Pete Sampras and the Irony Called Wimbledon

Rajat JainSenior Analyst IJune 14, 2009

Wimbledon ’09 is now a week away, and I was refreshing my memories of the past champions who were defined at this place. Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Roger Federer—but one name glows brightly amongst the elite.

Bjorn Borg may have offered the calming influence at the Center Court akin to its audience, and Roger Federer has graced it in a way that no one ever has, but if any champion ever deserves the title of the King of Wimbledon, it is the King of Swing, Pete Sampras.

Pete’s game in his Junior years was that of a baseline grinder with a solid, disguised serve and a two-handed backhand where he enjoyed a lot of success against his compatriots like Michael Chang.

It was his coach, Pete Fischer, who saw the next Rod Laver in him, and compelled him to change his game to adapt to grass. He made Sampras to switch to a single handed backhand to improve his returns on grass, and develop better volleying skills, even if it meant that he would suffer numerous losses to the same players he once enjoyed success against.

Despite this change, Sampras always hated grass courts during the initial years, and could not manage to reach the third round in his first three attempts. He justified his hatred so articulately, that even John McEnroe, the former Wimbledon icon, could not deny it.

But, buoyed by his next coach Tim Gullikson, and kind advice from McEnroe, he changed his psychology, and started taking Wimbledon much more seriously than before.

And it was Wimbledon, which really defined the phrase “Pistol Pete.”

It was here, that he silenced his critics who doubted his ascent to the world No. 1 in April ’93 without winning a single slam for almost three years by winning his most important major final. He went on to make this court his second home, winning three straight titles between ’93 and ’95, and a further four times from ’97 to ’00.

The lawns of Wimbledon soothed him after the disappointment of the dirt in Paris to revive his dominance.

He equaled Roy Emerson’s record of most grand slams at this very place in ’99, and topped it the next year in ’00 in an ideal fashion. Pete battled through a painful shin injury (he considered pulling off at various stages during the tournament) for the entire tournament, and raised the trophy amidst dwindling lights and his parents’ first appearance at the court.

He won the first Wimbledon of the new millennium!

However dominant one may be, legacy needs to passed on, and even destiny chose a fitting way to do so. He lost to Roger Federer at the Center Court, their only professional contest, in an exciting five set match. Federer won the Wimbledon two years later, and fittingly became its next worthy heir.

It is a perfect story of Pete Sampras at Wimbledon.

Or, is it?

Fans lovingly remember the Wimbledon rivalries between Borg and McEnroe, Edberg and Becker, and now Federer and Nadal; but perhaps Pete’s ridiculous dominance at Wimbledon meant that he had no close rival, and it will hard to find one of Pete’s matches among the Wimbledon’s classics feathered with the finals of 1980 and 2008.

The only rivalry that would come close would be the one against Goran, and even that is not always remembered fondly. It were these contests, which coined Wimbledon as "one-dimensional" and Pete Sampras as "boring," and embarked the beginning of the change of the surface and tennis balls used at Wimbledon.

The "boring" player had to admit in an interview with Charlie Rose after winning his third consecutive Wimbledon, that he is running out of ideas and achievements to get his name on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

As years started to progress, Pete started to win hearts, in addition to titles, in London—which, by the way, was after one of his biggest upsets against Richard Krajicek—and finally started to lose after 2000.

Losses are a part and parcel of professional tennis, but it is ironic that he had to end his career at his beloved tournament with a heartbreaking loss against a "lucky loser" named George Bastl, on the Court No. 2, the “graveyard” where every champion shudders at the thought of playing there.

Life moves on, technology advances, and Wimbledon throws a ceremony to inaugurate a new roof at the Center Court. It was heartening to see the exhibition matches for the event, but it also felt strange, that the two players, Agassi and Henman, competing under the roof were not the ones who ruled the court, but instead were dominated by Pete at this place.

It is indeed an ironic relationship between Wimbledon and Pete Sampras.

After all, Pete is yet to step in again at the place he last left in tears in 2002.


PS: The title picture is that of Sampras after winning Wimbledon for a record 7th time in 2000 (left), and waving goodbye (which eventually became his final bid) to the crowd after losing that heartbreaking match against George Bastl in 2002 (right).