Remembering Sampras: 25 Years On

Twenty five years ago, the life of Pete Sampras changed irrevocably. He remains the youngest US Open champion in history

As cash registers processed teen purchases of leggings, Hush Puppies, Doc Martens’ boots, Calvin Klein jeans and neon colours at The Spectrum mall, another was cleaning up nearby. Not with a bucket and mop, but a tennis racquet at the South Philadelphia Sports Complex in front of 15,474 spectators. Two years on from making his pro debut with David DiLucia and Jonathan Stark at the Ebel U.S. Pro Indoor, a wiry Californian was shaking a little as he left his chair to receive the first prize.

Pete Sampras, hailed as “a future Hall of Famer” by Ed Fernberger, the co-tournament chairman, following victories over Top 10 players Andre Agassi and Tim Mayotte earlier in the week, received the biggest pay cheque of his fledging career, $135,000. When asked what he would spend it on, he insisted, “I’ll just put it in the bank”. Andres Gomez, who’d lost 7-6(4), 7-5, 6-2 in the final, was no less effusive in his praise of a player with huge potential. “Of all the young Americans, even the likes of Agassi and [Michael] Chang, I’d have to say he is the best one because his all-round game is so strong.”

With his first trophy, 18-year-old Sampras broke into the Top 20 of the Emirates ATP Rankings. He soon escaped the well-wishers to play 18 holes of golf in Scottsdale, Arizona. Fernberger and Gomez’s views of late February 1990 would prove to be prophetic.

Sampras’ hard graft was paying off. His family had put faith in Pete Fischer, when, as a 14-year-old, Sampras started striking single-handed backhands – rather than a double-hander (as Stefan Edberg had done) – in a bid to make volleying easier. Midway through 1989, it was the turn of Joe Brandi to steer the young talent in the pro ranks. Sergio Cruz, one of the sport’s most prolific coaches at the time, had convinced Soterios Sampras that his son ought to train at Nick Bollettieri’s Academy, with his pupil, Jim Courier. Sampras’ father had travelled with his other son, Gus, to four European tournaments, but, with a poor run of results, he thought he’d brought his son “bad luck”.

Brandi, the father of former WTA player Kristina Brandi, who also worked at the academy in Bradenton, Florida, recalls his first impressions. “Pete had tremendous potential, but had never worked on his conditioning, which was as bad as his shot selection.” Cruz quickly started his 'Periodization Training Plan'. Accompanied by Courier, Sampras would set out at six o'clock each morning for a 45-minute run. "At 5:45, I had been at their room windows knocking!" says Cruz. “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. Cedric Pioline [who Sampras would beat in the 1997 Wimbledon final] would join in the afternoon match play sessions.”

Once Cruz headed to Europe to coach juniors in the fall, Sampras was left to Brandi over a six-week period in the build-up to the 1990 ATP Tour. "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," recalls Nick Bollettieri. "When Pete's physical condition improved, so did his movement, which then affected his shot selection including not going for quick winners.” Brandi adds, “We worked together on his balance, his return of serve, first volley and slice backhand. He hit his backhand like Ilie Nastase, leaning on the back foot, so he was still feeling his way. But his running forehand, first and second serves were very good."

Sampras also accepted an invitation from Ivan Lendl to visit his Greenwich, Connecticut house, prior to competing at the 1989 Nabisco Masters in Madison Square Garden, New York City. "Ivan soon had me biking 20 to 25 miles a day,” remembers Sampras, who stayed for 10 days. “We spoke about my tennis, how hard you have to work if you want to make it to the top. I learned a lot about how a top professional trained and how he looked after himself." It helped to solidify his dedication to the sport, which he would go on to dominate.

Georgia and Soterios Sampras were too nervous to watch. Georgia was nearing the top of an escalator in a Long Beach shopping mall, when she watched her son shake hands with Agassi at the conclusion of the US Open final. Even then, she sought the confirmation of a guy who had watched the drama unfold on CBS Sports. Her husband, who had so often stayed clear of watching his son compete, got the idea something good had happened when his wife ran out of a shop and kissed him. A day earlier, too nervous to watch Super Saturday live, they had taken in a movie, Presumed Innocent, starring Harrison Ford. On 9 September 1990, as Pete Sampras’ life changed after a chillingly efficient final, they drove home to open two bottles of champagne with their children Gus, Stella and Marion. They were soon forced to call Pacific Bell to change their phone number and also buy a new answering machine when it broke.

Sampras’ run to the US Open title, aged 19 years and 28 years, had not been as dramatic as Boris Becker 1985 Wimbledon or Michael Chang’s triumph at 1989 Roland Garros, but his performances were better in quality and, arguably, the finest produced by a first time Grand Slam championship winner. Not even Sampras had envisaged he would become the youngest men’s singles champion in the tournament’s history. "I arrived at the US Open as an outsider,” he remembers. “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."

As he checked into the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York City, four Top 10 wins, and two titles from 45 tournaments were no indication that he was ready to scale such rarified heights. But as each hurdle was cleared, the 12th seed appeared to mature before the eyes of a record 421,994 fans at “Flushing Mellow”, so named thanks to Mayor David Dinkins, who ensured that Runway 13 at La Guardia airport was closed during the hours of tennis business. Sampras was an amazing attacking player of immense talent and natural skill. With growing confidence, too, as his lethal serve, beautifully struck with his long arms and fast wrist snap, began to mow down his opposition. He would not be stopped.

His quarter-final opponent, Lendl, chasing his ninth consecutive appearance in the final to break the record he shared with Bill Tilden (1918-25), admitted he could not read the direction of Sampras’ serve. “When I came back from 0-2 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,” recalls Lendl. John McEnroe, a four-time former titlist, belying his 31 years with glorious touch play and speedy court coverage that created nostalgic memories, said it was simply too fast. Agassi, the epitome of commercialism in his bright yellow and black clothing, was simply shell-shocked. In the first all-American final since 1979, Agassi was made to suffer in a brutal one hour and 42 minutes. "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… I did not have time to think too much about the final and the enormity of the situation I was in.”

Agassi was never given a chance to find his range, muttering, "Why are you so slow?" between points. He held only three break point opportunities on Sampras' serve - two in the first game of the third set and one in the third. Sampras hit 13 aces, the last of which was his 100th for the tournament for a 5-2 lead in the third set. Agassi was forced to do too much with his groundstrokes, and often missed. "That was a good old-fashioned street mugging,” he later admitted. “I didn't lose it - I got my a*** kicked." Sampras recalls, "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 ended his agony by hitting a forehand into the net to give Sampras a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 win, 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. It was the culmination of "four hot days" for the shy and impressionable Sampras. As in Philadelphia, six months earlier, Sampras was left shaking.

It was the start of a different life. "I hadn't gone to college, so socially I hadn't had the experience of mixing with a variety of people," remembers 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."

He 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, his coach until November 1991. "I told him his life would change. He didn't believe me at all."

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. "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."