Sampras, Peter ("Pete")
SAMPRAS, Peter ("Pete")
(b. 12 August 1971 in Washington, D.C.), tennis player who, at age nineteen, was the youngest player to win the U.S. Open men's singles championship. After capturing his seventh Wimbledon singles title in 2000, Sampras became the first man to win thirteen Grand Slam championship titles.
Sampras was one of four children of Soterios ("Sam") Sampras, an aerospace engineer, and Georgia Vroustouris Sampras, a homemaker. When Sampras was seven years old, his family moved to Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Sampras's tennis career began in the warm southern California climate under the guidance of his father and his first coach, Pete Fisher, a pediatrician who was not a very good tennis player himself but knew how the game should be played. Under Fisher, Sampras not only developed his tennis skills but also began to envision his career as a professional player. From 1980 to 1984, Sampras rose rapidly in the junior rankings, becoming one of world's top players in his age group.
Despite the success of his protégé, Fisher believed that Sampras needed to change his two-handed backhand to a one-handed grip to compete at the next level. It was a long and painful process for the young Sampras. The unfamiliar new grip caused him great frustration and self-doubt. Sampras's ranking plummeted, but he stuck with his coach's advice, and eventually everything started to come together. As Sampras later stated, switching to the one-handed grip turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened to his game.
With the refinement of his skills and the growth of his body, Sampras's game improved dramatically. In 1987 he was selected to the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team. He also beat top-seeded Michael Chang at the U.S. Open Junior Championships. In 1988 Sampras left Palos Verdes High School and turned professional. He joined the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour, and won half of his matches during the tour; at the end of the season he was ranked in the top 100. The transitional year in Sampras's career was 1989. With Jim Courier, he won his first international tournament doubles title at the Italian Open. At the U.S. Open, he deposed former champion Mats Wilander in the second round in five sets, and reached the fourth round himself before he was eliminated. He also made a major career decision at the end of the season—to break away from Fisher, who could no longer coach him at the game's highest level.
The first major milestone of Sampras's career came in 1990. Despite a disappointing first-round loss at Wimbledon, Sampras played brilliantly throughout the summer and entered the U.S. Open with confidence and maturity. Ranked as the twelfth seed at the championship, Sampras defeated all his opponents in the first four rounds to earn a showdown with Ivan Lendl, the top-ranked player in the world and three-time former U.S. Open champion. Sampras demonstrated not only his flawless serve-and-volley skills but also his maturity and composure under pressure. Serving twenty-six aces, Sampras toppled Lendl in five sets and eliminated the former champion, marking the first time that Lendl failed to reach the finals since 1981. Sampras seemed unstoppable. In the semifinals Sampras faced the legendary John McEnroe, a four-time former U.S. Open champion. McEnroe, unseeded for the first time since his U.S. Open debut thirteen years earlier, had captivated the Flushing Meadow, New York, crowds with the resurgence of his performance, but Sampras stemmed the comeback. With seventeen aces and youthful power, Sampras finished off McEnroe in four sets. The finals match was much easier. Against Andre Agassi, an old rival from his junior years, Sampras demolished his opponent in straight sets (6–4, 6–3, 6–2) in less than two hours. The competition, or lack of it, was best described by Agassi, who said: "It was a good old-fashioned street mugging." At nineteen years and twenty-eight days, Sampras became the youngest male champion in U.S. Open history.
A few months later, Sampras made a bigger financial splash by winning the inaugural Grand Slam Cup in Munich, Germany, collecting a $2 million first-place prize. By the end of the 1990 season, Sampras had established himself among the tennis elites, sharing the top ranking with Stefan Edberg of Sweden and Lendl of Czechoslovakia. He soon learned, however, that defending a title can be much harder than winning it.
For nearly three years after the 1990 season, Sampras failed to capture any major singles championship. His 1991 campaign to retain his U.S. Open title came up short when he was eliminated by Courier in three straight sets in the quarterfinals. In his 1992 attempt to regain the title, he lost the finals in four sets to Edberg. Despite the disappointing loss at the U.S. Open, Sampras did compile the best match record of his career, 70–18, while earning the number four spot in the year-end world rankings.
In 1993, with the ascendance of Sampras, a new era in tennis began. On 4 July Sampras defeated Courier in a thrilling "all-American" Wimbledon final. The victory at the All England Lawn Tennis Club was the beginning of Sampras's dominance. Two months later, Sampras recaptured his U.S. Open title by defeating the Frenchman Cedric Pioline in straight sets. By the end of 1993, Sampras had secured himself as the number one player and a new icon in the world of tennis. His thundering serves and crisp volleys, racing forehands, grit, determination, and fluid ground strokes signaled the Sampras era had arrived.
Sampras's most productive season was in 1994, when he won ten out of eighteen singles tournaments, including the Australian Open and a repeat of his Wimbledon title. He also set a single season financial record, bringing in over $5.4 million from his tour performances. Foot and hamstring injuries, however, hampered his performance in the second half of the year. Yet, at the conclusion of the season, Sampras did retain his number one ranking by winning the ATP Tour Championship in Frankfurt, Germany.
Sampras's successful career endured a tragic blow in early 1995. During the Australian Open, his mentor and close friend Tim Gullikson collapsed as a result of brain cancer (he died in 1996). Sampras was overcome with grief and lost control of his emotions in front of thousands of live spectators and millions of television viewers. The loss of Gullikson put everything into perspective. As Sampras put it: "Tennis is a great game, and I want to win every match I play, but it is not the most important thing in your life." In July 1995 Sampras successfully defended his Wimbledon title and became the first American man ever to win the world's most prestigious tournament three years in a row. Two months later in New York, Sampras also regained the U.S. Open title from Agassi and the number one ranking in the world.
Sampras continued his dominance in the remaining years of the twentieth century. Between 1996 and 2000 he captured his second Australian Open and fourth U.S. Open titles and won Wimbledon four times in a row. With a career record of thirteen Grand Slam singles titles, Sampras is one of the most celebrated players in the history of U.S. tennis.
The Sampras era concluded on a personal note. On 30 September 2000 Sampras married actress Bridgette Wilson, a former Miss Teen USA, in a sunset ceremony at his Beverly Hills, California, home. After winning at Wimbledon in 2000, Sampras failed to win any of the eighteen tournaments in which he competed, including the 2001 U.S. Open. Seeded tenth at the championship, his lowest since winning the first of his record thirteen Grand Slam championship titles in 1990, Sampras staged one of the most remarkable series of performances in the history of the U.S. Open. Defying media speculation of his decline and possible retirement, Sampras defeated three former champions in a row: the sixth seed, Patrick Rafter, in the fourth round; the second seed, Agassi, in the quarterfinals; and the third seed, Marat Safin, in the semifinals. However, Sampras's comeback soon ended when he was defeated in straight sets by a new tennis phenomenon, twenty-year-old Australian Lleyton Hewitt, in the finals.
There is no doubt that men's tennis in the last decade of the twentieth century belonged to Sampras. His performance at the 1990 U.S. Open displayed his power, speed, and dynamic youthfulness; his triumph in 2000 at Wimbledon (his seventh in eight years) reaffirmed that continued supremacy in the sport demands not only talent and skill, but most importantly, an unyielding will to win.
For information on Sampras, see Mark Stewart, Pete Sampras: Strokes of Genius (2000), and Bud Collins and Zander Hollander, eds., Bud Collins ' Tennis Encyclopedia (1997). See also Alexander Wolff, "Upset Time," Sports Illustrated (17 Sept. 1990), and S. L. Price, "For the Ages: The Past and the Future Met in a Stirring Wimbledon Fortnight as Pete Sampras Won His Record 13th Grand Slam Title and Venus Her First," Sports Illustrated (17 July 2000).