From a very young age, Pete Sampras dreamed big. Inspired by such legends as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, Sampras fully committed himself to greatness, sharpening his game in highly competitive Southern California.
The dream became reality. In 1990, at the age of 19, Sampras became the youngest man to win the US Open singles title. Three years later, he was firmly established as the world’s best. At the end of 1997, Sampras finished the year ranked No. 1 on the ATP computer for the fifth straight time, tying a record held by Jimmy Connors. Naturally, always casting his eyes on history, Sampras was eager to break it.
That proved a major effort. In four of those prior five years at the top, Sampras had earned two Grand Slam singles titles. In 1998, he’d won one, taking five sets to overcome Goran Ivanisevic in the final of Wimbledon. The US Open was frustrating, Sampras losing in the semis to Patrick Rafter. He’d also earned 39 singles titles during that five-year run, an average of nearly eight a year. But by late September of ’98, he’d won only three.
Though Sampras was still ranked No. 1, Marcelo Rios—who’d held the top spot for six weeks that season—was nipping at his heels. To capture a sixth straight year at the top, Sampras would have to earn significant ranking points. Though weary after an arduous summer, Sampras opted that September to head to Europe and commit to an extensive fall schedule.
“The European circuit in the fall is no picnic, even at the best of times,” Sampras wrote in his autobiography, A Champion’s Mind. “It’s cold, it gets dark early, and you’re playing night matches in massive arenas under artificial lights. At the end of the long, hard Grand Slam season, that ambience can leave you feeling like you’re living in some strange, parallel universe.”
All that told that autumn, Sampras would play seven tournaments. Though the indoor surfaces they were played on seemed a natural fit for his aggressive game, only once, in Vienna, did Sampras win the title. Particularly heartbreaking: a third-set tiebreaker loss to Richard Krajicek in the semis of Stuttgart, followed the next week by a straight-set defeat at the hands of Greg Rusedski in the final of Paris.
The pressure of it all put the usually tranquil Sampras on edge. Just after Paris, in Stockholm—his sixth straight week of tournament play—Sampras lost the first set of his opening match to No. 29 Jason Stoltenberg in a tiebreaker and then proceeded to do something exceptionally out of character: Pete Sampras shattered his racquet into pieces.
“I was so stressed out from the whole race for No. 1,” Sampras told journalist Steve Flink in The Independent later that year. “I wasn’t eating or sleeping well. I have never done that in my career and I was on the edge. I just snapped for a moment but it felt pretty good to do it.”
Taking the week off after Stockholm, Sampras went to the season-ending championship in Hanover, Germany. His lead over Rios was a thin 33 ranking points. At heart, whoever fared better at the event would clinch the ranking.
As much as Sampras liked to control history with his racquet, the matter was settled by Rios. After playing one match in the round-robin stage, the Chilean withdrew from the event with a back injury. Meanwhile, Sampras went undefeated in his group.
“It’s an ultimate achievement,” said Sampras. “It will probably never be broken. I’m trying to stay humble through all this, but the record speaks for itself. It’s a little overwhelming.”