In the fourth round match against Jonas Bjorkman at Wimbledon 2000, Pete Sampras was leading two sets to nil but in the third, the Swede was making life hard for the American. Sampras, the three-time defending champion at the time, was not at his fittest during the most important fortnight of the calendar year (for tennis players in general, but to him in particular). The top seed, serving at 3-4 in the third set, had just uncharacteristically hit two double faults to give Bjorkman a break point and a window of opportunity.

Down 30-40, Sampras missed the first serve again. A few groans went around the centre court.

That’s when the man known as Pistol Pete came up with a few moments of brilliance that summed up how good he was: facing break point, on his second serve.

“It’s ridiculous...he shouldn’t be allowed to do that,” said the commentators, the disbelief audible in their voices.

To recap: Two double faults, then a missed first serve, an ace on second serve at break point, followed by two first serve aces, and the game sealed.

“That’s cruel. That was perhaps Bjorkman’s final chance. The door was just slammed shut on him.”

Living and falling by the serve

Over his glittering career, Sampras fulfilled his destiny of becoming the most prolific male tennis player of all time at the Majors (albeit temporarily, as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have since gone past his tally of 14) and he did so with an unparalleled will to win, aided by the most powerful weapon of his era: a sensational first serve backed up by, arguably, the best second serve in the game.

It is amazing how a lethal weapon on tennis courts around the world can look so simple, easy on the eye and elegant. In this era of serve clocks introduced to prevent players from taking too much time between points, Sampras’ service action would look incongruous and incredible, simultaneously. There is no non-stop bouncing of the ball; Sampras bounced the ball just once, looked up at his target on the other side of the net and hit it more often than not with unerring precision and, often great speed.


In an ATP uncovered video, a retired Sampras spoke with great confidence about taking on the modern day greats, despite the impact of technology on racquet strings: “I’d play the same.. I wouldn’t change my game. I felt like my game would hold up in any era. I felt unbeatable when I was at my best. I’d be licking my chops [seeing the baseliners].”


Sampras broke on to the world tennis scene with the US Open title as a 19-year-old in 1990 defeating Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, and Andre Agassi in the last three rounds for just his third tour victory. He served 100 aces in his seven matches, becoming the youngest US Open men’s singles champion in history.

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He could even win matches when he was injured, because he could serve himself out of trouble. It annoyed Sampras, he would later reveal, when his game was constantly described as boring by the media. But his peers knew, standing at the receiving end of his barrage of aces, that it was anything but boring.


Boris Becker has gone on record saying that Sampras’ arrival on the scene at Wimbledon was one of the reasons why he decided to retire from the game. The German said that when he was beaten soundly by this young American at what he considered was his living room, he had to give the keys over to Wimbledon centre court. And what made Sampras so tough to beat?

“Tennis always starts with the serve; it’s the only shot you control, not the opponent. And Sampras had the best serve of all time in my opinion. He wouldn’t lose serve in a match, he wouldn’t lose serve in weeks! You couldn’t touch his serve,” Becker said.


While there are many claimants, past and present, to have the best first serve in the game and could bang in aces at will, what made Sampras stand out was the ability to serve and volley even with his second serves. In a NY Times report about going for broke on second serve, it is no surprise that Sampras features prominently.

“In the 1999 Wimbledon final, he beat Andre Agassi and I remember going through the match afterwards, and I saw that Pete was serving almost seven miles an hour faster on second serve against Andre than he had the whole tournament,” his coach Paul Annacone said. “So I asked Pete, and he said two things: one, ‘It’s Andre, so I had to.’ And two, ‘Because it’s my strength, and I can’.”

The Sampras-Agassi rivalry was elevated to incredible levels because of two main reasons: Sampras was precise with serves, and Agassi, at his best, was perhaps the only player to return them back with interest. The Sampras serves and the Agassi returns are the shots that perhaps defined their duels.

In his brilliant autobiography Open, Agassi described the Sampras serve at one Wimbledon encounter:

Pete wakes me from my fantasy. Unreturnable serve. Unreturnable serve. Blur. Ace. Game, Sampras. I stare at Pete in shock. No one, living or dead, has ever served like that. No one in the history of the game could have returned those serves. He takes me out in straight sets, finishing me off with two aces, two fiery exclamation points at the end of a seamless performance. It’s the first match I’ve lost in a Slam in the last fourteen matches, a streak of dominance almost without precedence in my career. But history will record that it’s Pete’s sixth Wimbledon, and his twelfth slam overall, tying him for most all-time among men—as history should. 

Later, Pete tells me he never saw me hit the ball as hard and clean as I did those first six games, and it made him raise his game, amp up his second serve by twenty miles an hour.

Sampras left John McEnroe shaking his head on the court with his ability to hit pin-point aces. One time, he hit a 118 mph second serve ace against Agassi that was met with a reaction of awe. He won a Wimbledon title with a second serve ace too. It is no wonder then, that you will find compilation of just Sampras’ second serve aces on YouTube: very few tennis players have the wondrous ability that Pistol Pete possessed; first or second serve — an ace was always around the corner.

As Sampras himself said, “You kind of live and die by the serve.”