The following is an excerpt from Steve Flink’s new book ‘Pete Sampras Greatness Revisited’, which will be officially released on 1 September. Flink reflects on Pete’s sparkling career and his extraordinary domination of the 1990s, writing extensively about Sampras’ 14 major titles and his record six year-end finishes at No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. The author interviewed Sampras for many hours, but also spoke with more than 20 other notable individuals in the game including Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Goran Ivanisevic, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Patrick Rafter and Novak Djokovic. He interviewed coaches Paul Annacone, Tom Gullikson and Robert Lansdorp. This portrait of Sampras reaffirms why he was one of the central figures in the history of tennis and what set him apart as a champion, who, in many ways, was larger than the game he played.
In this excerpt, Flink writes about Sampras stunning the tennis world by becoming the youngest men’s US Open champion ever at the age of 19 in 1990.
After beating John McEnroe, Pete Sampras was now aware of what he was on the verge of achieving. Reaching the final of the 1990 US Open was beyond his wildest dreams, but he was taking it in stride and not getting ahead of himself. As he said in 2018, “Up until that point, I didn’t know what it meant to win the Open, or what was at stake. So, after beating McEnroe, maybe that calmed me down. If I had been 30 years old and this was my last Open, maybe I would have been a little tighter, but at that point I was free-wheeling, having fun, popping aces and hitting backhand return winners. It was almost in slow motion for me. That was what it felt like.”
His opponent on 9 September 1990 was none other than Andre Agassi, his stylistic opposite and charismatic adversary. Agassi had played one of his finest matches to knock out the defending champion Boris Becker in a come-from-behind, four set semifinal. Although this was his first US Open final in 1990, he had been to the semifinals the previous two years, losing on both occasions to Ivan Lendl. Earlier in 1990, he had reached his first major final at Roland Garros and was heavily favoured to defeat the left-handed Ecuadorian Andres Gomez. But Gomez upended the American in four sets on the clay.
Back in New York on the hard courts, the incomparable ground stroker from Las Vegas with spectacular returns off both sides and a mastery of control, power and precision from the baseline was a clear favorite to beat Sampras in the title round clash. Sampras did not mind that in the least, knowing deep down that he had the game to startle Agassi if all went according to plan. But the fact remained — Sampras was the underdog. Unmistakably.
“No doubt about it,” said Sampras, when he was in his late forties. “I knew Andre was the heavy favourite at that ‘90 Open. As far as our games at that point, he was a much better player who had been ranked World No. 3. He had been around and was much more established than I was. I basically came out of nowhere, the young American trying to make a few bucks and see what I could do. I felt like not having a day off between the semis and the final really helped me. I went to sleep that night, woke up and just played another tennis match. If I had a day off to think about it and walked into the Open, doing a press conference or interviews or signing autographs, everything would have stopped and I would have thought about it. Who knows what would have happened?”
From the outset of the Sampras-Agassi confrontation, Sampras was primed for the appointment. He was blazing from the opening bell on, relaxed and almost oblivious to what was at stake, going for his shots as if it was a first-round match in some remote corner of the world. But this was the US Open final and the historical consequences were immense. Lesser men would have been severely compromised by the importance of the occasion, by knowing that a vast worldwide audience was watching on television and nearly 20,000 spectators were gathered at Flushing Meadows to watch it in person. Sampras, however, was undaunted by what he was doing, remaining in his old bubble, ignoring all outside distractions.
Sampras marched past Agassi 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. In three nearly immaculate sets, Sampras was not broken, winning 35 of 38 first serve points, double faulting only once, serving 13 aces. At 19 years and 28 days old, Sampras had made history of the highest order by establishing himself as the youngest man ever to win the championships of his country. That was no mean feat. Moreover, this was his first ever tournament triumph on a hard court in his professional career. He had never even been to the final on the ATP Tour in an event held on hard courts until this riveting Flushing Meadows fortnight.
Reminiscing about that seminal 1990 victory 28 years later, Sampras said, “God, I can’t explain how I played that day against Andre. I had never played that well in my life, even in practice. I was serving incredibly well, hitting my ground strokes the way I wanted, coming in and dictating. I was moving great. I guess it had always been there. But to do that in the finals of the US Open is hard. I woke up that day feeling no nerves and he did. He just felt the weight of it and lost his game. He sort of panicked. I have seen highlights of that match and he looked like a dear in the headlights at times because of what I was doing. That is when it all came out for me as a player. Quite honestly I didn’t expect it.”
Pete Sampras Greatness Revisited can be ordered on Amazon.