nervous he couldn't get the ball over the net," Fischer said.
Sampras rarely won a major junior tournament. Fischer believed his protege needed to play "up" in age groups, against stronger and older players to develop his all-around game. "From the very beginning, the competition was always Laver," Sampras said.
At 14, Fischer changed Sampras' backhand from two-handed to one-handed. He also switched him from a safe defensive baseliner to a classic risky serve-and-volleyer. "I played just like (Michael) Chang, grinding from the baseline," Sampras said. "When I started serving and volleying, I became much more laid back."
Fischer told him that someday these changes would help him win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Sampras turned pro at 16 following his junior year in high school. By the late 1980s, he split with Fischer because he thought his coach was an overbearing perfectionist, someone who "wanted to put his brain in my body."
In 1990, Sampras, who was ranked No. 81 at the start of the year, stunned the tennis world -- and himself -- by becoming the youngest U.S. Open winner at 19 years, 28 days. The 12th-seeded Sampras defeated Ivan Lendl, McEnroe and Andre Agassi in the last three rounds for just his third tour victory. He served 100 aces in his seven matches and attributed his first Slams title to "a hot two weeks."
When he lost in the 1991 U.S. Open quarterfinals, Sampras said he was more relieved than disappointed and that he felt like "a ton of bricks" was lifted from his shoulders. Connors and Jim Courier, among others, criticized him.
"That quote reflected the truth of how I felt," Sampras said. "I wasn't sure then that I really could win another Grand Slam title."
Sampras rebounded in 1992, going 70-18 and winning five tournaments. He also helped the United States win the Davis Cup, capturing five-set doubles matches with McEnroe in the semifinals and finals.
But it was a defeat that turned around his career. After losing to defending champion Stefan Edberg at the U.S. Open final, Sampras discovered how much he wanted to win.
"I realized that I had given up in the match," he said. "Just a touch, but enough to lose. I came to the realization that getting to finals wouldn't be good enough anymore."
New coach Tim Gullikson showed Sampras the value of playing percentage tennis -- going for smart, conservative shots rather than flashy, difficult ones. On April 12, 1993, Sampras reached the No. 1 ranking for the first time, and only occasionally has he fallen from that perch. He's been there at the end of the past six years, a record in men's tennis.
His record improved to 83-15 with eight tournament victories, including his first Wimbledon and second U.S. Open. When he won the 1994 Australian Open, he became the first player since Laver in 1969 to win three consecutive Grand Slam titles. After losing at the French Open, Sampras won his second Wimbledon.
At the quarterfinals of the 1995 Australian Open, Sampras wept in the fifth set against Courier when a fan shouted for him to win the match for Gullikson, who had left the tournament because of complications from a brain tumor. Sampras regained his composure to defeat Courier. However, he lost the final to Agassi. It would be the second -- and last -- time Sampras would lose in 14 Slam finals.
He became the first American to win three consecutive Wimbledons and he regained his U.S. Open title. He capped 1995 by accounting for all three points as the U.S. defeated Russia in the Davis Cup final.
On May 3, 1996, Gullikson, 44, died of brain cancer. Sampras lost in the first three majors that year, but retained his U.S. Open title, showing his guts against Alex Corretja in a four-hour and nine-minute quarterfinal.
With the score 1-1 in a fifth-set tiebreaker, a dehydrated Sampras vomited twice. Refusing to lose, he saved a match point at 6-7 with a desperate, full-extension forehand volley winner. After a fault on a weak first serve, the exhausted Sampras found the strength to deal a second-serve ace. The match ended when Corretja double faulted on the next point.
"I hate to lose, and I do whatever I can to win, and if it is ugly, it is ugly," said Sampras, who needed a half-gallon of intravenous fluids afterwards.
Sampras won the 1997 Australian Open and took Wimbledon in 1997, 1998 and 1999. His six Wimbledons are the most for any player in the 20th century. "There's a certain aura about the place that you don't feel anywhere else," Sampras said. "The echo of the balls hit on Centre Court -- it just feels significant."
The only thing missing from Sampras' resume is a victory on the French Open clay. He realizes that without it, he might not be regarded as No. 1 all-time, no matter how many Slams titles he wins.