At the start of 1990, Pete Sampras was ranked 80th in the world. He had never gone past the fourth round at a Grand Slam, had never appeared on national television and could go shopping without having to worry about getting mobbed.
By the end of the year, all that changed quite significantly. He ended the year ranked sixth in the world, having become the youngest male player to win the US Open. In a fortnight, the then 19-year-old had gone from an upcoming tennis player to an American tennis star.
On his way to the first of his fourteen Grand Slam titles – a record that stood till 2009 – had beaten the likes Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi. He had arrived, his life had changed but he was still only a teenager.
“I hadn’t gone to college, so socially I hadn’t had the experience of mixing with a variety of people,” Sampras later told ATP website in 2015 recalling the days after the triumph.
“As a junior, I had only played tournaments in the States, such as the Orange Bowl and the 1987 US Open. By winning, I went from one extreme to another… going from anonymity to being recognised around the world, talking on the Johnny Carson Show. It was like growing pains. It was tough and I wasn’t quite ready for it,” he added.
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The sudden rise to stardom had made him more nervous than he had been in the two weeks of action that had led to this and it was quite evident in his body language when he went on the Johnny Carson Show.
Sampras was visibly stiff, a bit shy and definitely a man who wasn’t used to the limelight. But as he began talking about his tennis, he came into his own. Sampras seemed a man who had come to terms with what he had achieved, how he did it and what the future meant for him after that. For a 19-year-old it was quite self-assuring.
Here are excerpts:
Reaction to winning 1990 US Open
It’s been a really long week. A lot of interviews, but each day has got a little bit better and better. I didn’t expect to be the winner. I expected maybe to get to the quarter-finals or to reach Round of 16, but to win a tournament is a dream come true.
On beating Lendl and McEnroe
It was a pretty emotional and physically tough match against Lendl. Then I played McEnroe and I was really nervous against John because he’s such a legend and it was on national TV and it was unbelievable. The crowd was really for him. To beat him and get to the final was unbelievable. I didn’t really expect to be sitting here and talking to you today.
On his biggest strength as a player
I think my whole game revolves around my serve. If I’m serving well, there’s no stopping me. My serve really came together those two weeks. 100 aces during the whole US Open. I was in the zone. Anything I hit was inside the line. It was one of those days where I couldn’t just miss it.
When I played Andre that was perhaps the best tennis I’ve ever played. After the game, he said that I had a great tournament and that I deserved it. That was really nice for him to say.
On dealing with pressure
A year ago my mental concentration was a problem. I tended to wander and think about something else. The whole Open I concentrated so well. I had realised that this is going to change my life.
It’s going to be difficult now. There’s a lot of pressure. I’m going to be expected to win every match and the media is going to be tough. But I think I’m able to live up to what I just did. I’m just going to enjoy the moment and not think about my ranking.
How life changed after the win
From being a regular tennis player, now I’m recognisable to anyone. After the win against Lendl, I was shopping and got surrounded by a lot of people. I didn’t really like that and would have loved to be left alone, but those days are gone.
Sampras held the record for most Grand Slam titles until Roger Federer went past him in 2009. The American though remains one of the greatest players of all-time and the composure that he showed during this interview as a teenager who was thrown into the limelight provided an early sign of his greatness.
Here’s the interview of the legend, where he speaks about his first Grand Slam title win