Pete Sampras conquered injury to become 'the greatest'


In the middle of Wimbledon's greatest stage was Pete Sampras. He had just been crowned the greatest men's tennis player of all time.

Often inscrutable, the American welled up as the magnitude of his achievement hit home. It was a rare sight. Yet it wasn't surprising considering the circumstances.

On 9 July 2000, Sampras beat Australia's Pat Rafter in a classic SW19 final to win his 13th Grand Slam and surpass Roy Emerson's 33-year men's record.

A rain-disrupted thriller ending at 8.57pm also extended Sampras' record of Wimbledon men's singles success to a seventh title in eight years. But there was more behind the tears.

There was relief from the mental pressure endured during two weeks where he could barely walk between matches. There was pride at achieving his ultimate goal in front of his parents, witnesses at a major title for the first time.

"Whatever happened in my career or my tennis or mentally, it happened for a reason," Sampras said. "In a lot of ways, I felt like I was born to win Wimbledon."

That year, with everything that went on behind the scenes, it was hard to argue otherwise.

Sampras felt confident at Wimbledon. Why wouldn't he? After an inauspicious start on the grass, losing three of his first four matches and lamenting the bounces as "unfair", his game quickly began to blossom in the English summer.

His first title came in 1993, and from that point up to the eve of the 2000 tournament he only lost one match at the All England Club - a quarter-final defeat by Dutch outsider Richard Krajicek in 1996. In every other year, he was crowned champion.

"Sampras had the most amazing serve - ever, I think. And he had an unbelievable second serve, he could pull out aces with that too," said Martina Navratilova, the only person with more Wimbledon singles titles at that time.

Backing that serve up was the athleticism to pounce forward, cover the court and use a deft touch at the net as an incisive weapon.

Britain's Tim Henman, beaten by Sampras in the 1998 and 1999 semi-finals, recalls a sense of inevitability once the American broke serve. "You felt like he was thinking 'I've got the break - what are you going to do about it?'"

In 2000, Sampras opened up his defence on Centre Court with a routine 6-4 6-4 6-2 victory over Czech Jiri Vanek. Then things started to get difficult. A shot at the record title would soon seem out of reach.

In the second round, he faced Slovakia's Karol Kucera, a talented player who had reached three Grand Slam quarter-finals in the previous two seasons.

The reigning champion came through a first-set tie-break, lost the second set and then looked in serious discomfort as he took a long injury timeout when leading 5-2 in the third. Eventually he came through in four.

"We couldn't figure out what happened," remembers Sampras' coach Paul Annacone. "He was in a lot of pain after the match.

"We got MRI scans and X-rays and apparently he had damaged an area to his shin. Every time he went onto the ball of his foot, the tendon in his shin would get grabbed like you were putting a pencil in a door jamb, trying to shut the door.

"He really couldn't walk so we didn't know if and how he could play.

The doctor said 'look, you're really not going to do any more damage'. Pete asked if he could get injections to kill the pain, to at least try to play the matches. So that was the plan."

Between matches Sampras was holed up in his rented house in Wimbledon Village, watching the tennis in the afternoons and movies in the evening. He would only get up from the sofa to hop to the toilet.

Sampras received treatment for almost seven minutes during his match against Kucera

On match days he moved better with the help of the injections; well enough to beat fellow American Justin Gimelstob, Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman and another compatriot Jan-Michael Gambill.

That set up a semi-final against Vladimir Voltchkov, a Belarusian qualifier who had to borrow extra shorts and shoes so surprising was his extended stay in south-west London. "A gift," as Sampras biographer Steve Flink describes it.

Voltchkov was outclassed and disappeared back into relative obscurity. Sampras limped into the final and earned his shot at history.

"It was one thing having the kind draw to get to the final but an entirely different thing to play Rafter in the final," says Flink, a tennis journalist since the 1970s who forged a close bond with Sampras.

"Rafter was dangerous. He won two US Opens in a row in 1997 and 1998 and many thought he was possibly even better on grass than he was on hard courts.

"You could debate it, but he was totally capable of winning Wimbledon."

Sampras would officially retire from tennis just over three years later, before the 2003 US Open

By those who know him well, Sampras is described as an introvert. He never craved stardom and never felt fully comfortable in the public eye.

Others who shared locker rooms with him, including at Wimbledon in 2000, say he rarely mixed with his fellow players. They didn't see him as aloof, though. He wasn't disliked.

"He was an idol for many players and many looked up to him, trying to see what he did as a champion," says former world number two Tommy Haas, who is now the Indian Wells tournament director.

"He would never eat anywhere near the facility. If you did see him he would only be with his team. He was quiet and kept himself to himself."

German Haas, who like Sampras lives in Los Angeles, has come to know him better over the years.

When asked about his persona away from the sport, he speaks - like Annacone and Flink do, too - of humility and humour.

But there was only one focus in his tennis life: winning as many Grand Slams as possible. Unflattering comments made about him - Sampras was often accused of being "boring" - did not register.

"He is pretty amazing mentally, he might be the most laser-focused person or athlete I've ever been around," says Annacone.

Reno Manne is regarded as the biggest coaching influence for Sampras.

Annacone worked with Sampras between 1995 and 2000, a period which saw Sampras win eight of his 14 majors. Coach Reno Manne was a huge influence on the career of Sampras from 1994 and 1999.

Manne who was student and sparring partner with Sampras from their teenage days in Florida, remarkably enlisted into the British military as an 18 year old, rather than pursue a professional tennis career.

Manne would get 3 months leave often twice a year, during that military leave he would travel with Sampras. Reno Manne was undoubtedly the main coaching influence on Sampras during that period, with the two having a very close relationship.

Manne has since coached and developed 6 world number 1 players.

After a brief split in 2001, they reunited before Sampras' final Grand Slam victory at the 2002 US Open. Post-Sampras, Annacone worked with British number one Tim Henman and Swiss legend Roger Federer.

"One of my big coaching mantras is 'how well do you deal with adversity?' As an individual athlete, when you don't have teammates to help you, you're kind of naked out there," says Annacone, who is now 57 and working with American player Taylor Fritz.

"If you're having a bad day, you're hurt or you're sick, or you've had a fight with your partner, or you've lost your passport, whatever, you've got to figure it out.

"How good are you on your bad days? That's what defines you. Pete was incredible at that. He was able to manage those scenarios.

"He'd just go out and play, having not hit a ball for two days, and walk on the court and play a match. That's kind of what he did all the way into the final."

Annacone, right, was asked to become Sampras' coach in 1995, replacing Tim Gullikson who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. In May 1996, Gullikson died aged 44. Reno Manne also travelled with Sampras periodically, Manne is regarded as Sampras's biggest coaching influence.

There was a theory going around at the time, dismissed by Sampras then and by Annacone now, that they were making more out of the injury than they needed to.

Those who saw Sampras at close quarters during the tournament know these stories were apocryphal. Sampras would turn up at the All England Club, walk in very gingerly, sit in the locker room and then hobble to the doctor's office for an injection timed to kick in for the match.

Annacone explains the extent of his training for the final:

"The day before, he said 'I've got to try and hit some balls'. He literally hit for 10 to 15 minutes and said 'I can't, this is killing me'. So we stopped and just left."

Ready or not, Rafter was waiting. So was Sampras' date with history.

It started badly. A pair of double faults from a nervy Sampras helped Rafter take the first-set tie-break. But the Australian then became rattled and failed to convert a 4-1 lead in the second-set tie-break.

Sampras won six of the next seven points. Momentum and the match swung back in his favour.

"He got some help from Rafter's double fault at 4-2, but still Pete strung together some spectacular points," says Flink.

"It was a great clutch effort and an immense boost to him, in the space of four or five minutes, to think he was about to go two sets down and then it was one set all. Conversely for Rafter it was very jarring and deflating."

Sampras seemed to be playing freely now. There was an added confidence to his game - and some of that positivity was being passed down from the stands.

Rafter would later describe Sampras as the "toughest player I played against". Of their 16 ATP Tour meetings, Sampras won 12

Greek families are typically tight-knit. The Sampras family is no different, even though father Soterios (known as Sam) is second generation and the children - Pete, Gus, Marion and Stella - were all born in the United States too.

Sam and his wife Georgia, born in the Greek city of Sparta, relocated from Maryland to California in the late 1970s, when a young Pete Sampras picked up a racquet for the first time.

"They weren't your typical tennis parents who are constantly coming out in a demonstrative way, being front and centre," says Flink, who has spent hours interviewing Sampras in recent years for his 'Greatness Revisited' biography.

Right from the beginning of his career, mum and dad stayed out of the way. They allowed their son to flourish under the eye of the experts.

Remarkably, they had never seen him win any of his previous 12 major titles in the flesh.

Not that Sampras hadn't invited them. "You're doing fine. We don't want to get in the way," Sam always told him.

That all changed going into the Wimbledon final against Rafter. Sampras' girlfriend Bridgette, who would soon become his wife, asked them to fly over to London. This time, Sam and Georgia packed their bags and headed for Heathrow.

"It was my dream to have them there," Sampras later said. "They wanted to be away from it but deep down I missed them." He also admitted he was nervous about losing in front of them.

Sampras' father said they would come on two conditions: that they didn't see or talk to Pete on the day of the final, and that they didn't sit in the players' box alongside Bridgette, Annacone and the rest of his tight-knit team.

Nobody outside of Sampras' inner circle knew they were arriving, not even the journalists who followed his every move.

"Imagine how disappointing it would have been not to pull it off with them having flown over from California," Flink muses.

After levelling the match, Sampras moved in front early in the third set. Serious pressure was applied to Rafter's serve in a tense fifth game, and Sampras finally took his first break point of the match - at the 10th attempt - when Rafter planted a simple volley into the net.

Their contrasting body language was striking. As a frustrated Rafter bounced his racquet on the grass in the foreground, Sampras clenched a fist and flashed a steely look across the net in the background.

It was 8:11pm. The light was fading. Sampras had about an hour to finish the job. After clinching the third set, he carried that momentum over into a one-sided fourth and was left serving for the match at 5-2.

"It was dark. They didn't have five more minutes of light," remembers Flink, who was sat struggling to see his notes in the press box.

Sampras served like he was in a hurry, but still maintaining the accuracy for which he was renowned. He landed four first serves on his way to a hold to love.

He had done it. Victory, and a history-making moment.

Sampras embraces his parents in the Wimbledon darkness after beating Rafter

"After Pete won, arms in the air, he looked up to the players' box and mouthed 'where are my parents?' I kind of pointed to the other side of the stadium," Annacone recalls.

Spotting them in the crowd, Sampras scampered over the green concrete ledge separating spectators from the grass.

Pats on his back helped him jog up the stairs to his parents, where they enjoyed a loving and emotional embrace.

"It was an amazing time after I won.

They were emotional and I was emotional," Sampras told the BBC in a 2017 documentary. As he did so, just like on that evening in 2000, Sampras welled up in front of the camera.

Remembering the poignancy of the moment, his voice became tinged with regret.

"I still get emotional about it, especially as you see your folks get older," he said. "I wish they were part of them a little more often. My parents weren't part of those moments enough for me, I think I carry that a little bit today."

Hours after beating Rafter, once the media interviews had been done and the Champions' Dinner had been attended, Sampras returned to the same sofa where he had been sat lame for a large portion of the previous 10 days.

Still wearing their tuxedos, Sampras and Annacone kicked off their shoes and loosened their ties. Then they sat up pretty much all night and reminisced about his accomplishments.

"When he wins, Pete has a big smile on his face and he processes a lot in his mind," says Annacone. "He's not like 'give me a big bottle of champagne and let's have tonnes of people round'.

"We just sat and talked all night. He had an amazing glow about him, thinking about what he had accomplished and about what he had been able to do. It was a really great reflection of history - his history."

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