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Sampras the Best Ever? A Grand Thought

July 4, 1999

Pete Sampras's straight-sets victory over Andre Agassi for his sixth Wimbledon singles title elevated him into new territory on the all-time appreciation list of tennis greats.

Sampras's 12th career Grand Slam title tied him with Roy Emerson for major singles championships. On another level, the dominance that he displayed during Sunday's final, against arguably the best returner in the game, resurrected the question: Is Sampras the best male tennis player ever?

"He's a real champion out of the old school," said Jack Kramer, who likens Sampras to Ellsworth Vines, Kramer's role model of the 1930's, and Don Budge. "On grass, you'd have to put him up there with Vines and Budge."

Sampras's serve is easily the most formidable weapon on the men's tour. It was a stroke designed by his first coach, Pete Fischer, to control a match.

"If Pete is serving well," Fischer once observed, "it doesn't make any difference who the opponent is. It's irrelevant."

That is certainly the case at Wimbledon, where even Sampras's second serve is almost unreturnable. "The worse the grass gets," Kramer said after watching Sampras march through this year's field, "the better it is for Pete."

The keys to Sampras's serve -- the height of his elbow in the back stretch position, the contact at full extension, the speed of the racquet head through the contact zone -- were preached by Fischer. So was the ability to disguise the toss -- leaving open the question of whether the serve would be a flat bullet down the middle or spun wide.

Ten years ago, George Lott was asked to select his all-time top male players. Lott, who had won more than 40 national and international titles but lost the 1931 men's singles final at the national championship to Vines in four sets, devised a ranking system based on 10 categories -- first serve, second serve, forehand, backhand, volley, mental toughness, baseline play, overhead, anticipation and quickness, and tennis brain.

His No. 1 player at the time, with 93 out of a possible 100 points, was John McEnroe. Bill Tilden, whom Lott had long considered the No. 1 player, was second at 87, with Vines third (86) and Rod Laver fourth (85).

Sampras clearly would rate 10 points for his first serve, second serve, forehand and overhead. His backhand, volley and tennis brain are nines; so is his mental toughness in big matches. If his baseline play, anticipation and agility are eights, he would finish with 92 points, one point behind McEnroe. If you rank Sampras's volley a 10 (McEnroe's was a 9), they would be tied.

Lott, who died in 1991, had played 9 of the 20 players on his list. Sampras was too new to the game at the time Lott's list was published in World Tennis magazine.

Could Sampras have beaten Laver or Bjorn Borg on clay? Probably not. Could he have held his own with Vines, Tilden, Kramer, Budge or Jimmy Connors on hard courts?

"After Pete won the U.S. Open for the first time," Budge recalled yesterday, "I saw him in Philadelphia that winter and said, 'You're gonna be the next guy to win the Grand Slam.' "

Sampras has yet to duplicate the feat of Budge (1938) and Laver (1962 and 1969) by winning the true Grand Slam -- the Australian, French, Wimbledon and United States championships in a single year.

Budge said Sampras's ground strokes "are not yet good" to win on the slower clay in Paris and is surprised that Sampras hasn't set his career goals higher.

"Why wouldn't he try to win all four -- the legitimate Grand Slam?" Budge said from his home in Dingman's Ferry, Pa.

Several years ago, Fischer visited Budge in Pennsylvania to find out whether the backhand Fischer had taught Sampras was the classic Budge backhand. After Budge showed him his grip and stroke, Fischer acknowledged that Sampras's shot was more wristy.

"Pete can make the best shot of the day," Budge said of Sampras's backhand. "My backhand was firm, not as wristy."

Still, Budge hopes Sampras can look beyond simply breaking the tie with Emerson by winning the United States Open later this summer and set his goal on winning the Grand Slam.

"Why not?" Budge said. "If he wants to be remembered as he should be and would be, he should go for it."