Greatest Champions: Pete Sampras
This is a doddle. Pick a champion, the boss said, and make the argument that he is the greatest champion of all time. Bags I do Pete Sampras, then, says I. Seven Wimbledon Championships, 14 Grand Slam titles in all – beat that anybody. That's it, then, I win. My boy is the best, no questions asked.
Actually, there is a little bit more to it than that. The records and statistics are the dry proof that Sampras was king in his time at the All England Club but sport is not just about numbers. What grips us, the lucky few who get to sit at the court side, is the passion, the fear, the blood, sweat and tears that separates the players from the champions and the champions from the truly great.
Passion? Sampras? Oh, my, yes. Sampras was never the most expressive or effusive of characters on court, but there was a fire in him that burned brightly and scorched all who came near it. His whole life was devoted to achieving greatness and then hanging on to it. For six years between 1993 and 1998 his every waking moment was consumed with the thought of winning and maintaining his position as world No. 1. He did it, too.
During that spell, he won five of his Wimbledon titles together with three US Open and two Australian Open trophies. But it was here at Wimbledon that he felt most at home. Here he was in his comfort zone, here he had a head start on any opposition. The mere fact of playing the great Sampras reduced all but the best to tatters and gave him a few points in the bag before the match had even begun.
Every year he would come to London from the French Open looking grim. He could never win in Paris and the fact hurt. But as soon as walked through the gates of the All England Club his spirits lifted and he became a different man. He won here when he was injured, he won when his form was at its lowest and he won when his critics had written him off. Put Pete on Centre Court and he was unstoppable. On one leg and in a blindfold and he was still unstoppable.
Then there were the occasions when Pete was in his pomp. The 1999 final against Andre Agassi was possibly the greatest display of grass court tennis that Wimbledon has ever seen. He had stumbled around the circuit for the first half of the year, winning nothing and looking miserable but then he went through that Lazarus moment as he returned to the grass. He won at Queen's and then began his campaign for The Championships.
Round by round he gathered momentum until he was ready for Agassi. His fellow American had just won the French Open, he was the story of the moment having hauled himself back from a ranking of 141 and reinvented himself as a champion. He was at his peak. And in the first set he had the temerity to manufacture three break points on the Sampras serve.
That was it. That was the moment Sampras moved from champion to genius. He snatched back the break points and then took off. For a couple of minutes Agassi shook his head and tried to work out what happened but by then the first set was gone and he was a break down in the second. It was not that Agassi was playing badly, it was just that Sampras was sublime.
"Today he walked on water," Agassi said later. Sampras said simply: "Sometimes I surprise myself." He ended on a second service ace - naturally.
He was back the next year for his last Championship victory at Wimbledon, beating Pat Rafter in an emotional rollercoaster of a Final. He came to London on the back of a serious back injury and not having won anything since March and again his chances were not great. He had even been beaten at Queen's two weeks before but still Wimbledon worked its magic on the man. And him on it. Even the tendinitis that had almost felled him in the early rounds was shaken off as Sampras wrote his own chapter in the history books.
It carried his tally of Grand Slams to 13, breaking Roy Emerson's record and establishing Sampras as one of the truly great figures of the game. That was one of the rare times he allowed the world to witness the pent up emotion that he had hidden for more than a decade. As the last point was played, he burst into tears and then raced off to embrace his parents seated high up in the stands.
His last moment as a player was probably the US Open last summer. Again he faced Agassi, again he won and again he set a new record (14 Grand Slam singles title notched up). Since then he has not lifted a racket in anger. With nothing left to achieve, he can enjoy a life of retirement as a husband and a father. And, of course, the greatest ever Wimbledon champion. QED.
Singles Champion: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000