In the ninth profile of a series on the 26 players to rise to No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, ATPTour.com looks back on the career of Pete Sampras. View Full List
First Week As No. 1: 12 April 1993
Total Weeks At No. 1: 286
Year-End No. 1: 1993-1998
As World No. 1
With 286 weeks at the top of the FedEx ATP Rankings, Sampras is second on the all-time list for most weeks at No. 1 (although Novak Djokovic was just four weeks from that mark when the ATP Tour and the FedEx ATP Rankings were suspended in March 2020 due to COVID-19). The American first took the No. 1 spot from Jim Courier on 12 April 1993 and held onto it for the majority of the next seven years, finally relinquishing it for good to Marat Safin on 20 November 2000.
Although seven other players would grab the No. 1 ranking during Sampras’ reign of dominance, Andre Agassi was the only player to hold onto it for more than a handful of weeks. His longest stretch at the top lasted for 102 weeks (15 April 1996 – 29 March 1998) and is the fifth-longest run at No. 1 in ATP Tour history. The American is also the only player to hold the year-end No. 1 ranking on six occasions (1993-1998).
Grand Slam Highlights
Before any of the Big Three claimed their maiden Grand Slam titles, Sampras was the most dominant singles player of all-time at major championships with 14 crowns. He earned his first major title as a relatively unknown 19-year-old at the 1990 US Open and would win at least one Grand Slam for nine of the next 12 years.
Sampras became synonymous with Wimbledon in the ‘90s, winning seven titles (1993-1995, 1997-2000) and holding a staggering 63-7 (90%) record. His final triumph at the All England Club in 2000 (d. Rafter) gave the American 13 Grand Slam titles, surpassing Roy Emerson’s record.
He was nearly as dominant at the US Open, winning five times (1990, 1993, 1995-1996, 2002) and finishing runner-up on three occasions (1992, 2000-2001). The normally subdued serve-and-volleyer was often at his most emotional in New York and produced several dramatic victories there throughout his career. His final major title at the 2002 US Open, his first in two years, was the final event of his career.
Sampras also enjoyed success at the Australian Open, winning two times (1994, 1997) and also reaching the final in 1995. However, his net-charging game historically struggled on the red clay of Roland Garros and his best result was a semi-final showing in 1996.
Nitto ATP Finals Highlights
Sampras is a five-time champion at the Nitto ATP Finals (1991, 1994, 1996-1997, 1999), tied in second place with Novak Djokovic for most titles at this event. He was a perennial staple at the season-ending championships throughout the ‘90s and qualified for 11 straight years (1990-2000). The American always saved his best tennis for his last event of the season, clearing the round-robin stage in every appearance apart from his debut.
Sampras rallied from a set down to defeat Jim Courier in the 1991 final and repeated that effort in defending his title against Boris Becker. He avenged a loss to Becker during the round-robin stage of the 1996 event by defeating him in an epic five-set final in front of his home crowd in Hanover, then once again defending his title the following year by blitzing Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the championship match.
Sampras’ last Nitto ATP Finals crown in 1999 saw him twice defeat Agassi, dropping just four games in their round-robin clash before scoring a straight-sets win in the final. He finished with a career 35-14 record at this event as he competed across Frankfurt, Hanover and Lisbon.
ATP Masters 1000 Highlights
The California native picked up 11 ATP Masters 1000 titles throughout his career, eight of which came on home soil. He won twice at the BNP Paribas Open (1994-1995) and three times at the Miami Open presented by Itau (1993-1994, 2000), becoming only the second player to complete the ‘Sunshine Double’ in 1994. His triumph in Miami was due in part to a generous display of sportsmanship from Agassi, who agreed to push the final back an hour so Sampras could have more time to recover from a stomach illness.
Sampras’ most dominant Masters 1000 runs came in two of his three championship efforts at the Western & Southern Open (1992, 1997, 1999) as he stormed through the draws in 1997 and 1999 without dropping a set. He also excelled at the Rolex Paris Masters, battling to the winners’ circle in 1995 (d. Becker) and 1997 (d. Korda). And for all of his well-documented troubles on clay, Sampras claimed a Masters 1000 title on the surface with his convincing win over Becker in the 1994 Internazionali BNL d’Italia final.
The rivalry between Sampras and Agassi during the ’90s transcended tennis and is considered one of the greatest rivalries in sports. Both men were polar opposites: Agassi’s baseline power against Sampras’ penchant for net-rushing, the flamboyant Las Vegas native and the conservative Californian. But like most great rivalries, their differences made for compelling viewing on and off the court.
Sampras leads their ATP Head2Head rivalry 20-14 and holds a flawless record on grass (2-0), while Agassi dominated their clay-court battles (3-1). Sampras also excelled in their major championship battles (6-3), including a 4-1 record in Grand Slam finals. He fittingly won his first Grand Slam title over Agassi in the 1990 US Open final and his last in the 2002 US Open final.
After Agassi went on a four-match winning streak from 1999-2001, Sampras’ coach, Paul Annacone, had him change tactics by going for bigger second serves and more backhand drive returns off Agassi’s second serve. The strategy worked and Sampras reversed the tide by taking the last three matches of their rivalry.
Sampras also had numerous high-profile matches throughout the ’90s against Boris Becker. But while their ATP Head2Head series was relatively even with Sampras leading 12-7, the American stepped up when it mattered most. He won six of their seven finals, including the 1994 and 1996 title matches at the Nitto ATP Finals, 1995 Wimbledon and 1994 Rome. Sampras held a flawless 3-0 record against the German in Grand Slam matches, all of which took place at Wimbledon.
Although Agassi and Sampras’ 2001 US Open quarter-final, which saw Sampras prevail in four tie-breaks, is widely considered to be their most famous match, Sampras’ repeat victory in the 2002 US Open final provided a fairytale ending to his career. Having not won a tour-level title since 2000 Wimbledon, he endured retirement questions in most of his press conferences. The American entered New York that year as the No. 17 seed and was considered a long shot to take the title.
But with the crowds fervently behind him, Sampras ousted Tommy Haas and Andy Roddick en route to the championship match. He saved his best tennis for last by defeating Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 for his fifth US Open crown, matching Jimmy Connors’ Open Era record of five championships at this event, a feat which Roger Federer would also later accomplish. At age 31, Sampras became the oldest champion in New York since Ken Rosewall (35) in 1970.
But it was what Sampras didn’t do afterwards that defined the moment in tennis history. Although he didn’t retire on the spot, Sampras couldn’t muster the drive to enter any events over the next 12 months and retired the following year in a special ceremony in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Agassi On Sampras
“I’ve played some of the most memorable matches of my career against Pete – come out on both sides of that. We’re just opposite. We’re opposite in everything we do. Out there on the court, we’re two styles that are going against each other. It allows for many aspects of the game to kind of reveal themselves. And it’s exciting to play against it, because every point, something special seems like it can happen.”
Sampras On Sampras
“I let my racquet do the talking. That’s what I’m all about really. I just go out and win tennis matches.”
“People know me. I’m not going to produce any cartwheels out there. I’m not going to belong on Comedy Central. I’ll always be a tennis player, not a celebrity.”
“After I went through two years of not winning an event, what kept me going was winning one more major. Once I won that last US Open, I spent the next six months trying to figure out what was next. Slowly my passion for the sport just vanished. I had nothing left to prove.”
Broadcaster/Journalist Graeme Agars
Regarded as one of the great fast-court players of all time, Sampras was all business on court as his big serve and tight volley powered him to his 64 career tour-level trophies, rarely showing much emotion on the way.
But there was one memorable exception and that came in a late night Australian Open quarter-final clash with fellow American Jim Courier. Courier had won the first two sets in tie-breaks and established an early third-set break of serve. But then the momentum of the now famous match turned as Sampras fought back to force a fifth set.
As he prepared to serve to begin the final set, Sampras began sobbing with tears clearly streaming down his face. It was so obvious Sampras was emotionally struggling that Courier asked, from across the net, if he was OK and even offered to finish the match the next day.
Sampras covered his tears in a towel during change of ends, but somehow managed to continue and eventually win the epic match 6-3 in the fifth set. It was only after the match that people learned that Pete’s coach Tim Gullikson had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour before the championship began.