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Pete Sampras

tennis player
Full name: Peter Sampras
Nickname: Pete, Pistol Pete, King of Swing
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Bio It just happened. He couldn’t explain it or understand it. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just a new kid. Everything I did worked,” Pete Sampras would say later, discussing his U.S. Open triumph of 1990 that anointed him as the youngest of all U.S. champions at 19 years, one month.

He knew what he was doing the rest of the way as “Silky” Sampras, smoothly, uniquely, gliding along a path of greatness in an outwardly unconcerned and effortless manner while mounting a planned and concerted assault on the citadels of the past. Pete knows his tennis history, and was consciously pursuing the man on the spire, Aussie Roy Emerson, who seized 12 major singles championships between 1961 and 1967, the men’s record (six Australian, two each French, Wimbledon, U.S.).

Pete razed Emerson’s 33-year-old citadel by beating another Queensland country boy, Patrick Rafter, 6-7 (10-12), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-2, for a thirteenth major at Wimbledon in 2000. New century, new record. But in the shadows of dusk that day he also caught up with an English ghost, Willie Renshaw. Willie had won seven Wimbledons between 1881 and 1889, and this was the seventh for Pete. Emerson sent his congratulations after being eclipsed, laughing that he hadn’t even known of holding a record until Sampras began stalking him, and the press picked up on it.

Pete raised his own stronghold higher at 14 by winning the U.S. Open of 2002, even though he was lurching through his worst year, and a spell dryer than the Sahara—33 tournaments without a title. At Wimbledon, he was stung in the second round in what ultimately was his final match at the All England Club, losing to a Swiss stranger, No. 145 George Bastl. At Paris, No. 69 Andrea Gaudenzi booted him from the opening round. He even lost on grass, with a two-set lead, in a Davis Cup match at Houston to turf-wary Spaniard Alex Corretja, 4-6, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 6-4. Never had he been so down and disregarded.

Yet Pete, ranked and seeded No. 17, was inspired at Flushing Meadow, the scene of his 1989 Open breakthrough. Then he’d knocked off defending champion Mats Wilander, 5-7, 6-3, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, in the second round. But after suffering final round defeats by 20-year-olds Marat Safin in 2000, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and Lleyton Hewitt, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-1, in 2001, Pete was somehow ready to claim his fifth U.S. title, defeating lifetime rival Andre Agassi in the 2002 finale, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

It had been a while since Pete had ruled the United States. Squelching the perpetual motion of Michael Chang in the all-Californian Open final of 1996, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), marked his last victory in Flushing, his fourth title. Although he had an off Wimbledon in 1996, losing in the quarters, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, to the new champ Richard Krajicek. Pete was, after all, shooting for his fourth in a row, and had won 25 straight where only Borg (41) and Laver (31) had longer streaks. He would still close out his ninth professional campaign as No. 1 for a fourth consecutive year.

At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, with a full head of dark hair, the lanky Greek-blooded high school drop-out from Palos Verdes, Calif., was handling his affluence and standing modestly and well. “It’s not a good year unless I win two majors. They’re what count,” he said. But he was happy to salvage 1996 with one, considering the year’s heartaches with the death of his coach and best friend, Tim Gullikson, of a brain tumor, which had been discovered at the Australian Open of 1995. Though unprepared for the French, which followed Gullikson’s funeral, he made his finest showing in Paris, the one major that has befuddled him, falling in the semis to the champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0, 6-2. That was after exciting, draining five-set wins over ex-champs Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier, as well as Todd Martin.

Born Aug. 1, 1971, in Washington, D.C., the right- hander grew up in Southern California. His older sister, Stella Sampras, played professionally and went on to coach the women’s varsity of her alma mater, UCLA. Brother Gus is a player agent. Pete’s tennis style was altered at 14 by a pediatrician (and moonlighting tennis pedagogue), Dr. Pete Fisher. Fisher, feeling that Pete’s two-handed backhand and baselining were childish, preached volleying, a free-flowing traditional backhand and reverence for the greats of yesteryear in performance and behavior, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall. As Pete grew, so did his vaunted serve, and everything fell into place. Later it was Gulllkson, Pete said, “who helped me to grow up, compete, focus, learn to play on grass. I owe so much to him.”

Rookie pro Pete was out of his first U.S. Open, 1988, almost before it opened, beaten by Jaime Yzaga of Peru in the first round. But he got a footnote in 1989, deposing the champ, Wilander, reaching the fourth round. The next year he was golden, if “unconscious.” A long shot, seeded No. 12 and ranked No. 81 when the season commenced, he went through in a spray of aces on a loss of four sets. He showed his mettle by taking out ex-champs back-to-back—Lendl, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 in the quarter-finals, and McEnroe, 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in the semifinals. Pete demonstrated authenticity and the fact that he was unstoppable, by coolly sealing off canny No. 3-seeded Lendl’s counterattack in the quarters, embellishing with 26 aces. “He just kicked my ass,” was Andre Agassi’s terse summation of unbreakable Pete’s 106-minute final round caper, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Up jumped the name of Oliver Campbell, dead man dispossessed. He had held the record as youngest champ, 19 years, six months. Pete out-greened him by five months.

A few months later, Pete made a bigger financial splash, collecting a record $2 million for winning the inaugural Grand Slam Cup in Munich over Brad Gilbert 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Uncomfortable with all the attention brought by these deeds, and rocketing to No. 5 in the rankings, he actually seemed relieved to have the U.S. title lifted from him in the 1991 quarters by Courier, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5). But he matured, accepted the responsibilities and challenges of life at the top, and became a solid world No. 1 in 1993, repelling all-would-be usurpers for six straight years, copping Jimmy Connors’s Open era record of five in a row (1974-78). Nothing as imposing had been seen for almost three quarters of a century, since Big Bill Tilden’s No. 1 parade of six years (1920-25) in the pre-computer days. Though Agassi took it away momentarily by beating Pete in the 1995 Australian Open, 4-6, 6-1 7-6 (8-6), 6-4, Sampras struck back in the U.S. final eight months later, dispiriting Andre, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. Their hot rivalry stood at 20-14 for Pete at his 2002 swan song. Other than the six No. 1’s, Pete’s 12-year world Top 10 residency: No. 5 in 1990; No. 6 in 1991; No. 3 in 1992, 99-2000; No. 10 in 2001; and the closing entry, No. 13 in 2002.

Davis Cup was not altogether happy for Pete, especially his jitters-wracked debut in the 1991 final. A raucous, nationalistic French crowd in Lyon unnerved him, and Henri Leconte and Guy Forget pummeled him to defeats, Guy in the clincher, 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, that gave the French an unexpected Cup, 3-1. He played a winning right-court doubles part (alongside McEnroe) in the 3-1 Cup victory over Switzerland’s Jakob Hlasek and Marc Rosset in 1992, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (7-9), 7-5, 6-1, 6-2.

In the 1995 final at Moscow, on a clay court spread especially to spread-eagle him within Olympic Stadium, Pete responded by taking charge in the 3-2 victory over Russia in as glorious a weekend triple as performed by any American abroad. First was a five set out-grinding of dirt maven Andrei Chesnokov, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, immediately after which Pete keeled over, exhausted, cramping. Then came a nifty duet with Todd Martin in the 7-5, 6-4, 6-3, go-ahead flooring of Andrei Olhovskiy and Kafelnikov. Finally, a definitive curtain-lowering riddling of Kafelnikov, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), in a shower of aces (16) and forehand winners (19). All his extraordinary qualities were on display: the grit and stubbornness, fluid groundies, thundering serves, casual yet deadly volleys and racing forehands.

It all appeared so relaxed and glissando, although his head still slumped in adverse moments. Beneath the calm façade lurked certain physical and emotional frailties, a hereditary blood problem called thalyssemia. This was evident when he collapsed the instant the Chesnokov ordeal ended. And the memorable 1996 afternoon at Flushing where he lost his lunch but not his title in a 7-6 (7-5), 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (9-7) quarter-final win over Alex Corretja. Ill and vomiting in the conclusive fifth set tie-breaker, Pete wormed his way out of a match point with a lunging volley. Staggering, he hooked a 90 mph second serve ace—“I don’t know where it came from ... I was out of it”—to give himself match point at 8-7. Whereupon, “not wanting to hit another ball,” he didn’t have to. Corretja lost the only way Pete could win—a double fault. Kismet.

“But that’s sweet Pete,” says longtime friend and rival, Courier. “Just when you think he’s dying, that’s when he kills you.” What really killed him was an outlook-changing loss of the 1992 U.S. Open final to Stefan Edberg, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) , 6-2. “For the first time it really hurt to lose, really bothered me. I hadn’t been really determined until then,” he said. “But I realized that I wasn’t going to settle for one major. I had to have more.” And so he did.
At the close of 2002, he had won 64 of 265 singles tournaments, losing 24 finals. He’d also won two doubles titles. In the majors, he won 14 of 18 finals. His singles W-L record stands at an impressive 762-222 (.776), 203-39 in the majors (.839). Winning more prize money than anyone else, $43,280,489. His most productive season was 1994, winning 10 of 18 singles tournaments on 77-12. In the 1992 Olympics, he was beaten in the third round by Chesnokov.

Pistol Pete was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007.

Source:Bud Collins
Tournament AO RG W US Win-Loss
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