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Sampras is Money in the Bank

April, 2006

To celebrate TENNIS Magazine’s 40th anniversary, they chose the 40 best players of the last four decades. Pete Sampras was named the greatest player of the last 40 years.

Sampras raised his game at the biggest events. More than any other tennis player, he was worthy of the ultimate compliment you can give a professional athlete: He was money in the bank.

In the minds of tennis fans, a great player isn't just a person, but a representation. John McEnroe embodies angry genius; Jimmy Connors was blood and guts personified; Chris Evert, grace under pressure. What do we think of when we say the name Pete Sampras? Something both simpler and more exalted: a winner.

Like his idol, Michael Jordan, and friend, Wayne Gretzky, Sampras is his sport's greatest modern champion. But it didn't start out that way. The early Pistol Pete was known more for his raw talent than his competitive fire. Four years into his career, he hadn't spent a week at No. 1. That's when the 21 year old faced Stefan Edberg in the 1992 U.S. Open final. When Sampras walked off a loser after four sets, he knew that second best would never be good enough again. "Before, I was happy at No. 6," Sampras says. "I just didn't dig deep enough. If that loss hadn't happened, I wouldn't have achieved what I achieved."

What the loose-limbed Californian achieved rewrote the record books. Sampras won comprehensively, on the game's biggest stages, and week in, week out on tour. Not only does he won the most Grand Slam titles among men, with 14, he finished No. 1 for six straight seasons and spent 286 weeks in the top spot, both men's records. He made his name synonymous with the game's most prestigious event, Wimbledon, where he won seven titles in eight years.

But Sampras won nearly everywhere. He ended Ivan Lendl's famous run on eight U.S. Open finals; he beat Jim Courier in Melbourne after breaking down in tears because his coach had been diagnosed with a brain tumor; and the final match of his career was a victory over his greatest rival, Andre Agassi, for a fifth U.S. Open title. The last time the U.S. captured the Davis Cup, in 1995, guess who won all three matches in the final against Russia?

Still, despite many attempts, the French Open eluded Sampras. It's a hole in his resume and can only be excused by the fact that in the Open era just two men, Rod Laver and Agassi, have won the French along with all the other majors. Of course, plenty of women have, including the three who follow Sampras here. So how did he end up on top? It was the singularity of his accomplishments. The top three women have comparably impeccable records; on the men's side, where the competition is deeper, Sampras stands alone.

Follow the money. Prize winning are rarely seen as a measure of tennis greatness because for decades there wasn't any. But it's worth noting that while our No. 2 and No. 3 players, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, have similar career earnings (21 million), Sampras retired with $43 million, nearly $17 million more than the next man, Agassi, had at the time. Greatness isn't measured just in dollar signs, but the richest events are generally the biggest, and that's where Sampras raised his game. More than any other tennis player, he was worthy of the ultimate compliment you can give a professional athlete: He was money in the bank.