If you are upset about … Pete Sampras’ 14 majors (Part 1 of a Series)

One thing I have learned in the age of Twitter is that tennis fandoms run deep and acrimony toward non-favored players can be unexpectedly strong.  I’m sure there are some Andre Agassi fans out there who are not thrilled about Pete Sampras generally being considered to be the top player of their generation.  Sampras’ 14 majors, 7-Wimbledon titles, 5-US Open titles, and 6-consecutive years finished at #1 often place Sampras ahead of Agassi in the eyes of analysts.  It does not help that Sampras beat Agassi in 4 of their 5 major final clashes.

Was there any player who could have derailed some of Sampras’ accomplishments had that player been more dialed into being a tennis great?

An easy answer for Agassi fans (for full disclosure Becker & Courier were my favorite players of this era), might be that Andre should not have had on again off again years prior to 1999.  For every 1995, 1994, 1992, 1990 and 1988 Agassi had, he did throw out some mediocre to downright poor years such as 1989 (not as steady as 1988), 1991 (not as good as 1990), 1993 (not good), 1996 (outside of the gold … he underachieved), and 1997 (really awful).  From 1999-2005, Agassi won 5 of his 8 majors and reached 2 other US Open finals in which he lost respectable 4-set matches to Sampras and Roger Federer.  Agassi had better longevity than Sampras (did Sampras’ anemia impact his longevity?).  Still, Andre had a tough match-up versus Sampras due to Pete’s huge and well-disguised serve.  Sampras offered no Boris Beckeresque tell for where his serves were headed.  Sampras was better at running and jumping than Agassi as well.  Pete Sampras largely kept Agassi off balance and made Andre hit shots outside of his comfort zone.  Being able to hold with greater ease than most took away one of Agassi’s largest psychological edges.  Pete’s leaping and running ability made for some spectacular slam dunk overhead and running forehand finishes off of Agassi’s generally good lobs and well-angled groundstrokes.

Sampras won on athleticism, a huge serve, and most importantly mental focus.  Pete served as a dominating baseball pitcher pitches.  There was a contemporary who had two of those three elements and his loss of mental focus had a good explanation.  Goran Ivanisevic blasted Pete Sampras off of the Wimbledon court in a 1992 semifinal clash that went 4 sets.  In 1990, Pete Sampras burst on the scene with a dominant serve to take the US Open title, but Goran beat Boris Becker at the first round of Roland Garros 1990 before reaching the quarterfinal round losing to Thomas Muster in 4-sets.  Goran followed that up by an explosive run to the 1990 Wimbledon semifinal in which Boris Becker got some revenge in a 4-set power fest.  Making deep runs on slow clay and speedy grass is not the same thing as winning a major, but Goran left 1990 with nearly as much upside as Sampras.

Goran did not have Pete’s volleys, but his backhand and claycourt game were better than Pete’s during most of their overlapping seasons.  Pete Sampras won 14 majors.  At least two of them were on a razor’s edge versus Goran.  At Wimbledon 1995, Goran lost a five-set semifinal thriller before Sampras dispatched of Boris Becker in 4 entertaining sets to take the title.  In 1998, Goran wondered into Wimbledon with long hair, a beard, and the 14th seed.  Goran beat 1996 champion, Richard Krajicek  15-13 in the 5th set of a semifinal clash and then held set points versus Pete’s second serve to go up 2-sets in the final.  Pete managed to take the 2nd set in a tiebreak.  Goran took the 4th set to force a fifth, but Pete grabbed an early break in the 5th set and took home his 5th Wimbledon title in 6 years.  Had Goran won either of those matches Pete’s Grand Slam title total drops and Sampras is unlikely to have finished 1995 or 1998 at #1.  Had Goran won both of those matches … tennis history is pretty different.

A Bit Broader View of the Threat Goran Posed

Pete Sampras won 7 Wimbledon titles in 8 years.  The two other best servers of Sampras’ Era won Wimbledon titles with Richard Krajicek taking the crown in 1996 and an unseeded Goran Ivanisevic grabbing the title in 2001.  In the era of fast grass courts, the three best servers of a generation won 9 straight titles after Andre Agassi clipped Goran Ivanisevic in 5 sets in the 1992 Wimbledon final.  Half of Pete’s slams came in one location and 5 of his 6 years at #1 involved a Wimbledon triumph.

Not only did Goran beat Pete at the 1992 championships and push him to 5 sets in 1995 and 1998, but Goran also posed a two-set challenge to Pete on grass at the height of Sampras’ confidence.  Pete Sampras won Wimbledon 1993, the 1993 US Open, the 1994 Australian Open, reached the 1994 French Open quarterfinals, and rolled into Wimbledon seeking his 4th major in 5 events.

Today’s Big 3 have made that feat seem more commonplace than it should.  Even with more homogenous surfaces, winning 4 of 5 majors is ridiculously difficult.  1994 red clay was slower than today and grass in 1994 was far faster than it is today.  Pete entered the 1994 Wimbledon final having won 31 of his past 32 matches in majors.

Goran gave up the ghost in a third set bagel, but Goran did force Pete to take the first two sets in tiebreaks.  A bad tiebreak or two could have put peak Sampras into an undesirable spot.  Also, Goran never played terribly well at the US Open, but in 1996 he did manage to force Sampras to 4 sets in their semifinal match.  Goran’s game was built around a massive serve and easy holds.  He could have been a guy breathing the same air as Sampras.  Had he won a little more often, Pete Sampras would almost certainly have won his most coveted prizes less often.

Why Goran’s Focus Wavered

Losing the 1992 Wimbledon final in 5 sets may have made Goran feel snakebitten.  I do think Bob Brett overthought that match and told Goran to slice nearly every backhand.  Making Andre Agassi generate his own pace during rallies might, in theory, provoke some unforced errors from Agassi.  Still, Goran should have simply hit through his backhand during the match.  Goran was going to hold serve more easily than Agassi if Goran was striking returns with any authority.  Instead, he chipped his way to letting Andre control nearly every rally.  Andre was better off the ground, but Goran could have minimized that comparative advantage by hitting his best backhand instead of taking pace off of the ball.  On fast grass, the more powerful player should not have been taking pace off of shots very often.

Did Losing this Match Throw Goran Ivanisevic Off?

Goran Ivanisevic followed that heartbreaking loss with some good results.  He won bronze medals in both singles and doubles for Croatia on red clay in Barcelona less than one month after losing the Wimbledon final.  Tension and war at home, more than a tough day at SW19, seemed to me to prevent Goran from having the focus he would have needed to regularly challenge Pete Sampras.

The break-up of and subsequent civil war in the former Yugoslavia hit right as Goran was becoming a factor at majors.  Here are some excerpts from a 1991 LA Times piece by Carol Williams on Goran Ivanisevic:

The towering, 16th-ranked star has appeared at interviews after matches wearing “Stop the War in Croatia” sweat shirts. He refuses to play in any tournament that displays the Yugoslav flag beside his name, forcing organizers to show Croatia’s red checkerboard shield or no national symbol at all.

(and)

“People here are expecting me to do something to get Croatia recognized as a country,” he says. “This is my first contact with politics, and I have a lot to learn about how to do it.

“I find it very hard to concentrate now. In the beginning, I didn’t think it was hurting my game, and I didn’t think (the war) would go so far. But I have family here, so part of me has to be worried about that, even when I’m playing abroad.”

Elite athletes tend to need a single-minded focus. The safety of his family was more important than what happens on a tennis court.  This is obvious to everyone.  Still, as Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek, and yes Pete Sampras were entering their early 20s their focus was freer to zero in on tennis success.  Goran did not have that freedom to focus on tennis alone.

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi did lose people close to them later in their careers.  Sports stars are not immune to tragedy or stress.  Still, Goran’s awakening to a world beyond sports occurred at an early stage of his career.

Post Scripts

Goran did at times seemed to feel like he was snakebitten.  He reached 7 tournament finals in the early stages of 1996.  He was 4-2 in tournament finals and beat Pete Sampras in a close Miami semifinal.  Goran would face Andre Agassi in the final.  Goran looked ready to challenge Pete Sampras and anyone else in tennis.  His win over Sampras and general momentum suggested it might be his year on Wimbledon’s lawns as well.

Goran Ivanisevic woke up with a neck strain and had to default his match versus Agassi after playing a few tepid games.  Goran only reached two more tournament finals for the remainder of 1996* and lost to Jason Stoltenberg in the Wimbledon quarterfinal round.  Whatever fire was lit under Ivanisevic in early 1996, it was extinguished after his neck strain and default in Miami.  This notion of feeling snakebitten also reared its ugly head after he mistimed two-second serve returns on set point to grab a two-set lead in the 1998 Wimbledon final.  Despite playing inspired tennis to take the 4th set and level the match, Goran expressed a fatalistic attitude after losing the 1998 Wimbledon final.

In summary, Goran Ivanisevic with fewer geopolitical concerns in the early 1990s may have broken through with a Grand Slam win far earlier than 2001.  Had he done so, Goran’s outlook may have been less fatalistic.  He likely would not have stopped Pete Sampras from piling up a lot of big titles.  However, a more confident Goran Ivanisevic would have made Sampras winning 7 Wimbledon titles and finishing 6 consecutive years at number one far more difficult.


*I don’t think the Grand Slam cup counted as a true tournament in 1996 even if it is now retroactively seen as a tournament as a condition of the ATP World Championships and Grand Slam Cup merged in 2000 to form the Masters Cup.  Goran was runner-up at the 1996 Grand Slam Cup.  How does one count a quasi-tournament?


Part 2 – Should Marat Safin have Slowed the Fed Express more than he Did?

Part 3 – What Impact would a Healthy Juan Martin del Potro have Had on Nadal’s Career?

Part 4 – Should Andy Murray have Been a Wizard of Oz or No(le)?

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