Sampras, Pete

views updated May 08 2018

Pete Sampras


American tennis player

During 2002 Sampras earned his record fourteenth Grand Slam title when he won the U.S. Open. With eight titles at Wimbledon, five at the U.S. Open, and three at the Australian Open, only the clay courts of the French Open have persistently denied Sampras a Grand Slam championship. His unemotional but powerful game is built on a serve that crosses the net at up to 130 miles per hour and is backed up by excellent ground strokes and precise serve-and-volley skills. Added to his physical abilities is his single-minded determination to win, which has made him one of the greatest players in the game.

Winning Ways

Pete Sampras was born on August 12, 1971 in Washington, D.C., the third of four children. His parents, Soterios (known as Sam) and Georgia (Vroustrous) Sampras, are of Greek descent. Sampras spent his first years in Potomac, Maryland, where his father worked as a civil aerospace engineer for the U.S. Air Force. His father took a job in the aviation industry when Sampras was seven and the family moved to Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

After moving to the warmer climate, Sampras, along with his brother Gus and two sisters, Stella and Marion, decided to take up tennis. The family joined the Peninsula Racquet Club where the Sampras children began taking lessons. Sampras, whose previous tennis experience amounted to hitting a ball against the basement wall and knocking about on the local D.C. high school courts, took to the game quickly. When he was eight his parents, who knew little about the game, invited Peter Fischer, a pediatrician and tennis buff, to begin coaching their son. Although Fischer was inexperienced and un-salaried, he understood the game, and taught Sampras strategy. By the time he was twelve, Sampras was playing up in the 14-year-old division and winning.

When Sampras was fourteen Fischer insisted that he shift from being a baseline player to serve-and-volley player. He also convinced Sampras to change from a two-handed to a one-handed backhand. Although other professionals were brought in to help Sampras with his game, Fischer is credited with improving Sampras's monster serve. During practice, Sampras would begin his serve and only after the ball was released from his hand did Fischer call out where he wanted Sampras to place it. The drill taught Sampras to disguise his serving motion so that his opponent has no idea where the ball is going to land. Fischer, who was often more critical than sympathetic after his young student lost a match, constantly raised the bar of expectations, reminding Sampras that his competition was legendary Australian tennis player Rod Laver , Sampras's lifelong role model.

First Years on Tour

Throughout his teenage years, tennis dominated Sampras's life. He didn't have any close friends at school, never played any other sports, and never socialized with his age group, except for his buddies at the Jack Kramer Club where he practiced. In 1987, when he was sixteen, he entered the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Boys' 18 tournament, placing second in singles (losing to Michael Chang in the finals) and first in doubles. After making it to the third round of the Newsweek Champions Cup several weeks later, Sampras accepted the $7,000 prize money, which effectively changed his status from amateur to professional. Quitting school, Sampras joined the tour in 1988, beginning his career ranked No. 311 in the world.

Sampras had a rather unremarkable rookie season. His only win was a doubles title in Rome with Jim Courier as his partner. He entered one grand slam event, the U.S. Open, but was ousted in the first round. The following year, Sampras made his presence known at the 1989 U.S. Open by making it into the fourth round, upsetting defending champion Mats Wilander along the way. Soon after, Sampras and Fischer parted company after a bitter argument regarding Fischer's compensation as well as Fischer's high expectations. According to Sports Illustrated, Fischer was upset because Sampras wasn't training hard enough. "The only acceptable rank for you is Number 1," he told Sampras. When Sampras's father retorted, "What if he wants to be Number 5?" Fischer answered, "Unacceptable." The two did not speak for three years, and thereafter had a distant and more remote friendship. (In 1998 Fischer pled guilty to charges of child molestation and spent several years in prison.) Despite their less-than-amicable parting, Sampras has long praised Fischer as being responsible for pushing him to become a champion rather than just a good tennis player.

First Grand Slam

Starting off strong in 1990 Sampras made it to the fourth round of the Australian Open in January and earned his first professional victory in February at the U.S. Pro Indoors in Philadelphia. Knocked out in the first round of his first Wimbledon, he entered the U.S. Open seeded twelfth. Riding on the strength of his over-whelming serve, Sampras walked through the early rounds. He then beat Ivan Lendl in five sets in the quarterfinals, four-time Open winner John McEnroe in the semifinals, and met Andre Agassi in the finals.

Sampras's matchup with Agassi proved to be a contrast in styles. Sampras, who modeled his behavior after an early generation of tennis greats including Laver, was subdued in his behavior, dress, and demeanor, which compared sharply with Agassi's long hair, nontraditional (nonwhite) clothing, and open personality. Agassi, however, could do little to hold up against his opponent's serve, and Sampras won in three sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, becoming the youngest U.S. Open winner in history (19 years, 28 days).


1971Born in Washington, D.C.
1987National Boys' 18 United States Tennis Association singles finalist
1988Drops out of school and turns professional
1989Rank jumps from No. 81 to No. 12
1990Becomes youngest player to ever win the U.S. Open
1992Begins working with coach Tim Gullikson
1993Attains No. 1 ranking
2000Marries actress Bridgette Wilson
2002Decides to pursue career through 2003

Born to Win

"When I won the Open in '90, I wasn't ready. Not as a person, and not as a tennis player. I just happened to have two great weeks. That's the only way to explain it. Otherwise, I was a really green, insecure kid.

"The morning after I won, I did all these talk shows. And they made me feel intensely uncomfortable. It's tough for a kid just turning 19 to have all that attention. I was a shy, immature kid, and that came across. Suddenly, everybody always expected me to be in a good mood. But all I really wanted, like most 19-year-olds, was to find a comfort zone as a person, to fit in. And fame wasn't my idea of it. It got overwhelming trying to figure out what people wanted from me. I also saw that what I'd done would affect the rest of my life, and that was scary."

Source: Pete Sampras, in an interview with Peter Bodo. Tennis, 36 (September 2000): 60.

Sampras followed up his 1990 U.S. Open victory by winning the first Grand Slam Cup, an event that features the 16 best finishers in the year's Grand Slam events. With numerous endorsement contracts added to his on-court earnings, Sampras netted approximately $6.5 million in 1990. During 1991, suffering under the pressure of overly high expectations as well as some physical injuries, Sampras skipped the Australian Open and was eliminated in the second round of both Wimbledon and the French Open. In his attempt to defend his U.S. Open title, he was eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Dominates Wimbledon

In 1992 Sampras began working with a new coach, Tom Gullikson, a former top-ten player. Gullikson insisted that Sampras spend more time on clay courts, where the ball has a slower kick off the clay than hard courts, making Sampras depend less on his serve and more on winning points on good strokes and strategy. During the year he reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. He made it as far as the semifinals at Wimbledon before being ousted by Goran Ivanesevic, another hard-serving powerhouse. At the U.S. Open Sampras overcame Courier in the semifinals, but a stomach ailment left him drained and a step slow, and he lost to Stephan Edberg in the finals in four sets, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2. Although he failed to win a Grand Slam during the year, Sampras rounded out 1992 with five titles, 70 match wins, and over $1.5 million in earnings.

After the 1992 U.S. Open, Sampras won 19 consecutive matches over the next six months. Reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open in January 1993, in April Sampras overtook Courier in point standing and claimed the No. 1 ranking. At the French Open, Sampras was stopped in the quarterfinals, but for the first time he walked into Wimbledon as the number one seed. In a spectacular performance, Sampras overcame defending champion Agassi in the quarterfinals and three-time winner Boris Becker in the semifinals. He met Courier, ranked No. 2, in the finals. After four grueling sets and 22 aces, Sampras prevailed to win his first Wimbledon championship. Overcoming a post-Wimbledon slump, Sampras won his second U.S. Open, easily overtaking fifteenth-seeded Cedric Pioline in the finals.

Following his Wimbledon victory, Sampras was slammed in the London press for his subdued, unemotional presence on the court. Headlines read "Wimble-Yawn" and "Samprazzzzz." Ironically, over the course of his career Sampras's lack of controversy in his life and play became his biggest source of controversy. Following in the wake of such on-court performers as Jimmy Connors and McEnroe, who were known for their emotional and passionate play, Sampras's expressionless silence during his matches was bemoaned as too impassionate, too seemingly indifferent. For years Sampras struggled to understand the distain for his demeanor. He was humble, polite, professional, and provided no dis-tasteful distractions on or off the court. He was raised, and trained, to focus on winning alone.

Sampras earned his third straight Grand Slam title, winning his first Australian Open championship in 1994. Then, for the third year in a row, he was ousted in the quarterfinals of the French Open, the only Grand Slam that he failed to dominate. Returning to Wimbledon, Sampras defended his championship, defeating Ivanisevic, 7-6, 7-6, 6-0, to take his second title on the grass courts. Coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him for six weeks, Sampras failed to play well at the U.S. Open, falling in the fourth round, but remained ranked No. 1.

Personal Tragedy

In 1995 Sampras faced a personal crisis that played out in front of the spectators at the Australian Open. Prior to his quarterfinal match with Courier, Sampras found out that Gullikson, his coach and good friend, had terminal brain cancer. Down two sets to none to Courier, according to Los Angeles Magazine, a fan called out "Come on, Pete do it for your coach." Sampras began to cry, then served an ace. He staged an emotional comeback to defeat Courier in five sets, and following his win, the stoic Sampras broke down and sobbed, giving a brief if uninvited glimpse into his deepest emotions. Meeting Agassi in the finals, Sampras could not pull off a victory and lost in four sets, 6-4, 1-6, 6-7, 4-6. For a period following the Open, Sampras gave over his top ranking to Agassi. After losing in the first round of the French Open, Sampras rebounded to win his third consecutive Wimbledon championship and his third career U.S. Open title, successfully regaining his No. 1 ranking.

Awards and Accomplishments

Sampras holds a record 14 Grand Slam titles (Grand Slam events are the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open).
1990Wins U.S. Open; wins Grand Slam Cup
1991Wins American Tennis Pro (ATP) World Championships
1993Wins U.S. Open
1993-95Wins Wimbledon
1994, 1997Wins Australian Open
1995-96Wins U.S. Open
1997-2000Wins Wimbledon
2002Wins U.S. Open

Gullikson lost his battle with brain cancer in May 1996, and although Sampras had his career-best showing at the French Open where he reached the semifinals, he went without a Grand Slam title until the U.S. Open. Facing Chang in the finals, Sampras won in straight sets to claim his second consecutive, and third career, U.S. Open. The following year he took his second Australian Open championship and his fourth Wimbledon title. The Wimbledon win gave 25-year-old Sampras his tenth Grand Slam title, just two shy of Roy Emerson's record 12 titles and one short of Bjorn Borg and Laver's 11 Slam titles.

Record-breaking Career

Sampras once again won at Wimbledon in 1998. Yet, with only one Grand Slam in the year, his top spot in the rankings was threatened, and Sampras launched an obsessed, and successful, drive to hold his No. 1 ranking for a record six straight years. He defended his Wimbledon title again in 1999 and 2000, winning on the grass courts for a record four consecutive years and a career record seven titles in eight years. His 2000 victory at Wimbledon was his 13th Grand Slam victory, breaking the career record of 12 set by Roy Emerson. In 2001, suffering from injuries and a step slower, for the first time in eight seasons, Sampras went without a Grand Slam championship title, although he reached the finals of the U.S. Open.

Just as critics were calling for his retirement, Sampras proved that he still had his game by winning the 2002 U.S. Open, his fourth career Open title, and a record 14th career Grand Slam title. Once slandered as too boring for tennis, Sampras was lauded for his achievement, his heart, his persistence. He had, in effect, secured his name in the history books as one of the game's greatest players. Following the win, Sampras considered retirement, but decided to remain active for the 2003 season, although he sat out of the Australian Open to rest up for what may be his last shot at the French Open, the only Grand Slam title that has eluded him.

After spending most of his career in Florida, focused on his training, Sampras moved back to Los Angeles in 1998 to be near his family. In 2000 he married actress Bridgette Wilson, and the couple had their first child, Christian, at the end of 2002. Having committed to playing in the remaining Grand Slams in 2003, 31-year-old Sampras is unsure about how long he will stay in the game. "If I'm a betting man," Sampras told USA Today in January 2003, "I'm not 100% this is my last year, but it definitely could be. But I still love playing, and I still feel I'll win another major. Once I start playing I'll know where my heart is and how far I'll take this. I already know I'm living proof that if you believe in yourself, you can do anything." Just as Sampras is thinking about signing off, he has finally achieved the acceptance that he has so long desiredto be appreciated as a great player and understood as deeply human.


Address: ATP Tour, 420 W. 45th Street, New York, New York 10036.



The Complete Marquis Who's Who. New York: Marquis Who's Who, 2001.

Newsmakers 1994, Issue 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

Sports Stars. Series 1-4. Detroit: UXL, 1994-98.


Bodo, Peter. "Born to Win." Tennis (September 2000): 60.

Drucker, Joel. "Match Point: His Glory Days Fading, Tennis's Pete Sampras Seeks One Last Hurrah." Los Angeles Magazine (September 2002): 50-4.

Flink, Steve. "Tennis: Wimbledon Will Be Key to Sampras Decision." Europe Intelligence Wire (October 7, 2002).

Jenkins, Sally. "Natural Born Killer." Sports Illustrated (September 5, 1994): 19+.

Jenkins, Sally. "The Lonely Living Legend." Tennis (May 1999): 40.

O'Connor, Ian. "Sampras Believes He Still Has a Major Left in Him." USA Today (January 3, 2003): 4C.

Price, S. L. "Alone at the Top." Sports Illustrated (July 14, 1997): 26+.

Price, S. L. "For the Ages." Sports Illustrated (July 17, 2000): 36+.

Price, S. L. "A Grand Occasion." Sports Illustrated (September 16, 2002): 52+.

Price, S. L. "The Passion of Pete." Sports Illustrated (May 26, 1997): 92+

Simpson, Lisa. "Grand Slam: The Courtship of Champions." In Style (February 1, 2001): 330+.

St. John, Allen. "Male Player of the Year: Pete Sampras." Tennis (February 2001): 24.

Sketch by Kari Bethel

Sampras, Pete

views updated Jun 11 2018


SAMPRAS, PETE ("Pistol Pete," "The King of Swing"; 1971– ), U.S. tennis player, 1997 U.S. Olympic Committee "Sportsman of the Year." Sampras is considered by many tennis analysts to be the greatest tennis player of all time. He was born in Washington, dc, to a Greek family, though his paternal grandmother was a Sephardi Jew. At the age of seven he began playing tennis, and by the age of 11 was spotted by a tennis enthusiast who correctly identified his talent and arranged for personalized formal training. Sampras turned professional at age 17 and within two years won his first titles, including the 1990 U.S. Open, where he defeated Andre Agassi to become the youngest player ever to win that tournament. Ironically, Sampras' final match before retirement would be another defeat of Agassi for the U.S. Open title, this time making Sampras the oldest player ever to win the Open. As a professional from 1988 to 2002, he won 762 of 984 matches, capturing 64 singles titles, including a record 14 Grand Slam victories, with eight of them won in straight sets. Throughout his career, Sampras was known for his intense concentration, and especially for his highly accurate 130 mph (209 kph) serve – in 1993, he became the first player to serve over 1,000 aces in a season. Amongst Sampras' other records are his six consecutive years finishing as the Association of Tennis Professionals (atp) No. 1 ranked player in the world (1993–98), 286 consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the atp, and seven Wimbledon titles (tied with Willie Renshaw).

[Robert Klein (2nd ed.)]

Sampras, Pete

views updated May 21 2018

Sampras, Pete (1971– ) US tennis player. In 1990, Sampras became the youngest-ever winner of the US Open singles and also won the first Grand Slam Cup. He won Wimbledon seven times (1993–95, 1997–2000), the US Open three times (1993, 1995–96), and the Australian Open twice (1994, 1997).