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The Making Of A Champion

DEUCE Magazine
by James Buddell

August 26, 2010

Twenty years ago, at 19 years and 28 days, Pete Sampras went from anonymity to global superstar after he became the youngest US Open champion in history. The legendary American, his allies and rivals, reflect on the first of his 14 major titles.

Shy and impressionable, 18-year-old Pete Sampras arrived at the house of World No. 1 Ivan Lendl in Greenwich, Connecticut, in November 1989. He had replaced high school with tennis’ nomadic life in the single-minded pursuit of becoming a great champion when he turned pro in Philadelphia 20 months earlier. As a natural talent, with an attacking style that was so fluent, even artistic, as to make the game appear easy, his game was in complete contrast to that of Lendl.

Lendl worked for everything. On the court, he dominated his opponents from the baseline until they buckled. Off the court, he lived the American dream, retiring to his 15,000-square-foot house behind six-foot high fencing and protected by two alarm systems. It was at this house Lendl invited Sampras for 10 days, prior to competing at the Nabisco Masters in Madison Square Garden, New York City.

Lendl 1989″Ivan wanted to see me play, so he gave me a call and invited me to his house, which was an eye-opener,” recalls Sampras. “It was huge. Ivan and his wife, Samantha, made me feel welcome and comfortable.

“He soon had me biking 20 to 25 miles a day. And we spoke about my tennis, how hard you have to work if you want to make it to the top. I learnt a lot about how a top professional trained and how he looked after himself.”

Lendl, who will compete for the first time on the ATP Champions Tour at Paris in October, remembers, “He stayed for about 10 days and observed everything. I could tell Pete was a huge talent, but [he] was still young and was still developing his game. Even the serve was still unrefined. I did not predict he would go on and win 14 majors.”

Sampras had sampled the disciplined lifestyle and immediately returned to Bradenton, Florida, to re-join his friend Jim Courier at the IMG-Bollettieri Tennis Academy, where he was living, and where he would start to bulk up his muscles and develop his game as an instigator, which he had showcased in beating defending champion Mats Wilander at the US Open.

Throughout the 1989 season, Sampras had toured the world with his brother and financial advisor, Gus. His father, Soterios, an engineer, accompanied them to four European tournaments, but Pete barely won a match and he thought he brought his son “bad luck”.

In late July, having lost to his junior rival Michael Chang at Stratton Mountain, Sampras was introduced to Joe Brandi, an experienced Puerta Rican coach – working at the tennis academy Nick Bollettieri established in 1978 – by Sergio Cruz, who was working with Jim Courier.

Brandi, the father of former Sony Ericsson WTA Tour player Kristina Brandi, who now lives in Buenos Aires, remembers, “Later in the year Cruz, who was one of the most prolific coaches at the time, had to go to Spain to coach junior players. So when Pete came to train at the academy for six weeks in November, I was charged with helping him.

“Pete was a great human being, a delightful young man, who loved the sport and loved to work.”

Bollettieri AcademyAccompanied by Courier, Sampras set out at six o’clock each morning for a 45-minute run. Upon their return they would play tennis for up to six hours, take a lunch-break and then weight lift, undertake sprints and conditioning work into the evening.

With instant recall, Brandi says, “Pete had tremendous potential, but had never worked on his conditioning, which was as bad as his shot selection. If you’re not fit at this level, you won’t win anything let alone a trophy.

“We worked together on his balance, [his] return of serve, first volley and slice backhand. Pete Fischer [one of Sampras’ childhood coaches] had changed his double-handed backhand to a single-hander and he was still feeling his way. He hit his backhand like Ilie Nastase did, leaning on the back foot but Pete’s running forehand was, and I believe still is, the greatest shot of all time. His first and second serves were very good.”

Bollettieri remembers Sampras’ time at the academy. “Joe Brandi was a no-nonsense coach who knew only one way to train: hit thousands of balls and get into the best shape of your life,” the 79 year old says. “When Pete’s physical condition improved, so did his movement, which then effected his shot selection including not going for quick winners.

“Pete Sampras was not only a hard worker but his work ethics were performed in the same manner, he did everything [and] showed no emotion.”

Sampras started the 1990 season , ranked World No. 81. Having spent Christmas with his family, he travelled to Australia by himself, reaching the Sydney quarter-finals and Australian Open fourth round. “Upon his return to the States he called me to request my services full-time,” says Brandi.

In only their second tournament together, at the Ebel Pro Indoor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a nerve-free Sampras beat No. 6-ranked Andre Agassi and No 8-ranked Tim Mayotte en route to his first ATP final. He went on to outclass Andres Gomez 7-6(5), 7-5, 6-2, picked up the biggest pay cheque of his fledgling career, $135,000, and celebrated his first title with 18 holes of golf in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Twenty years on, Sampras confesses, “At the start of the 1990 season, having beaten a couple of top players, I felt as if I might get myself into contention for the big tournaments and majors. I’d been progressing a little better, picked up the Philadelphia title and was feeling more comfortable in the shots I was hitting.”

He lifted the Manchester trophy pre-Wimbledon, then built up steam during the summer hard-court swing, reaching semi-finals in Toronto (l. to Chang) and Los Angeles (l. to Edberg), and quarter-finals in Indianapolis (l. to Reneberg) and Long Island (l. to Ivanisevic).

“For me, Pete got his big, big mental breakthrough at Toronto when he beat John McEnroe for the first time in the quarter-finals,” said Brandi. “He had excellent results during the US swing and came to the US Open having played a lot of matches. During the US Open he was in the zone for two weeks, but no way was he prepared to win the title!”

SamprasIn 1990, Flushing Meadow earned the nickname ‘Flushing Mellow’, when tennis-mad Mayor David Dinkins prevailed upon the air-traffic controllers at nearby LaGuardia Airport to redirect the deafening flights of runway 13, away from the National Tennis Center. It meant an aviation-free fortnight, rather than the final-weekend deference the Federal Aviation Administration had shown in previous years. It also went some way to persuade US Open officials to keep the event in Queens after the lease expired in 1994.

Sampras, always an anti-entourage player, booked himself into the Parker Meridien hotel in New York City with his coach, Brandi. At that time, he had four Top 10 wins and two titles in 45 tournaments to his name.

Named No. 12 seed, Sampras remembers, “I arrived at the US Open as an outsider. No one realistically thought I would have a chance to go really deep in the draw, let alone win it. I think the experts figured I wouldn’t play that well and that I was going to roll over.”

Sampras rolled through his first three matches without the loss of a set, against Dan Goldie, Peter Lundgren, Jakob Hlasek. Through to the Last 16, Sampras played down his title chances. “Maybe in a couple of years, but I don’t think it’s realistic right now.” He went on to overcome an upset stomach to beat World No. 6 Thomas Muster, who had made a miraculous return after a drunk driver severed ligaments in his left leg in March 1989.

In the quarter-finals he met his mentor, World No. 3 Lendl, a hard-court powerhouse and three-time US Open champion. “Ivan was looking to reach the US Open final for the ninth straight year, but my game matched up well with his and he was slowing down,” says Sampras, who had greater power and proved more resourceful.

Brandi reveals, “Lendl was his most difficult match. Pete won the first two sets, but found himself at 1-5 down in the fourth set. I remember saying to a friend alongside me, ‘If he doesn’t win at least two games in this set he will be in trouble come the decider.'”

Lendl, who had compiled an outstanding 55-5 record at Flushing Meadows since 1982, confesses, “When I came back from 2-0 down in sets to 2-2, I thought I would win – but Pete kept serving great and was able to adjust the rest of his game. That was the first time I thought he could win a good number of majors.”

Lendl won the fourth set 6-4, but Sampras broke early in the fifth set and eventually won 6-4, 7-6(4), 3-6, 4-6, 6-2. “I was not happy losing,” says Lendl, who would eventually retire due to chronic back pain in 1994 having won eight majors from 19 finals. “At the time, I felt he was always going to stand or fall with his serve.”

Sampras Next up was McEnroe, a four-time former titlist, enjoying a sublime run at 31 years of age, under the guidance of his old coach Tony Palafox. Ranked World No. 21, he was unseeded for the first time in 13 years.

“I got very nervous beforehand, but I settled early [breaking serve in the fourth game for a 3-1 lead],” admits Sampras, whose serve-volley game, 17 aces and innumerable down-the-line passing shots, proved too much for the New Yorker, who at the time Brandi believed, “was annoyed the game had changed and that the younger kids were overpowering him.”

Twenty five miles west of Los Angeles, his mother, Georgia, and father, were both oblivious to his fate. Too nervous to watch the match live, they were taking-in a movie, Presumed Innocent, starring Harrison Ford, at a nearby cinema.

“Because of Super Saturday, I played the night match,” says Sampras, “I then showered, did press, went to sleep and did not have time to think too much about the final and the enormity of the situation I was in.”

The reality was that Sampras was one-part of the first all-American US Open final since 1979, when McEnroe beat his good friend Vitas Gerulaitis. He would face Las Vegan Andre Agassi, the World No. 4, who had finished runner-up to Gomez at Roland Garros in June. It was the third meeting of their senior careers

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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