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Pete Sampras — The Unfortunate Champion

pete sampras

In the year 2000, Pete Sampras won his 13th Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon, breaking the all-time record set by Roy Emerson 33 years earlier. In 2002, he extended his lead by winning his 14th Slam at the US Open. With that triumph, he decided to hang up his racket for good, and people were left wondering when, if ever, someone could come along and challenge his record.

 

Seven years later, it was broken.

When Roger Federer hoisted his 15th major trophy at Wimbledon in 2009, he ended the reign of the big-serving American, who had held the record for a mere nine years.

Just eight years later, Sampras’ record was broken again.

In 2017, Rafael Nadal won his 10th French Open crown and 15th Grand Slam overall. Pete Sampras had fallen from the top of the leaderboard all the way down to third in just over half the time that it had taken for Emerson to slip to second.

 

Bad Luck Bears

Just how unlucky is this, though? To put it in perspective, here is a list of every player who has held the record for most Slams in men’s singles:

Player Slams when breaking record Year of record breaking Slam Total Slams Year of last Slam Years until record was broken Year record was broken for a second time Years until record was broken twice
Spencer Gore 1 1877 1 1877 3 1882 5
John Hartley 2 1880 2 1880 3 1883 3
William Renshaw 3 1883 7 1889 4 1936 53
Richard Sears 7 1887 7 1887 38 1936 49
Bill Tilden 8 1925 10 1930 42 1969 44
Roy Emerson 11 1967 12 1967 33 2008 41
Pete Sampras 13 2000 14 2002 9 2017 17
Roger Federer 15 2009 18 2017 Current record holder Current record holder Current record holder

Please note that I am not including Frank Hadow or William Larned, who managed to equal the then-records, of 1 and 7 respectively, but not break them.

When Richard Sears set his record of 7 Grand Slams, the man who would break it was not yet born.

When Bill Tilden set his record of 10 Grand Slams, the man who would break it was not yet born.

When Roy Emerson set his record of 12 Grand Slams, the man who would break it was not yet born.

When Pete Sampras set his record of 14 Grand Slams, the man who would break it was four places higher than him in the ATP rankings.

Sampras held the record for the shortest amount of time since Renshaw (who ended up matching Sears’ record in 1889, so arguably Sampras held it for the shortest amount of time since Hartley). He stayed in the top two for less than half the time managed by any player since John Hartley (whose record was a stunning two major titles, remember).

At this point, all Sampras can do is hope that Novak Djokovic doesn’t manage to add his name to the list of 15-time Grand Slam champions. At the time of writing, Djokovic has 12 major titles.

 

History Is Written By the Victors (Except Pete Sampras)

What Pete Sampras achieved in his career is astonishing. By the time of his retirement, he had spent 286 weeks as the number 1 player in the world – more than any other player in history (this record lasted until 2012). He had been the year end number 1 on no fewer than six occasions (one of the few records of his that still stands to this day). The fact that those six years were consecutive didn’t hurt his legacy, either. He is, without doubt, one of the greatest champions the sport of tennis has ever seen.

And yet, it seems inevitable that history will look more favorably on those who followed him. The “Greatest Of All Time” debate will rage on for years to come. Those who followed after are having their names thrown around in that discussion. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have all staked their claim to this most lofty of titles, and each one has legions of fans ready to argue for their champion. But these days, there are very few who are prepared to make the same case for Pete Sampras.

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