What If Pete Sampras Had a Two-Handed Backhand?

Rob YorkSenior Writer IMay 7, 2009

Many of you may not know who I am, but the less socially inclined of your number will recognize me as Uatu the Watcher, introduced in the pages of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, where I was obliged to chronicle events but never interfere with them.

Later, I was the narrator of the What If…? series, detailing the events taking place in alternate realities, such as “What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?” and “What if Captain America had been elected president?”

Now, I will allow those who enjoy watching the terrestrial form of athletic recreation you call tennis a look through my lenses. As the most cerebral of sports it suits me, and there’s no limit to the interesting divergences that could’ve taken place in the chronicles of the game.

Today we’ll start by looking back to the 1980s, when a young prodigy named Pete Sampras was under the tutelage of the unconventional Peter Fischer. It was during this phase of his development that Fischer sought to mold the young talent into a Wimbledon champion.

The first step was to require Sampras to abandon his two-handed backhand, despite it being his best shot, and replace it with a one-hander more conducive to the net-rushing style that thrived on grass courts. The change was immediate: Sampras standing among juniors plummeted, placing him behind well-known names like Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, and even behind less successful pros like David Wheaton. Despite his overall athleticism, his new backhand was simply too erratic, not blossoming until many years later.

In this alternate reality, however, Sampras resists Fischer’s advice, declining to switch away from his best groundstroke. Soon, their difference of opinion leads them to end their coaching arrangement well before 1989, when it ended in your world.

In the years following this decision, however, Sampras prospers. Blessed with the same overdeveloped shoulder and having had Fischer’s service drills engrained into his style of play, Sampras’ serve is still a huge weapon. Accompanied with his explosive speed and now-solid ground game, Sampras has a dominant junior career as a result.

Unlike in your reality, in which a young Sampras, still extraordinarily thin and unimposing – kind of like the less socially inclined individuals who recognized me – surprised the entire field with his results at the 1990 U.S. Open, this time his success was expected.

The immediate results are not promising, as Sampras, struggling to live up to expectations, fails to beat Ivan Lendl at the Open that year. Instead, he breaks through at the 1992 Open, beating Stefan Edberg in the final, showing the hunger that was lacking in the loss to Edberg in your reality.

In 1993, thanks to his overpowering serve and groundstrokes, he prevails at Wimbledon and the Open, claiming the No. 1 ranking. At his peak, his serve is still great enough to bring him success on fast surfaces, and his groundstrokes are now consistent enough to pay dividends on the slow ones, especially in 1996.

In your reality, he fell short at Roland Garros that year, overcoming Todd Martin, Jim Courier and Sergi Bruguera in five sets, then succumbing against Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semis.

In this alternate history, however, he overcomes Martin in straight sets, Courier and Bruguera in four, then has more than enough to dispatch Kafelnikov. In the next round, he wins his only Roland Garros title!

In that sense, he has a more balanced career than he did in the reality you are familiar with. That balance, however, comes at a price.

As in the world you know, Sampras began his decline starting in 1998. Unlike in your reality, in which his game, tailor-made for grass, carries him to three more Wimbledon wins, here the aging great has no surface to offer refuge.

Beaten by hard servers like Goran Ivanisevic and Mark Philippoussis on grass, and repeatedly succumbing to injury at the season-ending U.S. Open, he is finished winning majors after 1997.

Though seemingly destined to set the new record for Grand Slam titles, he remains stuck between 10-12 majors (my apologies; the view of this alternate reality is a little fuzzy). He goes down in history as one of the greatest players of all time, but his status as the greatest is unclear.

This version of Sampras had a slightly less decorated career, but the Sampras you know had a gaping hole in his CV due to his clay court record. Which of the two is better? That is for you to decide; I am the Watcher, I can only watch.

The photo of the Watcher comes courtesy of Marveldatabase.com.


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