In the process of writing my new book, Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited, I explored a wide range of topics with this immensely accomplished American athlete. We talked about his obsessive dedication to his craft, his memories of pursing prime objectives with extraordinary purposefulness, and how he set his priorities year after year through the heart of his career.
The chief priority, of course, was collecting major titles. More than anything else, Sampras wanted to establish himself as the all-time leader among men for amassing major singles titles. That was a singular quest for the soft-spoken Californian. Roy Emerson held the record with 12 before Sampras broke it at Wimbledon in 2000; two years later, he concluded his sterling career by claiming a 14th major at the US Open.
No one believed back then that Sampras' total would be surpassed for perhaps decades, if at all—but improbably, three men have managed to achieve that lofty feat. Roger Federer has so far secured 20 majors, Rafael Nadal 19 and Novak Djokovic 17. There is irony in that because it was Sampras more than any other champion who wholeheartedly embraced the notion that the true barometer of enduring greatness is accumulating the most major titles. “That is how I was raised,” he says.
Before the emergence of Sampras, the leading players all sought to make their presence known on the storied and hallowed grounds at the Slams. The majors have always mattered enormously to those elite competitors capable of claiming those prizes.
But up until Sampras established himself as the youngest ever men’s champion at the US Open, when he was 19, there had been periods when the Australian and French Opens lost luster. Across the 1970s and through much of the '80s, the men’s fields in Melbourne were often nowhere near as strong as those at Wimbledon and the US Open. The Australian Open was frequently played at the end of the year rather than at the outset, and competing over the holidays was not what many top players wanted to do. Once that tournament moved back to the beginning of the year at a new facility on hard courts, the stature of the Australian Open was raised once more. Roland Garros struggled as well, particularly in the 1970s.
But by the time Sampras approached his zenith, all four majors were going strong. And as he kept adding to his collection of Grand Slam titles and started closing in on Emerson’s record, Sampras would speak frequently about why the majors mattered more to him than anything else.
“As I got closer to breaking the record and had nine or 10 majors, it became a conversation piece in the press," he told me. "I wanted to break the record for the most majors and I talked about it. Having a chance to end my career with the most majors was important to me.”
Does Sampras think he altered the way the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic looked at tennis history, leading them to look at the majors through a different lens? He answered in the book:
“I think I am a part of that. I never wanted to bag on the other tournaments, but I looked at certain things as black and white, and this was a black-and-white thing. You based your year on what you did at the majors. If I won eight tournaments and none of them were majors, that would be a good year, but not a great year. I was very open and honest on that. My year was measured on the Slams. The game is not all about numbers, but having a chance to end my career with the most majors was important to me.”
Sampras has marveled at the exploits of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic and salutes them all for surpassing his total of majors. He realized by 2007 or thereabouts that Federer was likely to surpass his supremacy at the Grand Slam events, but never could have envisioned then that Nadal and Djokovic would follow suit. Yet Sampras might have played a role in their success by influencing the next generation significantly with his strong point of view on what really mattered.
The fact remains that Sampras looks back on his six consecutive year-end No. 1 rankings—from 1993-98—as in many ways his most satisfying accomplishment.
“I just wanted that record of being No. 1 six years in a row so badly," he told me. "The way I looked at it, I had just this one chance to do it in 1998 and I was obsessed. It was my one opportunity to break one of the all-time toughest records. I know how hard it is to stay at No. 1 and to do it for six straight years is a beast.
“Who knows if that will ever be broken?”
It will surely not be broken by any member of today’s illustrious iconic trio. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all achieved the year-end No. 1 ranking five times altogether. Federer did it four years in a row (2004-2007); Djokovic has had a couple of two-year runs (2011-2012 and 2014-2015); Nadal has never managed to stay at the top for even two consecutive years. When Sampras concluded 1998 at the top, he broke a tie between himself and Jimmy Connors, who spent five straight years (1974–78) as the sport’s No. 1 player.
All through his career, Sampras was synonymous with the majors. He set his record when the game was more diversified at the top, with a multitude of playing styles and a more dangerous cast of individuals looming as threats at the most prestigious tournaments.
But sealing the No. 1 ranking for the sixth year in a row was a singular feat. That achievement stands alongside or even surpasses his 14 majors. Sampras once told his coach Paul Annacone that it was his biggest accomplishment.
That is no small statement from one of the game’s most towering individuals.