As a tennis historian and journalist who has covered the game for 46 years and followed it avidly for much longer than that, I have been very fortunate to observe the masters of the craft throughout the bulk of my lifetime. From Rod Laver to Novak Djokovic, Billie Jean King to Serena Williams—and all the other luminaries in between—I have witnessed a cavalcade of towering champions.
But over my long tenure as a reporter, the champion I have found most commendable on a multitude of levels is Pete Sampras. That is one of the main reasons why I have written a new book on him called, Pete Sampras, Greatness Revisited. At a time when the talent at the top of the game was arguably more diversified and tougher to navigate than any other era, he collected 14 major singles titles, celebrated a record six years in a row as the year-end No. 1 (1993-98), held a winning record over all of his chief rivals—including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, and Jim Courier—and was the most exemplary sportsman in tennis.
Sampras set the highest ethical standards, pursued his craft quietly and diligently with immense professionalism, and was revered by his large constituency of fans who realized he spoke with his racquet and conducted himself with solemnity. In my view, he was the ultimate champion, an athlete of the highest order, and a fellow too often taken for granted. By writing the book, I wanted to remind everyone that he was not only a central figure in the sport but in turn an incomparable player who wore success as well as anyone.
When Sampras played his last official match by eclipsing Agassi in the final of the 2002 US Open on Arthur Ashe Stadium—and then had a retirement ceremony on the same court the following year—it was clear that he was not the kind of man who had any need to maintain a high profile position in society. He returned to play on Courier’s Senior Circuit in 2006 and enjoyed that forum into his forties, but aside from those selected appearances he has led a low key life with his family, spending very little time in the public eye.
As the years passed, Roger Federer (first), Rafael Nadal and Djokovic have all surpassed the 48-year-old’s record for major titles, with Federer taking 20, Nadal 19 and Djokovic 17. They have fully defined an era. Most of the authorities have focused solely on these extraordinary individuals when considering who belongs at the top of the ladder as the greatest player of all time. It has indeed been a singularly golden era, one that the fans have embraced, and a period of supreme productivity from a trio who have rewritten the record books and stretched their soaring capabilities almost beyond reason.
But the enduring excellence of the Big 3 has caused too many aficionados to relegate former standouts to a lesser place amidst their memories.
“I totally believe that in the mists of time, people have forgotten how great Pete was,” Mary Carillo said in an interview for the book.
Sampras was deeply appreciated for his unbending devotion to the work he was doing, and he built an ardent cast of admirers for going about it with an admirable lack of histrionics. But gradually after he left the game, despite his rectitude, regardless of the fact that he deserved more recognition for a man of his lofty stature, he has too often been overlooked by fans understandably consumed with present day competitors.
In putting together this book over the last 18 months, I was able to draw on the excellent rapport that the American and I developed through numerous interviews that began in 1992. He was very generous with his time and we had innumerable long sessions talking about his career. He seemed to enjoy the reminiscing and the chance to rekindle some powerful memories of his prodigious career.
The Washington, D.C. native addressed a wide range of topics, talking about his junior days and all aspects of his professional career, speaking about his key rivals, reflecting on fatherhood, and lauding the great players who have followed in his footsteps. He came across as a man who is content with himself and fulfilled about his lofty achievements.
Meanwhile, I spoke with a remarkable cast of people who played major roles in his life and career, including John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, Patrick Rafter, Courier, Michael Chang, Todd Martin, Goran Ivanisevic, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles, Carillo, and Tracy Austin. I also interviewed boyhood coach Robert Lansdorp, Paul Annacone and his Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson.
Last, but not least, I had a fascinating interview with Djokovic. His praise for Sampras was boundless, and the Serbian vividly recalled watching his hero win Wimbledon in 1993 when he was six.
“Pete had the champion’s spirit. In the moments when 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,” said Djokovic.
The advantage of including so many of these prominent players was not only to bring forth their observations in the telling of the story, but also to bounce things they said to me off Sampras so that he could respond to their recollections. The interchange of the two was a theme; another was the reverence the other players and coaches have for him as not only a player but a human being.
After covering the scope of his career with the depth and detail it deserved, I concluded my career biography with some chapters that will hopefully add another dimension to the perception of who he is and what he has done. I wrote a long chapter on his legacy, another one on why he must be considered the greatest American player of all time, one called “Imagining Sampras Against Djokovic, Federer and Nadal”, and a final chapter on his life today.
The aforementioned players and coaches weigh in on how they would envision a prime time Sampras competing against today’s illustrious trio if all of them were placed in a time warp. The prevailing view is that he would have done remarkably well against all three, although opinions vary about which of those matchups would be most favorable to him. Meanwhile, Sampras conveys his considerable admiration for the Serbian, the Swiss and the Spaniard.
“I was just flabbergasted that these three guys would win so many majors in the past 15 years,” he says. “I did think Roger had a realistic chance to break my record when he got to 7 or 8 majors, but for Rafa to dominate Roger for a while—and for Novak to dominate both of them—these three athletes are three of the greatest of all time.
“They keep pushing each other. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
And yet, Sampras is candid about his conviction that he would be comfortable testing his skills against all of them. That chapter will undoubtedly spark much debate among tennis enthusiasts who have seen all of the greats and have strong points of view on the subject. The beauty of imaginary matchups is simply this: it is all conjecture, but who can resist it?
The book is, above all, a tribute to the greatest male tennis player in the history of the United States. For me as the author, it was a chance to relive the Sampras Era and remember how he turned the 1990’s into a sterling showcase for his inimitable gifts. In my view, this is an ideal time to bring him sharply back into focus. My purpose is to reexamine his unanswerable blend of power and grace, to turn the reader’s attention back to the elegance of his explosive serve, the extraordinary athleticism of his leaping overhead, the growing significance of his underrated net game across the second half of his career, and the sheer beauty of his signature running forehand.
Even more than that, the book is a reminder that even with the passage of time and the fascination of the public with today’s tennis icons, we would all do well to remember that Sampras was a singularly important champion who valued what mattered most about the field of athletic competition.
“I was raised as a kid to be a good sport, win or lose, to shake hands and get off the court. I am a bit introverted and I don’t like to show much emotion. I think it came from my parents,” he says. “As I became a young adult playing in front of people on television and in person, I just felt this is who I am. People come up to me now and say I was a good role model for their kids because of the way I handled myself on the court, and that means more to me than anything, knowing I had that effect on some people who have watched me play and might think, ‘I want to be like Rod Laver or I want to be like Pete.’
“Everyone has a different personality and I was more like Bjorn Borg or Stefan Edberg, the kind of role model where we keep our head down and just play. I was raised to be a tennis player—not a celebrity. That was who I was.”