Friday August 12th, 2011

Pete Sampras

With 14 majors and 64 ATP titles, Pete Sampras is one of the greatest players to pick up a racket. (Caryn Levy/SI)

Happy birthday, Mr. Sampras.

Pete Sampras, one of tennis’ greatest players, turned 40 on Friday. So let's take a moment to look back at his achievements on and off the court.

Sampras turned pro at 16 in 1988. Just over two years later, he ended the season ranked fifth after winning his first Grand Slam title, at the 1990 U.S. Open, where he became the youngest men’s champion at 19 years, 28 days.

But the victory was more than just the first of 14 Grand Slam titles; it also served up an early taste of one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the game.

On the way to that that U.S. Open crown, Sampras knocked off then No. 3 Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals and John McEnroe in a four-set semifinal. But it was his straight-set win over Andre Agassi in the finals -- only their third career matchup -- that sparked an American tennis rivalry that would last more than a decade.

With his first major under his belt, the strong-serving Sampras shifted his focus to claiming the No. 1 ranking. He accomplished the feat in April 1993, despite not having won another major yet.  But the Grand Slam drought didn't last much longer. At Wimbledon that year, Sampras dispatched defending champion Agassi in a five-set quarterfinal, swept Boris Becker in the semifinals and snatched his first of three consecutive titles in a hard-fought four-setter against former No. 1 Jim Courier.

From 1993-2000, Sampras won seven Wimbledon titles, two Australian Opens and three U.S. Opens. The serve-and-volleyer with the big forehand held the record for Grand Slam titles -- he won his last, unexpectedly, at the 2002 U.S. Open, defeating Agassi in the final as a 31-year-old No. 17 seed before walking away -- until Roger Federer came along and won his 15th major at Wimbledon in 2009.

Sampras racked up 64 tour titles and went 203-38 (.842 winning percentage) in Grand Slam play. He could blast an ace off his powerful first serve at even the most crucial points. His aggressive playing style made him a tough man to beat. And at the same time Michael Jordan was flying through the air in Chicago, Sampras was popularizing the “Slam Dunk” shot on the tennis court.

But during his career, and even after retiring in 2002, the fun for Sampras didn’t stop on the court. Many fans will remember Nike’s “The Longest Point” commercial that ran in 1996, featuring McEnroe commentating from the booth on a point that stretched through the four seasons.

Though Agassi was the more colorful of the two, Sampras was often in the public eye, too. His shirtless Nike commercial turned some heads, and there was the 1997 SportsCenter gem where Sampras bounced back cafeteria apples like dead tennis balls.

But it wasn’t always fun and games. In a 2010 charity match for Haitian earthquake victims, Sampras got caught up in the moment and let his old foe Agassi press all the wrong buttons. What was meant to be a friendly doubles exhibition between legendary rivals past and present turned ugly, as Rafael Nadal and Federer could barely stand to see their partners go at each other’s throat. (Here’s a better quality, but un-embeddable version).

Still, the nasty exchange is merely a blip on Sampras’ distinguished career. So here's to you, sir, for 40 years ago Friday, an American icon was born.

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