The following article was reprinted from the ATP's Official Magazine, DEUCE.
Pete Sampras began his path to all-time greatness as a raw 19-year-old kid in 1990 when he became the youngest US Open champion in history. Thirteen more Grand Slam singles titles have followed, making Sampras the most successful player in history. STEVE FLINK traces the amazing journey from rookie to Grand Slam master by analyzing each of his 14 triumphs.
US Open 1990:
A quarterfinal against Ivan Lendl had inescapable changing-of-the-guard implications. Two years earlier, Sampras had visited Lendl's Connecticut home for a week of practice, and Lendl had been skeptical about Sampras' intestinal fortitude. So when the 19-year-old Sampras severely bruised his toe during their match, Lendl believed he would win. But as he would do throughout his career, Sampras played through his pain. The No. 12 seed attacked skillfully all through the final set, bringing his total aces in the match to 24. He then struck down John McEnroe and Andre Agassi with the loss of only one set to become the youngest man ever to win the Open.
Confronting Jim Courier in his first Centre Court final was no simple matter. Courier, breathing down Sampras' neck at No. 2 in the world, had secured four Grand Slam titles while Sampras was still searching for his second. Furthermore, Sampras had lost the US Open final to Stefan Edberg 10 months earlier, and was absolutely determined not to suffer another setback in a major final. With a sense of urgency, Sampras- hunched over apprehensively and fatigued as he served for the match at 5-3 in the fourth set - gamely won 7-6 (3) 7-6, (6) 3-6, 6-3, sealing his first major in nearly three years. He explained later, "I was more nervous for that match with Courier than for any that I had ever played."
US Open 1993:
In essence, Sampras won the tournament in the quarterfinals. He took on his old nemesis Michael Chang in a sparkling battle under lights. At this point Chang was ahead 6-2 in the rivalry, and early in the encounter, Sampras was precariously perched at 6-7, 6-6. But he made his move to level the match in the tie-break, then soared to another level, comprehensively dismissing Chang 6-7 (0), 7-6 (2), 6-1, 6-1 - winning 20 of 25 points in the first five games of the fourth and final set. The 1972 Open champion Ilie Nastase said, "The last two sets were the best I have ever seen anyone play on hard courts." Sampras glided to the title without losing another set.
Australian Open 1994:
Sampras drifted precariously close to defeat in the second round against an unknown adversary named Yevgeny Kafelnikov. The 19-year-old Russian tested the American to the hilt in some compelling baseline exchanges. Sampras was two points away from a bruising departure at 4-5, 30-30 in the final set, but he won on willpower, pulling through 9-7 in the fifth set. From that juncture, there was no stopping him. He became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to take three Grand Slam titles in a row.
In the final, Sampras faced a man, who two years earlier had handed him his last loss at the All England Club - Goran Ivanisevic. All through the tournament, Sampras, who had already captured seven titles that year, seemed almost invincible. But the towering, left-hander was a tough man to bring down in the final. Goran served 16 aces in the first set, but a resolute Sampras came through 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5), 6-0 with masterful poise under pressure. It was the first time he had successfully defended a Grand Slam crown.
After Sampras subdued Ivanisevic in a tension-packed, five set semifinal, Chris Evert said, "Pete has not played that one great match we all know he can. He will in the final." He met Boris Becker, who had defeated Agassi for the first time in six years to move into his seventh Wimbledon final. With a cheering crowd, Becker won the first set. Early in the second, Sampras produced a perfect passing shot, but the audience barely responded. He turned to the courtside observers and raised his palms encouraging them to raise the volume of their appreciation. Thereafter, the fans applauded vigorously for Sampras, as he gave an immaculate display of grass court tennis, bouncing back to win 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. Becker conceded sportingly, "The Centre Court used to belong to me. But now it belongs to Pete Sampras."
US Open 1995:
The Sampras-Agassi final was monumental. They were the two best players in the world, only by now it was defending champion Agassi at the top of the rankings. In many ways, the match was settled on the final point of the opening set. With Agassi serving at 4-5, they had a dazzling rally of 22 strokes that Sampras won with a crosscourt backhand winner. Sampras had shown that he could hold his own with Agassi from the backcourt, showing that his greatness wasn't derived solely from his serve. Sampras earned a 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 victory and took the top spot. Agassi would not win another Grand Slam event until 1999.
US Open 1996:
This was the last chance for Sampras to take a major after an emotional season. He faced the cagey Alex Corretja in the quarterfinals, and during this 4 hour, 9 minute battle, Pete was badly dehydrated. Drinking Pepsi at the changeovers exacerbated his plight. He threw up on the court during the fifth set tie-break and was slumped over on his racquet between points, fighting courageously, playing solely on adrenaline. At 6-7 in the tie-break, Sampras saved a match point with a superb lunging forehand volley winner. At 7-7, Sampras released a spectacular second serve wide to the forehand with heavy slice for an ace. A stunned Corretja double faulted. Sampras somehow triumphed 7-6 (5), 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (7). He returned over the weekend to commandingly take the title over Goran Ivanisevic and Michael Chang. Never before had he won a major after facing a match point.
Australian Open 1997:
An oppressive afternoon in Melbourne, in the round of 16, Sampras encountered the free-swinging 19-year-old Domink Hrbaty. The Slovak, No. 76 in the world, was blasting away off his forehand, going for audacious returns and playing with unswerving conviction. Sampras was down 2-4,15-40 in the fifth set. But clutch serving and tenacity helped Sampras sweep four games in a row for the triumph. He would crush Thomas Muster in the semifinals and Carlos Moya in the final. But this would be his last Slam other than Wimbledon for five and a half years.
The previous year, eventual champion Richard Krajicek defeated three-time reigning champion Sampras in the quarterfinals. Despite a five set, two-day skirmish with Petr Korda in the round of 16, Sampras never looked like he could lose. In seven matches, he held his delivery 116 of 118 times, broken only by Mikael Tillstrom in the first round and Todd Woodbridge in the semifinals. He swept past Cedric Pioline in a straight set final. "That was the best I've ever served," he said after reclaiming his crown. Sampras' triumph began a streak of four consecutive titles. Between 1993-2000 he won seven of eight Wimbledons and returned a staggering 53-1 match record.
With the sun shining into his eyes during this Centre Court final against Ivanisevic, Sampras lost the first set in a tie-break and serving at 5-6 and then 7-8 in the second set tie-break, was twice one point away from trailing two sets to love. But the Croatian missed a pair of backhand returns off second serves, and eventually Sampras moved in front two sets to one. But in the fourth, Ivanisevic erupted with four passing shots to break the American at 3-4. They were locked at 2-2 in that set, but Sampras took 16 of the last 19 points, finishing on the ascendancy. Sampras won only three other titles during the year, but the Wimbledon triumph helped him claim the year-end No.1 ranking for the sixth consecutive season. He is the only player in the history of the ATP rankings to achieve the feat.
A resurgent Andre Agassi was overflowing with confidence after capturing Roland Garros. In the semifinals at the All England Club, he dissected U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter in straight sets, making many knowledgeable critics believe he would topple Sampras in their fourth Grand Slam final. Serving at 3-3, 0-40 in the opening set, Sampras connected with four stifling first serves and a crackling second delivery in an astonishing display of grace under pressure. Sampras then broke the match wide open, collecting five games in a row, raising his game to unimaginable heights, winning 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, producing a match he would call "probably the best I have ever played." Sampras joined Australian Roy Emerson as the only male player to win 12 Grand Slam singles titles.
In his grittiest effort ever at a Grand Slam event, Sampras won the tournament on one leg. Suffering from tendinitis in his left shin and foot from the second round on, he had to take injections before his last five matches, which wore off after 75 minutes. Unable to practice on his off days, Sampras was fortunate not to meet a single seed until Rafter in the final. Two rain delays ate up so much time that by 6:30 p.m., the score was only 4-4. Despite having set points, Sampras lost the first set. Rafter then served at 4-1 in the second set tie-break, but Sampras boldly took five of the next six points and leveled the match. Sampras took the third set on one break, then charged to 5-2 in the fourth. Light was fading rapidly above the fabled Centre Court. Sampras calmly served out the match at love, coming through 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-2. At 8:57 pm, Sampras claimed his record 13th major, covering his head in his hands, breaking into joyful tears, smiling towards his fiancée, climbing into the stands to hug his parents, Sam and Georgia, who had never seen him win a major before.
US Open 2002:
Sampras, who had not won a tournament since the 2000 Wimbledon, was suffering through the longest losing streak of his career - 33 consecutive events - and came into this event seeded only 17. Rain then forced him to play five matches across the last seven days. Across the net in the final stood none other than Agassi. After taking the first two sets, Sampras served into a strong wind at 5-6 in the third, and lost his delivery. In the fourth, Sampras served into that troublesome wind again at 1-2, making an almost miraculous backhand half-volley at break point down. At 3-4, from that same side, he fought off another break point. With Agassi serving at 4-4, Sampras sealed the break that he needed to serve for the championship. At 5-4, 30-0, he cracked a blockbuster 119 mph second serve ace, his 33rd of the match - a personal record for a major final. Sampras triumphed 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 reaffirming his immense stature, redefining the meaning of being a champion for the ages.
An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been known to call pressrooms on every continent for point-by-point updates. Flink worked at World Tennis Magazine for 17 years and since 1992 has been a senior correspondent at Tennis Week. He has also worked as a broadcaster for ESPN and MSG Sports, a researcher for CBS and NBC and a consultant for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. As author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century, Flink's unrivaled recall of match history is displayed here in his account of Pete Sampras' 14 Grand Slam titles.