Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras: Who Is Really Better?

Tribal TechContributor IIIFebruary 16, 2011

Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras
Andre Agassi and Pete SamprasAl Bello/Getty Images

I read recently that Mats Wilander is interviewed in March’s edition of Tennis magazine. Mats Wilander is quoted as saying that Andre Agassi is on the same level as Pete Sampras because Agassi won major titles on all four surfaces even though Sampras won many more titles at Grand Slam level.  It got me thinking: can we definitely say who’s better? 

I thought it would be interesting to look at the case for both players, and then weigh them up to determine who’s better.

The Case for Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi won 60 career tournaments, the majority coming on hardcourt—46, to be exact. Agassi also won Olympic gold in 1996 and is only one of seven men to win the four major titles on all surfaces.

Agassi won the Australian Open four times despite the fact he didn’t play his first Australian Open until 1995 (winning on his debut). Agassi won the US Open twice, in 1994 (when unseeded) and 1999, and Wimbledon in 1992. Agassi won the French Open in 1999 and has an impressive French Open record, getting to the final three times with a very good win-loss ratio there over a 19-year period.

Andre Agassi was also No. 1 for a total of 101 weeks in his career and finished year-end No. 1 in 1999. In addition, Agassi won 18 Super Nines/Masters tournaments, including Miami six times and Cincinnati three times. Agassi also won the year-end World Championships on one occasion, in 1990. Agassi’s overall career win-loss record was 870 wins and 274 losses over 20 years.

The Case for Pete Sampras

Pete Sampras won 64 career titles with just over half of those coming on hardcourt, 34 in total. Sampras holds a number of records in the game. He was No. 1 for 286 weeks, which is the current record. Sampras was also year-end No. 1 for six years in a row from 1993 to 1998, which is also a record. 

Sampras won Wimbledon seven times, which is an Open Era record. Sampras won the US Open five times‚ which is a record tied with Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer, and played in eight finals, which is tied with Ivan Lendl. Sampras also won the Australian Open twice, in 1994 and 1997.

Sampras won the year-end championships five times, which is a record tied with Ivan Lendl and Roger Federer. Sampras also won 11 Super Nines/Masters tournaments, including Miami and Cincinnati three times each, and the Italian Open.

In 1994, Sampras won tournaments on all surfaces—clay, hardcourt, grass and indoor carpet—which is always a rare record even in the modern game today. Sampras’ overall win-loss record was 762 wins and 222 losses over a 15-year period.

The Case Against Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi went through real peaks and troughs in his career. Agassi was a talented player who initially lacked direction, but under the guidance of Brad Gilbert in the mid-1990s, Agassi really played tennis with more strategy and purpose in mind of what he could do to his opponent. 

However, after the 1995 US Open loss to Sampras, Agassi’s career went downhill to as low as No. 141 in 1997. Agassi did make a remarkable rise all the way back to No. 1 in 1999 and should be credited massively for this. But that is more stuff of legend than referring to a great player who was consistently at the top for long periods of time. 

Agassi’s legacy has also been slightly tarnished by the confession in his book that he lied about failing a drugs test and was reprieved by the ATP in 1998.

The Case Against Pete Sampras

It usually comes down to one thing for Pete Sampras: his failure to win the French Open.  The arguments of why that didn’t happen for him have been done to death, whether those arguments are lack of conditioning or his ability on clay itself. Sampras has said he wished he tried a more modern frame for the slow red clay.  

He beat some of the best players at Roland Garros over the years, including Sergei Brugera, Jim Courier and Thomas Muster, but he just wasn’t consistent enough in his play or his movement on clay. And then it became a mental issue as he seemed to accept his fate and talked himself out of giving more effort at Roland Garros.

Style of Play – Agassi

Agassi is an interesting player because he virtually played the same way regardless of the surface. That was the case in an era (1990s and early 2000s) when mainly the women played their own game regardless of surface. Many of Agassi’s opponents adapted their game depending on surface. 

The other interesting thing is that Agassi played on clay in a quite typical hardcourt manner—virtually on the baseline, hitting through the ball trying to control the middle of the court and not much sliding at all. 

Agassi, along with Monica Seles, revolutionised the return of serve. Agassi was not the most athletic player but had extremely quick footwork and reflexes, which he relied on to take the ball very early on return of serve and from the baseline. Agassi would occasionally take to the net off good approach shots and was a competent volleyer, but also possessed a great backhand smash.

Style of Play – Sampras

Sampras was a more conventional all-court player of his era who served and volleyed on grass virtually every point, but rallied on his own serve much more on hardcourts and clay.

On hardcourts, Sampras liked to stay back on his second serve to rally and not offer his opponent a target. On clay and rebound ace which were slower, Sampras was happy to stay back on first serve as much as coming in to net.

In the last three years of Sampras’ career, he made the transition to full-time serve volleyer on all surfaces, something he’s come to be remembered more by the mainstream media than his all court play for the majority of his career.

Sampras was the more athletic player who initially relied on his natural talent to coast through matches. As he became more experienced, he combined his natural ability with a strong work ethic and will to win which made for a virtually unbeaten combination.

Their Rivalry

They played each other 34 times, with 20 wins for Sampras and 14 wins for Agassi. They played in nine Grand slam meetings with a 6-3 record to Sampras, and five Grand Slam finals with a 4-1 record to Sampras including three wins at the US Open in 1990, 1995 and 2002. 

Sampras beat Agassi in the 1999 Wimbledon final. Agassi beat Sampras in the 1995 Australian Open final and 2000 Australian Open semifinal. Agassi also beat Sampras in the 1992 French Open quarterfinal while Sampras defeated Agassi in the 1993 Wimbledon quarterfinal when Agassi was defending champion. Their most famous meeting was the 2001 US Open quarterfinal, which had four successive tiebreaks.

They played in 16 finals overall, including Miami in 1994 and 1995, Canadian Open in 1995, Los Angeles in 1999 and 2001, ATP championships (Masters) in 1999 and Indian Wells in 1995 and 2001. They also played finals in Atlanta in 1992 and San Jose in 1996.  Sampras has a lead of 11–9 on hardcourts and Agassi leads 3-2 on clay.

The rivalry was based on primarily the serve of Sampras against the return of Agassi.  Within that there were sub-themes: Sampras enjoyed rallying with Agassi in a way no other attacking player of that era did, so Agassi was often (not always of course) the one reacting.

However, for a period between Paris Bercy 1994 the Canadian Open 1995, Agassi was certainly the aggressor in their meetings and Sampras was forced into a more counterpunching role.

But Paul Annacone later convinced Sampras to play more attacking tennis against Agassi—to go for more backhand drive returns especially on Agassi’s second serve. Whilst Sampras served bigger second serves and attacked the net a lot more than he instinctively would have done in his earlier years, the rivalry turned in his favour again.

In the last meeting at the 2002 US Open final, Sampras played as well as he did in the 1999 Wimbledon final in the first two sets. Agassi was clearly shocked by the weight of shot from Sampras’ forehand and backhand returns and didn’t find a rhythm until the third set. By that stage it was all about catch up, and despite a great fight back, it was too much and Agassi lost a closely-fought fourth set.

To me, the 2002 US Open encapsulates their rivalry. The 2001 US Open quarterfinal is perhaps their most famous match, but it’s not representative of what they could do to each other. In 34 matches they only played 16 tiebreaks, and four of them came in that one match. The 2002 final was more typical, no tiebreaks—they always went after each other’s serve and created lots of opportunities against each other in all of their meetings.

Taking all of these factors into account, I believe that Sampras is clearly a level above Agassi in achievements and level of play.

Being able to defend titles consistently is a sign of true greatness and that is reflected in Sampras’ ability to win seven Wimbledon titles by dominating extremely good opponents including Agassi, Ivanisevic, Bekcer, Henman and Rafter.  It’s one thing to win a tournament once but entirely another matter to continually deal with the stress of successfully defending.

I also think Sampras’ weeks at No. 1 and six years at No. 1 separate him from Agassi.  Sampras also has a better record in major finals with 14 wins out of 18 appearances with only one five-set match played in 18 finals. Meanwhile, Agassi played in 15 major finals and won eight.

That’s my verdict. Who do you think was better?


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