There has been a lot written about Pete Sampras since his retirement from the game in 2003. Log on to any major Tennis Forum and you will see many threads started on or including Pete Sampras. There has also been many articles written about Sampras as well in that time by journalists, especially with the rise of Federer and more recently Nadal, both having chances to break long standing Sampras records.
I've found that when articles are written to discuss Sampras or describe his game it can be summed up in two phrases:
- Big serve
- Nice volleys
This is a simplistic prognosis of how many articles are approached but this is not far off the mark. Before I go into detail about Sampras' game I want to highlight his accomplishments:
- 64 tournament wins including 36 on hard-court, 10 on grass, 3 on clay and 15 on indoor carpet
- 286 weeks as World Number 1
- Six years as year end World Number 1
- Winning records against Agassi, Courier, Chang, Becker, Rafter, Ivanesivic—rivals in his age bracket
Now, with these sort of accomplishments, that doesn't appear to be someone with just a big serve and nice volleys—there must be more to it than that. But I often see this sort of prognosis especially when comparing Pete's game with Federer's game—that black and white comparison with nothing in between, personally I think its extremely lazy journalism.
In the early 1990s, Fred Perry (ex British Wimbledon Champ from the 1930s) made a famous quote “Sampras moves like oil—you don’t hear him, you just hear the other guy, and the other guy’s losing” Pete was considered a very smooth and stylish player and extremely quick back then.
Pete was also very much a thinker on court with a great tactical brain. I think three matches in his first slam win in 1990 US Open is a good example of what Sampras was about.
In his quarterfinal match against Lendl who was former champion and 8 times defending finalist, Sampras mixed up his game by serving big, coming in and staying back on serve—going for some returns and chipping some returns—pressuring Lendl to pass at key moments and winning in 5 sets of great Tennis by both men.
Then in the semifinal against McEnroe, Sampras really went after McEnroe’s serve with great returning and great passing shots off both wings really putting the pressure on McEnroe’s serve —when McEnroe chipped and charged, Sampras always came up with the pass— driving McEnroe to distraction.
In the final against Agassi, commentator Mary Carillo before the match said she liked Agassi’s chances because he liked a target—so instead of coming in all the time, Pete stayed back on the majority of his second serves and rallied with Agassi, taking advantage of Agassi’s short balls to hit winners, not chip charging Agassi much to give him an easy target.
He completely messed up Agassi’s game plan because Pete was confident with his own baseline game and came out an easy winner as Agassi couldn’t break Sampras’ serve. So in those three matches in a row, Sampras who just turned 19 chose a different strategy against three players with totally different styles of play and triumphed.
That's why I think Sampras was a great thinker on court, he played against many players with many different styles in that era and on more varying surfaces than today—the varying pace and different balls used on hard-courts around the world, indoor hard-courts, indoor carpet, high bouncing slow rebound ace, fast grass and slow red clay.
The only surface Sampras didn't excel on was red clay. I have the feeling Sampras mentally gave up on clay after 1996 after losing the French semifinal to Kafelnikov but he did have some good results early in his career winning the Italian Open and Davis cup and he beat some of the biggest names on that surface like Muster, Brugera, Agassi and Courier.
Also, even though Sampras is considered a grass specialist with a game based for grass, he won less than one sixth of his tournaments on grass—in my opinion Sampras played his best tennis on hard-courts because he was allowed to play a much more expansive game on that surface where he could really set up his shots with his long swings off both wings and play a lot more rallies.
Sampras was also a victim of his time because as he said in his autobiography—it was a bad matchup against Goran Ivaniesivic on grass and felt that he would have loved to play Agassi more often in Wimbledon finals where he could show off all his shots and play a much more expansive game.
His last two Wimbledon finals in 1999 and 2000 against Agassi and Rafter were entertaining because both guys allowed Sampras to play and go for his shots.
Therefore, I think Sampras should get more credit than he does at the moment when it comes to his actual Tennis game. He's shown over the years that when he played guys like Becker, Rafter and Edberg—he could play the role of counterpuncher by hitting great returns to feet and coming up with great passing shots off forehand, backhand and lobs.
When he played Agassi, Lendl, Courier and Chang he could stay with them in the rallies and create openings. As he got older and his legs started to go he started using the chip and charge tactic more and going for bigger second serves and coming to net more on his second serve on non grass surfaces.
I think all this makes Pete the all round player he was and I hope to see that acknowledged more often in future and not just his big serve and nice volleys.