Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
4. Pete Sampras
Years played: 1988–2002
Major titles: 14
“I let my racquet do the talking,” Sampras once said, in a typically succinct self-summation. “That’s what I’m all about, really. I just go out and win tennis matches.”
The mix of down-to-earth honesty and unshakable self-confidence in those words was characteristic of this quiet Californian, who was happy to be known as a tennis player rather than a star.
Few players’ racquets have ever spoken as loudly. When Sampras played his last match, at the 2002 US Open, he had won more major titles, 14, than any other man; he had won more Wimbledon titles, seven, than any man in the Open era; he had spent more weeks at No. 1, 286, than any man; and he had finished a men’s-record six seasons—all of them in a row—at No. 1.
While many champions pioneer new ways of playing, or at least go with the flow of their eras, Sampras traveled back in time to find his game. Until he was 13, he played the standard style of his day, swinging with two hands on his backhand and grinding from the baseline. But with a pro career and the slick grass at Wimbledon in mind, Sampras made the difficult decision to switch to a one-hander and transform himself into a net-rusher. If those things were good enough for his hero, Rod Laver, they must be good enough for him.
Stories of the Open Era: Rod Laver
Sampras struggled at first to adapt; in 1986, he failed to make it past the third round at any of the four big USTA boys’ events. But the teenager kept his eyes on the more important adult prizes ahead.
“I knew what the benefits of [changing] would be,” Sampras told Tennis magazine. “I always knew that.”
Could he have anticipated exactly how big those benefits would be? They began all at once, with a sudden, two-week, avalanche of success at the 1990 US Open. Seeded 12th, the 19-year-old knocked off the two best players of the 1980s, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, in the quarterfinals and semifinals, and finished by upsetting the man who many assumed would be the first great player of the 1990s, Andre Agassi, in the final. Pistol Pete was born.
As he made clear over those two weeks at Flushing Meadows, the player of the’ 90s would be Sampras. His ability to lock even his best opponents down and take the racquets out of their hands—first with his bomb serve, then with his heavy forehand, and finally with his athletic net game—was on full display in New York. Other players were more complete, and others more stylish, but when Sampras was on, there was nothing any opponent—maybe in history—could do about it.
While that Open victory let Sampras know how good he could be, it was a loss on the same court two years later that made him understand that he should never settle for anything less. His defeat at the hands of Stefan Edberg in the 1992 final stung, because he felt like he hadn’t done everything he could to win; at some level he had just been happy to be there. Sampras vowed never to feel that way after a big match again, and never to be satisfied with anything other than the champion’s trophy. That change in attitude, like his change from a two-handed backhand to a one-hander 10 years earlier, was what lifted Sampras above even the best among his peers.
Over the next eight years, Sampras would win 14 of the 15 Grand Slam finals he reached. Seven of those titles came at his favorite event, Wimbledon. As a junior, he had designed his game to win on Centre Court, and his preemptive serve-and-attack style was virtually unplayable there. Sampras would go 63-7 at Wimbledon and lose just once from 1993 to 2000.
If Sampras’ decision to go to a one-handed backhand paid dividends at Wimbledon, it had the opposite effect at the French Open. The tournament’s slow clay worked against his aggression. Year after year, his attempts to complete a career Grand Slam in Paris ended in a cloud of red dust. The closest he came was a semifinal run in 1996.
But Sampras’ career still ended in storybook, full-circle fashion in 2002, with a win at the same tournament—and over the same opponent—where it all began for him in 1990. In the US Open final, Sampras beat Agassi with a career-best 84 winners. It was, Sampras said, the “highest level I’ve ever played.”
This greatest of all U.S. men’s champions let his racquet talk louder than it ever had, before it finally went silent.
Defining Moment: In the 1999 Wimbledon final, Sampras faced Agassi, who had just won the French Open. Agassi played well against Sampras, too, but Pistol Pete shot him down in three jolting, definitive sets. He won not just with his trademark power serving—he was never broken—but also with an array of ground-stroke winners. Sampras may not have been the greatest player of all time, but no one has ever been as unstoppable as he was that day.
Watch: Pete Sampras gets emotional against Jim Courier at 1995 Australian Open
Follow the men's and women's countdowns of The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era throughout the month of February right here.
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WATCH DESERT SMASH LIVE on TENNIS CHANNEL and TENNIS.com