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What happened 20 years ago on the opening night of the 2003 US Open once again revealed the wide range of dimensions that made Pete Sampras one of tennis’ most remarkable champions.

Sampras was 32 years old that evening, one year removed from a dazzling four-set win over his most formidable rival, Andre Agassi, in the final of the 2002 US Open. “The match had proven to be the final and most daunting hurdle of my career,” wrote Sampras (with Peter Bodo) in his book, A Champion’s Mind.

Seeded 17th, Sampras by then had not won a tournament in more than two years. He’d also been beaten handily in the last two US Open finals by a pair of young contenders—the powerful Marat Safin ’00, the tenacious Lleyton Hewitt in ’01. But in ’02, Sampras had found the magic once again. Versus Agassi, he served 33 aces and closed out the match with a crosscourt backhand volley winner.

Following that victory, Sampras did not play another match. As ’02 gave way to ’03, it was becoming quite clear to all that he was likely retired. Finally, there came the official announcement and, on that first Monday, a ceremony. “I really loved playing in New York, loved playing in front of you guys,” said Sampras. “But I know in my heart, it’s time to say goodbye.” The evening was marked by tears, a rare and powerful display of emotion from a champion known for keeping his cool. It was a reminder that for all the calm Sampras showed when competing, his exceptional poise was strongly fueled by considerable passion.

Sampras went 71-9 at the US Open, lifting five trophies along the way.

Sampras went 71-9 at the US Open, lifting five trophies along the way.

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Upon retirement, Sampras had left an incredible legacy of excellence, highlighted by him having won a record 14 major men’s singles titles—seven at Wimbledon, five at the US Open, two at the Australian Open. No one at that point could have dared imagine that record would eventually be eclipsed; amazingly, not just by one man, but three.

Such is the highly competitive nature of professional sports that contemporary glory devours the past. That’s particularly vivid in individual sports. While champions in a team sport carry the legacy of institutional clout, along with the accrued equity and relentless visibility of logos and team colors, tennis players are solo acts. More bluntly, it’s rare to see tennis fans wearing hats or shirts that bear the names, likenesses, or logos of past greats. In Sampras’ case, no sooner had he retired than there came two decades of greatness from Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer. But look closely and you will see how Sampras’ brilliance has left its mark on each.

The first most obvious example was Federer. Like Sampras, Federer initially wielded an 85-inch Wilson Pro Staff racquet, struck boldly off the forehand, employed a one-handed backhand, came to net frequently, possessed a liquid-smooth service motion, and covered the court superbly. Granted, changes in surface speed and string technology turned Federer into more of a baseliner than Sampras. But more importantly, Sampras and Federer often came off as effortless. My belief is that at least a portion of the public swooning aimed Federer’s way was also a bit of compensatory remorse for not fully appreciating Sampras’ genius. As Sampras once told me years ago, “If only people knew how hard I worked to make it look this easy.”

Sampras and Djokovic shared the court for an exhibition at Indian Wells in 2019.

Sampras and Djokovic shared the court for an exhibition at Indian Wells in 2019.

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But one young fan instantly grasped what made Sampras excel. On July 4, 1993, Novak Djokovic was a six-year-old boy who had just begun to play tennis. That day, he watched the Wimbledon final—and found his tennis hero. It was Sampras, who that London afternoon beat Jim Courier to win the first of seven Wimbledon titles. “I really felt that day watching Pete that it was kind of a higher power instilled in me,” Djokovic told journalist Steve Flink in the book, Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited. “I just kind of received that information from above. It is just one of those things that you can’t explain. You just feel it and know it deep inside. But for me, Pete was the guy.” Djokovic has also won Wimbledon seven times.

Then there is Nadal. From a distance, it’s not easy to see what he and Sampras have in common. After all, while Nadal is a left-hander who originally built his topspin-heavy game on clay, the right-handed Sampras learned to play on slick, fast-bouncing hard courts. As just one example of the stylistic contrast, it’s impossible to imagine Sampras returning serve many feet behind the baseline the way Nadal does. But beyond the technical and even tactical differences, what Nadal and Sampras both share is a deep hunger competition and the big occasion. As Sampras told me in that same interview, “I lived for those moments when I could step onto the show court and take charge right away.”

And as much as Sampras often did that with a single shot—crackling serve, whip-like forehand—when the situation called for it, he could sustain and finish a long rally as well as Nadal or anyone else who’s ever played. In the 1995 US Open final, Sampras faced Agassi. This match came at the highwater mark of their rivalry, complete with extensive Nike ads and a pre-tournament New York Times Magazine cover story. Back and forth it went across a breathtaking first set. With Agassi serving at 4-5, ad out, Sampras ended a 22-shot baseline exchange with a backhand crosscourt winner.

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Now comes the arrival of Alcaraz. A year ago, Alcaraz became only the second teenager to win the US Open men’s singles title. Sampras was the first, back in 1990. Much like Alcaraz, Sampras did it with composure and bold shot-making from all sides and to all parts of the court. In the last three rounds of the tournament, Sampras beat Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, and Agassi. “That guy,” said McEnroe two weeks later, “was cool as a cucumber.” Years later, Sampras would call his ’90 US Open run, “a case of a pup going through a zone.”

In time, of course, the pup would grow up and become tennis’ top dog. As far as Alcaraz goes, we’ll have to wait at least a decade to see if the exuberant Spaniard has what it takes to join Sampras, Nadal and Ken Rosewall as the only men to win singles majors in their teens, 20s, and 30s.

“Pete had the champion’s spirit,” Djokovic said in Flink’s book. “That is his legacy. In the moments most players would break down, he was the guy that showed the resilience and mental strength and laser-like focus that separated him from everyone else and made him an all-time great.”