Pete Sampras, as the record books and honours board at the All England Club tell us, was an unmatched champion on the grass lawns of Wimbledon. The American won seven titles in eight years between 1993 and 2000 with a stunning 90% win record at the grass-court Major and no runner-up trophy.
Yet, the start of Sampras’ journey at Wimbledon was at complete odds with his eventual success. In fact, Sampras hated it initially and thought grass as a surface was “unfair.”
— Pete Sampras via ESPN
“When I first came over here, the first three years, I didn’t really enjoy grass. I thought it was a fast surface that was unfair. I kind of had a negative attitude towards the grass. I just didn’t like the speed. ”
His first appearance was as an unseeded teen in 1989, where he lost to Todd Woodbridge in the first round. In 1990, right before his first Major title at the US Open, he was out in the first round to Christo van Rensburg, this time as the 12th seed. In 1991, the eighth seed crossed that first hurdle but lost in the second round to Derrick Rostagno.
Sampras’ affinity for grass didn’t increase much after that. But his coach, the late Tim Gullikson, worked on making his game better for the surface. According to an article in ESPN, Gullikson shortened Sampras’ strokes to adjust to the bounce and speed of grass.
“Working with Tim definitely helped me to get over the hurdle of playing on grass,” Sampras was quoted as saying in the article. “I was nervous the first time I played there,” he added. “Over the years, I’ve been out there so many times, it is a comfortable court that I have grown to love. ... I feel like I’m at my court at home.”
As the fifth seed in 1992, he made his first deep run at SW 19 going down in the semi-final to Goran Ivanisevic. That would be the last time he reached the final four and didn’t take home the trophy. He would lose just one of the next 54 matches – the 1996 quarter-final to eventual champion Richard Krajicek – and establish one of the most dominant decades at Wimbledon.
And it all began with the 1993 Wimbledon, when he blazed through the field beating former champions Andre Agassi and Boris Becker and won the all-American final against Jim Courier, incidentally on the Fourth of July.
A game-changing year
The tall American, with a serve for the ages and the ability to use it like a weapon of mass destruction – he was not called Pistol Pete for nothing – was expected to do well on grass courts. His solid serve and volley game was to be his big defining feature at Wimbledon triumphs, and it was the play that finished the final. His second serve, praised by vanquished opponent Courier, made him even more lethal.
At the 1993 Championships, having not won a Major in almost three years since his teenage triumph at US Open, Sampras was a top seed whose numero uno status was questioned. There were also doubts about his participation in the Slam because of tendinitis in his right shoulder, his serving arm, according to a New York Times report. He dropped the first set he played, to Australia’s Neil Borwick, 10-12 in the tiebreak.
But after that, he picked up pace and didn’t lose a set till the quarter-finals – where he played defending champion Andre Agassi. He took the first two sets comfortably before letting the advantage slip as Agassi forced a decider, which Sampras clinched 6-4. Up next was another champion of the place Boris Becker – a player he would eventually send into retirement after another Wimbledon defeat in 1997 – but that turned out to be a much simpler battle.
In the final, he was up against Courier, who had reached both the Australian Open and French Open finals that year, winning the first. Sampras won the first two sets in tiebreaks with no service breaks, before dropping the third. But then, the imposing serve clicked – he had rained down as many as 22 aces – and he won the match 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 6-3.
“It’s all kind of a blur. It all happened so fast, and the next thing you know, you’ve won Wimbledon. In my mind, this is the biggest one in the world, and now that I’ve done it, I feel as happy as I’ve ever felt… The 1992 loss to Edberg in the United States Open final was the most devastating loss I’ve had to deal with. I’ve come close a bunch of times to winning a Slam, and now I’ve finally done it. This one, this is huge for me.”— Pete Sampras via New York Times
Sampras would get to experience a similar feeling six more times, as he dominated Centre Court for the rest of the decade, till he fell to Roger Federer in 2001 in what is often called the passing of the torch. In 2017, Federer broke Sampras’ record for most Wimbledon titles in the Open era with an eighth trophy. But one record of Sampras that neither Federer nor any member of the Big Three can break is this: Pistol Pete never lost a final at Wimbledon, beating the best of the players of the time to lift the trophy. Talk about coming a full circle on grass.
Here are the highlights from the quarter-final against Agassi, semi-final against Becker and final against Courier:
And here’s Andy Roddick narrating ‘The Sampras Era’: