05:04 AM GMT November 24, 2020
ATPTour.com continues its series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Nitto ATP Finals, looking at the biggest stars and greatest moments in tournament history.
In the ‘90s, Nirvana rocked, the Soviet Union vanished, Netflix, Google and online dating were launched on the new World Wide Web, and Pete Sampras dominated the ATP World Championships in Germany. The always cool and collected Californian won a remarkable 12 majors in the decade.
He led the United States team to a Davis Cup title in 1995, beating the Russian team in Moscow. And Sampras won five Masters titles and two Grand Slam Cups. Other than healing lepers, turning loaves of bread into fish and winning Roland Garros and Olympic gold, Sampras did it all.
Petros “Pete” Sampras has largely retreated from the public eye since he retired from the sport in 2002 after beating Andre Agassi in the final of the US Open. And with tennis’ Big Three passing his record haul of 14 majors, younger tennis fans who never had the pleasure of watching Pete’s emphatic slam dunk overheads may not know much about his remarkable story, which he detailed sparingly during his career but in much more detail in his memoir, A Champion's Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis.
As a boy, Sampras often practised 12 hours a day. His coach insisted he play with a wooden racquet until he was 13 because he thought it would help him perfect his strokes. “For some reason I had no best friends - or any friends, for that matter - but I did believe in God because he had given me the Gift,” he wrote in his book. Sampras suffers from thalassemia minor, a condition that can inhibit the blood's ability to carry oxygen, but it didn’t stop him from bursting into the Top 10 by age 19 and remaining there for nearly his entire career.
By his own reckoning, Pistol Pete’s most difficult feat may have been his Open Era record of six consecutive year-end No. 1 FedEx ATP Rankings from 1993 to 1998. His five Masters titles helped lock down those honors, but don’t get as much attention as they deserve. In a recent conversation with British tennis great Tim Henman, and Novak Djokovic for ATPTour.com, Sampras reflected on the event and how it helped make him the sport’s dominant player of the decade.
“It was stressful, I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t eating well, I just kind of put all this pressure on myself to break this record that was important to me,” Sampras said. “It felt great, but it definitely took a lot out of me emotionally. Just, even the next few years, those years at No. 1 and staying on top of the game, year after year after year. … it’s very hard to stay No. 1. And to do it six years in a row was for me in my career… I look back at that, and I’ve won a lot of majors, I’ve done some great things - but staying No. 1 all of those years, I think was my biggest achievement.”
Djokovic, who now has six year-end No. 1 finishes on his CV and passed Sampras’ mark of 286 total weeks as World No. 1 in September, agreed. “Staying No. 1, ending the seasons as No. 1... is a paramount achievement and the amount of dedication that you need to undergo in your life and the way you have to organise yourself, not just on the court but off the court, is tremendous. So, six years in a row? I really don’t know how… Pete did it, but huge respect for that.”
Sampras reflected that the pursuit of year-end No. 1 was a 24-hour job that consumed him. “Just to be dominant, and to not just stay No. 1 for six months or a year, but to really cement that and own it, it’s not easy, as Novak knows,” said Sampras, who is now 49.
His journey to cement his preeminence in the sport ended each year in the ‘90s at ATP Tour World Championships in Germany. Sampras played in the event a remarkable 11 consecutive times, compiling a 35-14 record from 1990-2000. By comparison, Djokovic, who has also won the title five times, has gone 36-14, and played in the tournament 10 times in a row from 2007-2016. For his part, Federer played in the season finale 14 years in a row during one long stretch, from 2002-2015. He’s won the title six times, and has a staggering 59 wins at the event, against 17 losses.
Each of Pete’s five title runs in Germany—he won twice while the tournament was in Frankfurt and three times after it moved to Hanover—were replete with wins over legends of the sport. His victims’ list from his five titles reads like a who’s who in the sport: Michael Stich, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Goran Ivanisevic, Patrick Rafter, and of course, his great rival Boris Becker, whom he played seven times, all in Germany, where Becker was a national hero.
Sampras won four of those seven encounters, including both times they met in finals, in 1994 and 1996. “(Boris) really was like the king coming home,” Sampras told Henman and Djokovic. “He was tough to play… He was a beast. Boris played well indoors. He was a very imposing figure on the court. Boris is a big guy. And having his German fans behind him, it was tough, there’s no doubt—you’re not only playing a great player, you’re dealing with the fans.”
Sampras’ four-hour, five-set win over Becker in the ’96 final at the intimate Festhalle in Hanover remains one of the most exciting in tournament history. Becker took the fourth set in a riveting tie-break, 13-11, but resilient Sampras took the match 6-4 in the fifth, clinching the match on a 24-shot rally.
“We were both exhausted,” Sampras recalled. “It was a great embrace at the end; we gave each other a hug. It was one of the all-time great matches I’ve been a part of. The atmosphere was fantastic. We were both playing great at the same time.
Everything was meant to be. I think it was one of the best ATP Final matches in history.”
Sampras isn’t prone to self-promotion or hyperbole. He once told Sports Illustrated, “I could be a jerk and get more publicity, but that’s not who I am.” And so, his pride in reflecting on his five Nitto ATP Finals titles and his incredible wins over Becker in Germany are worth highlighting.
“We were both playing great at the same time on a fast court,” he said. “It was two heavyweights. And that crowd was loud, but fair. It was a great rivalry.”
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