The Making Of A Champion
by James Buddell
The start of a classic rivalry and a life-changing moment: Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi wait for the presentation ceremony after the 1990 US Open final.
Twenty years ago, at 19 years and 28 days, Pete Sampras went from anonymity to global superstar after he became the youngest US Open champion in history. The legendary American, his allies and rivals, reflect on the first of his 14 major titles.
Shy and impressionable, 18-year-old Pete Sampras arrived at the house of Ivan Lendl, the World No. 1, at Greenwich, Connecticut, in November 1989. He had replaced high school with tennis' nomadic life in the single-minded pursuit of becoming a great champion, when he turned pro at Philadelphia 20 months earlier. As a natural talent, with an attacking style that was so fluent, even artistic, as to make the game appear easy, his game was in complete contrast to that of Lendl.
Lendl worked for everything. On the court, he dominated his opponents from the baseline until they buckled. Off the court, he lived the American dream, retiring to his 15,000-square-foot house behind six-foot high fencing and protected by two alarm systems. It was at this house Lendl invited Sampras for 10 days, prior to competing at the Nabisco Masters in Madison Square Garden, New York City.
"Ivan wanted to see me play, so he gave me a call and invited me to his house, which was an eye-opener," recalls Sampras. "It was huge. Ivan and his wife, Samantha, made me feel welcome and comfortable.
"He soon had me biking 20 to 25 miles a day. And we spoke about my tennis, how hard you have to work if you want to make it to the top. I learnt a lot about how a top professional trained and how he looked after himself."
Lendl, who will compete for the first time on the ATP Champions Tour at Paris in October, remembers, "He stayed for about 10 days and observed everything. I could tell Pete was a huge talent, but [he] was still young and was still developing his game. Even the serve was still unrefined. I did not predict he would go on and win 14 majors."
Sampras had sampled the disciplined lifestyle and immediately returned to Bradenton, Florida, to re-join his friend Jim Courier at the IMG-Bollettieri Tennis Academy, where he was living, and where he would start to bulk up his muscles and develop his game as an instigator, which he had showcased in beating defending champion Mats Wilander at the US Open.
Throughout the 1989 season, Sampras had toured the world with his brother and financial advisor, Gus. His father, Soterios, an engineer, accompanied them to four European tournaments, but Pete barely won a match and he thought he brought his son "bad luck".
In late July, having lost to his junior rival Michael Chang at Stratton Mountain, Sampras was introduced to Joe Brandi, an experienced Puerta Rican coach - working at the tennis academy Nick Bollettieri established in 1978 - by Sergio Cruz, who was working with Jim Courier.
Brandi, the father of former Sony Ericsson WTA Tour player Kristina Brandi, who now lives in Buenos Aires, remembers, "Later in the year Cruz, who was one of the most prolific coaches at the time, had to go to Spain to coach junior players. So when Pete came to train at the academy for six weeks in November, I was charged with helping him.
"Pete was a great human being, a delightful young man, who loved the sport and loved to work."
Accompanied by Courier, Sampras set out at six o'clock each morning for a 45-minute run. Upon their return they would play tennis for up to six hours, take a lunch-break and then weight lift, undertake sprints and conditioning work into the evening.
With instant recall, Brandi says, "Pete had tremendous potential, but had never worked on his conditioning, which was as bad as his shot selection. If you're not fit at this level, you won’t win anything let alone a trophy.
"We worked together on his balance, [his] return of serve, first volley and slice backhand. Pete Fischer [one of Sampras' childhood coaches] had changed his double-handed backhand to a single-hander and he was still feeling his way. He hit his backhand like Ilie Nastase did, leaning on the back foot but Pete's running forehand was, and I believe still is, the greatest shot of all time. His first and second serves were very good."
Bollettieri remembers Sampras' time at the academy. "Joe Brandi was a no-nonsense coach who knew only one way to train: hit thousands of balls and get into the best shape of your life," the 79 year old says. "When Pete's physical condition improved, so did his movement, which then effected his shot selection including not going for quick winners.
"Pete Sampras was not only a hard worker but his work ethics were performed in the same manner, he did everything [and] showed no emotion."
Sampras started the 1990 season , ranked World No. 81. Having spent Christmas with his family, he travelled to Australia by himself, reaching the Sydney quarter-finals and Australian Open fourth round. "Upon his return to the States he called me to request my services full-time," says Brandi.
In only their second tournament together, at the Ebel Pro Indoor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a nerve-free Sampras beat No. 6-ranked Andre Agassi and No 8-ranked Tim Mayotte en route to his first ATP final. He went on to outclass Andres Gomez 7-6(5), 7-5, 6-2, picked up the biggest pay cheque of his fledgling career, $135,000, and celebrated his first title with 18 holes of golf in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Twenty years on, Sampras confesses, "At the start of the 1990 season, having beaten a couple of top players, I felt as if I might get myself into contention for the big tournaments and majors. I'd been progressing a little better, picked up the Philadelphia title and was feeling more comfortable in the shots I was hitting."
He lifted the Manchester trophy pre-Wimbledon, then built up steam during the summer hard-court swing, reaching semi-finals in Toronto (l. to Chang) and Los Angeles (l. to Edberg), and quarter-finals in Indianapolis (l. to Reneberg) and Long Island (l. to Ivanisevic).
"For me, Pete got his big, big mental breakthrough at Toronto when he beat John McEnroe for the first time in the quarter-finals," said Brandi. "He had excellent results during the US swing and came to the US Open having played a lot of matches. During the US Open he was in the zone for two weeks, but no way was he prepared to win the title!"
In 1990, Flushing Meadow earned the nickname 'Flushing Mellow', when tennis-mad Mayor David Dinkins prevailed upon the air-traffic controllers at nearby LaGuardia Airport to redirect the deafening flights of runway 13, away from the National Tennis Center. It meant an aviation-free fortnight, rather than the final-weekend deference the Federal Aviation Administration had shown in previous years. It also went some way to persuade US Open officials to keep the event in Queens after the lease expired in 1994.
Sampras, always an anti-entourage player, booked himself into the Parker Meridien hotel in New York City with his coach, Brandi. At that time, he had four Top 10 wins and two titles in 45 tournaments to his name.
Named No. 12 seed, Sampras remembers, "I arrived at the US Open as an outsider. No one realistically thought I would have a chance to go really deep in the draw, let alone win it. I think the experts figured I wouldn't play that well and that I was going to roll over."
Sampras rolled through his first three matches without the loss of a set, against Dan Goldie, Peter Lundgren, Jakob Hlasek. Through to the Last 16, Sampras played down his title chances. "Maybe in a couple of years, but I don't think it's realistic right now." He went on to overcome an upset stomach to beat World No. 6 Thomas Muster, who had made a miraculous return after a drunk driver severed ligaments in his left leg in March 1989.
In the quarter-finals he met his mentor, World No. 3 Lendl, a hard-court powerhouse and three-time US Open champion. "Ivan was looking to reach the US Open final for the ninth straight year, but my game matched up well with his and he was slowing down," says Sampras, who had greater power and proved more resourceful.
Brandi reveals, "Lendl was his most difficult match. Pete won the first two sets, but found himself at 1-5 down in the fourth set. I remember saying to a friend alongside me, 'If he doesn’t win at least two games in this set he will be in trouble come the decider.'"
Lendl, who had compiled an outstanding 55-5 record at Flushing Meadows since 1982, confesses, "When I came back from 2-0 down in sets to 2-2, I thought I would win - but Pete kept serving great and was able to adjust the rest of his game. That was the first time I thought he could win a good number of majors."
Lendl won the fourth set 6-4, but Sampras broke early in the fifth set and eventually won 6-4, 7-6(4), 3-6, 4-6, 6-2. "I was not happy losing," says Lendl, who would eventually retire due to chronic back pain in 1994 having won eight majors from 19 finals. "At the time, I felt he was always going to stand or fall with his serve."
Next up was McEnroe, a four-time former titlist, enjoying a sublime run at 31 years of age, under the guidance of his old coach Tony Palafox. Ranked World No. 21, he was unseeded for the first time in 13 years.
"I got very nervous beforehand, but I settled early [breaking serve in the fourth game for a 3-1 lead]," admits Sampras, whose serve-volley game, 17 aces and innumerable down-the-line passing shots, proved too much for the New Yorker, who at the time Brandi believed, "was annoyed the game had changed and that the younger kids were overpowering him."
Twenty five miles west of Los Angeles, his mother, Georgia, and father, were both oblivious to his fate. Too nervous to watch the match live, they were taking-in a movie, Presumed Innocent, starring Harrison Ford, at a nearby cinema.
"Because of Super Saturday, I played the night match," says Sampras, "I then showered, did press, went to sleep and did not have time to think too much about the final and the enormity of the situation I was in."
The reality was that Sampras was one-part of the first all-American US Open final since 1979, when McEnroe beat his good friend Vitas Gerulaitis. He would face Las Vegan Andre Agassi, the World No. 4, who had finished runner-up to Gomez at Roland Garros in June. It was the third meeting of their senior careers; their fifth, including junior matches.
It had been 10 years since Sampras first met an equally-small 10-year-old Agassi, at a tournament in Northridge, California. Agassi beat him easily. "He toyed with me for about two hours," says Sampras. This time, Agassi was made to suffer.
Brandi remembers the build-up to the first of Sampras' 18 major finals. "Pete made sure he didn't leave his best tennis on the practise court. He was very relaxed. Correction…completely relaxed, ahead of the final against Agassi.
"I told him the game plan to keep the points short, attack Agassi up the court and keep any stroke to his backhand short. With Andre's double-handed backhand it would make it difficult for him to pick the ball up. Pete also served wide on the deuce court, meaning Andre couldn't run around his shots, and he also attacked every second serve."
As Agassi and Sampras made the 100-yard walk from the locker room to the Louis Armstrong Stadium Court, surrounded by terse security guards, both were in a confident mood. Sampras, the classic serve-volleyer, wore all-white; Agassi, who, the day before, had beaten defending champion Boris Becker in the noon-time sun, was the pre-match favourite. The best returner since Connors wore day-glow yellow spandex shorts.
"Andre was clearly the more established player, who had already made a name for himself," says Sampras. "So I didn't really feel the pressure."
Sampras hit 13 aces – many clocking close to 125 miles per hour – and lost only 17 points in his first 13 service games. Agassi would mutter, "Why are you so slow?" between points. Sampras would notch his 100th ace of the championship to hold serve for a 5-2 lead in the third set. "Andre looked tentative and didn't play as well as he could," admits Sampras. "He wasn't being the aggressor from the baseline; he let me dictate the points. He hit the ball very short and I took advantage of that."
Agassi soon ended his agony by hitting a forehand into the net to give Sampras a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 win in one-hour and 42 minutes, a cheque for $350,000, a place in the Top 10 and the record books as the youngest US Open champion at 19 years and 28 days – beating 1890 title-holder Oliver Campbell, a student at Columbia University, by five months.
Agassi later admitted, "Anything he touched turned to gold out there. This was a good old-fashioned street mugging. That's all it was." With his tail between his legs, he would immediately set about strengthening his physique as well as his serve in order to prove "that the Open was just one day in New York."
Twenty years on, Bollettieri confirms, "Andre's loss was a huge disappointment. His father said Andre would have to improve his serve. I knew he was suffering in so many ways because he was a very sensitive person. If I had to select one reason why Pete beat Andre it would be: Pete’s serve! If pushed to give another reason it would be that Andre was the favourite and did not hold up to the pressure."
For Sampras, who had not been bred to become a superstar, it was the start of a different life. His parents were soon forced to call Pacific Bell to change their phone number and also buy a new answering machine when it broke.
"I hadn't gone to college, so socially I hadn't had the experience of mixing with a variety of people," says Sampras. "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."
In a now classic tale, Sampras' parents, who had not watched their son play more than five times during his lifetime, had been cruising around a Long Beach shopping mall.
Georgia Sampras first saw her son had won when she went up an escalator at a shopping mall and watched as Pete shook hands with Agassi. Even then, she wanted confirmation from a guy who had watched the drama unfold on CBS Sports. Soterios got the idea something good had happened when his wife ran out of the shop and kissed him.
They quickly drove home and opened up two bottles of champagne to celebrate with their children Gus, Stella and Marion. After walking off the court, Sampras found the time to speak to his family in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. It was a moment to savour with his greatest supporters.
Sampras celebrated the biggest win of his 30-month pro career by taking a light dinner with Brandi and his agent at that time, Ivan Blumberg. "We then went back to his mini suite and sat and talked all night about tennis and life," recalls Brandi. "I told him his life would change. He didn't believe me at all. At the time, I predicted he would win 5-9 majors. I was way off the mark."
Sampras woke early to appear on all three network morning shows. By noon he was on a plane to Los Angeles. The first of a series of exhibitions beckoned later that week. He struggled with shin splints through the end of the year, but earned a cool $2 million for winning the Grand Slam Cup (d. Gilbert) in December to finish as World No. 5 – an improvement of 76 places in 12 months.
"I did get locker room respect, but I wasn't totally aware of it," Sampras remembers. "Everyone was nicer and friendlier, but I was largely unaware of the other players' feelings, although whenever I turned up at tournaments it always felt as if I had a huge bull's eye on my chest.
"It took me two or three years to tighten up my game and the same period to get used to being comfortable with being a superstar. I wasn't quite there to be a consistent major contender and it took some time to build my defensive game."
Sampras would again reach the US Open final in 1992, but after a sleepless night fighting stomach flu, he lost to defending champion Stefan Edberg 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(5), 6-2.
Undeterred, he kept working hard and always remained true to himself and his upbringing in the pursuit of multiple Grand Slam championship titles. He would eventually win 14 — two Australian Opens, seven Wimbledons and five US Opens — and finish year-end World No. 1 for a record six straight years (1993-1998).
"His parents must be really proud as to how he turned out," says Brandi, who parted company with Sampras in November 1991, to return to his role as a father to two young children. "I admire him a lot. He never gave excuses when he lost and is a great champion, perhaps the greatest of all time."
His last professional match was in the 2002 US Open final against Agassi. Watched by his actress-wife, Bridgette, Sampras proved his critics wrong by winning 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 to provide the perfect bookend to a career that will be forever linked with the US Open.