Pete Sampras: Last Great Serve-and-Volleyer?

February 1, 2006

Pete Sampras: Last Great Serve-and-Volleyer?

Classic Champ Spawns Few Imitators

Grand Slam Results

Australian French Wimbledon U.S. Open
1988 1ST
1989 1ST 2ND 1ST 4TH
1990 4TH 1ST W
1991 2ND 2ND QF
1992 QF SF F
1993 SF QF W W
1994 W QF W 4TH
1995 F 1ST W W
1996 3RD SF QF W
1997 W 3RD W 4TH
1998 QF 2ND W SF
1999 2ND W
2000 SF 1ST W F
2001 4TH 2ND 4TH F
2002 4TH 1ST 2ND W

End-of-Year Top 10 Rankings

1990 5 1996 1
1991 6 1997 1
1992 3 1998 1
1993 1 1999 3
1994 1 2000 3
1995 1 2001 10

By David McPherson

Looking back through the annals of tennis history, from the day the Renshaw brothers discovered that effeminate, bloopy lobs could be smashed down the throats of wimpy opponents up to the very recent past, champions for decades decided that the best way to dominate their service games was to throw caution and the baseline to the wind and charge forward.

Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Richard Krajicek and many others all buttered their bread, lived and died and made their reputations (and in some cases fortunes) with either all-out serve-and-volley tactics or at least by consistently attacking the net on their service games.

But arguably none of them employed these aggressive, risky tactics with the same ruthless efficiency as Washington D.C.-born, California-raised, Grand Slam champ of champs Pete Sampras.

Among the great attacking players, the ones whose serves and service games led them to the pinnacle of the sport, McEnroe may have been flashier at net and have had better reflexes, Edberg or Laver may have volleyed more crisply, Krajicek or Gonzalez (in the latter’s case, taking into account the technological disadvantage of using a wooden racket) may have served bigger.

But if it were a matter of life and death, if a blade were pressed against your throat or a gun to your head and only a service hold could save you, neither you nor anyone else in their right mind would give the balls to anyone else but Pete Sampras.

Certainly Andre Agassi wouldn’t. Pete’s greatest rival may have fumed internally with annoyance and frustration at being forever relegated to second place, but he was also forced to acknowledge the obvious. When asked to name the five greatest players of all time, he didn’t hesitate: “Sampras, Sampras, Sampras, Sampras and Sampras.”

And it was Pete’s greatness that was surely responsible for driving the flashy Las Vegan out of the tennis limelight (and back to the satellite circuit) in the middle of his prime. For what was there for Agassi to do in the face of Sampras? In 1994 Agassi took on Brad Gilbert as a coach, won the U.S. Open when Sampras came into that event unprepared following an injury, followed that up with a victory over his nemesis in the 1995 Australian Open final, and seemed (maybe, just maybe) poised to take over the mantle of world’s best player.

Could Agassi, the double-handed backhand baseline stalker with flowing locks, neon clothes and a bad attitude take out Mr. Classic, Mr. Tradition, Mr. History himself? Could return of serve beat serve-and-volley? Could take it early and hit it as loud as you can beat elegance and superior athleticism and effortless power? Could ultra-modern technique and Nick Bolletierri Tennis Academy beat switch to a one-handed backhand so you can be like Rod Laver and win Wimbledon?

In a word, no.

At least not at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, where Agassi most dearly wanted to shine like a Las Vegas casino. After losing in four sets to Pete at the 1995 U.S. Open final, it was as though he finally realized what he would later say: “I can play my very best and he can still beat me.” For at the end of the day, Agassi could pump 300 lbs. of iron, run up hills, perfect his ground strokes until he could launch them with laser-like precision to all corners of the court.

But there would still be that serve.

The Sampras signature. The unavoidable. The unreadable. The unconquerable.

The serve.

The serve defines Sampras and his career about brightest torch flashlight in the world as much as any shot has ever defined any player. There are the anecdotes: James Blake saying Sampras in practice would bet any player $10 (and their pride) that he could spot them a 0-40 lead and still come back and hold serve. Honest as ever, Blake admits he wanted no part of that bet.

James went on to say that it was equally unwise to get into a serving “target practice” shootout with Sampras. He’d take your money, and your ego, everytime, said Blake, noting that Pete could literally put the ball on a dime.

And, then, there are of course the quotes from exasperated, awestruck and disdainful fellow competitors.

Boris Becker: “Sometimes I think he forgets the difference between his first serve and his second serve.”

Magnus Larsson: “Be lucky, guess the corner, close your eyes and hope there’s a God. You have to be a little bit religious to break his serve.”

Marcelo Rios: “He just serves and that’s it.”

Unfortunately for Sampras and his place in the sport among tennis fans, including the truly diehard ones, disdain or at best begrudging respect may best describe the emotion they most often felt while watching him. Indeed, anyone who followed the American’s career witnessed on occasion the bizarre scene of an irritated Sampras cupping his ear in an “I can’t hear you” after one of his aces was met with deafening silence.

He knew how much work he had put in to be able to place the serveexactly where he wanted to place it. But the brutal monotony with which one perfectly struck serve after another came off of Sampras’s racket did make it a little tough to appreciate after a while, all the more so after he became No. 1 and began thoroughly dominating the sport.

Of course, reducing Sampras down to just a serve is completely unfair and inaccurate. Krajicek, Goran Ivanisevic and Michael Stich could be just as dominant with their service games, but didn’t come close to matching Pete’s accomplishments.

The serve, for better or worse, overshadowed everything and made people forget all his other attributes. His expert volleying, including uncanny half-volleying. His lethal running forehand. His leaping ability. His quickness and defense. His variety – heavy, loopy topspin, drive topspin, knifing slice, floating slice – on the backhand. His ability to stay calm and composed under extreme pressure.

And perhaps, most importantly of all, his unwavering commitment to the sport year after year after year. His single-minded focus and desire to be the best seemed such a natural part of him that it seems unfathomable that he could have been any other way. Indeed, one could practically imagine Sampras as a deranged and obsessed pre-teen with the number 12 (the previous Grand Slam mark) plastered over every inch of his room, plotting even then his inevitable march toward immortality.

But no, Sampras says. It could have all been different if not for Grand Slam final No. 2 and that loss to Edberg – that loss that shouldn’t have been a loss that then fueled his obsession for winning and led him to achieve everything there is to achieve in the sport.

That is, all but one thing.

Sampras called it a career after winning his 14th Grand Slam, saying he had nothing left to prove or achieve. But we all knew better.

What he meant to say was nothing left to achieve that he couldachieve. His only chance to win the French Open had come and gone years before and no miracle run in his 30s would be possibe there.

Despite what people often say, though, Sampras did have an opportunity at Roland Garros. That was in 1996, and it was a real chance. He lost in the semifinals to Yevgeny Kafelnikov – a player he had steamrolled on clay six months earlier; had he won that match, he would have been the clear favorite against Germany’s Michael Stich in the final.

Though Kafelnikov handled Sampras in straight sets, it was the heat and three five-setters (two against former champions Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier) earlier in the tournament that were primarily responsible for Sampras’s exit.

Still, the fact he could never win in Paris will forever prevent universal acceptance of Sampras as the greatest of all time. His detractors will insist that the American simply could not win on a surface that reduced his serve to something close to manageable. And who’s to say that they’re wrong?

But if Sampras is only allowed to be the greatest fast court (or even just grass court) player of all time, that’s still quite a feat in itself. He saved his absolute best stuff time and again for the game’s two biggest stages – Wimbledon and the U.S. Open – and will be remembered for a slew of clutch performances at each venue, including of course breaking the all-time Grand Slam record in 2000 at the All England Club.

Sampras should be remembered, though, not just as a maker of history, but a defender of the sport’s past. Playing alongside new-age Bolletierri-bred baseline bashers Agassi and Courier and scurrying defender Michael Chang, Sampras represented tennis’ old-guard – not just the Lavers and Rosewalls he admired but Kramer and Tony Trabert and others who appreciated his game far more than tennis fans his age.

Ironically, though, despite how comprehensively Sampras’ serving-and-volleying and his eastern grip forehand won out over baseline tactics and semi-Western grips during the 1990s, not even 14 Slam titles was enough to stem the tide of changes taking place in men’s tennis.

Less than four years after Sampras played his last professional match, there are just a handful of serve-and-volleyers in the top 100 – Tim Henman, Taylor Dent, Ivo Karlovic, Fabrice Santoro to name a few – and the number seemingly dwindles with every passing year.

It’s obviously premature to say there will never be another great serve-and-volley player. None of the above-mentioned players possess the athletic gifts that Sampras did.

For a player to have the same success charging forward against today’s best – armed as they are with advanced racket technology, powerful returns of serve and pinpoint passing shots – he’ll need Sampras’s balance and agility, deft volleying touch, a devastating overhead, outstanding fitness and quickness and great anticipation.

Oh, yes, and it wouldn’t hurt to have that serve.