Who is the greatest tennis player of all time? That is not an easy question to answer for either gender, or when distinguishing between the Open Era and the professional-amateur era.
Who is the greatest server of all time? That question isn’t hard to answer for either gender. The answer in women’s tennis is Serena Jameka Williams. The answer in men’s tennis is Pistol Pete Sampras. Making note of this reality before Wimbledon is especially appropriate, given that both individuals won seven Wimbledons (with Serena having a chance to win an eighth title in the time she has left), and given that Sampras made his career at the All England Club more than anywhere else.
Roger Federer has done this at times, but no ATP player — certainly not in the Open Era — did it more than Sampras: stepping into a love-40 ditch on serve and then thumping huge serves to get to deuce and then hold. This is what Sampras did in the seventh game of the first set of the 1999 Wimbledon final against Andre Agassi, which is one of the two best matches Sampras ever played (the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinal against Agassi being the other). Sampras swatted five monster serves to turn love-40 into a hold.
Sampras did not face another break point for the rest of the match, so total was his command on serve that day.
Sampras had the placement and consistency of Federer’s first serve, but with more power. He blended power, depth and kick on his second serve better than anyone who preceded him or followed him. Sure, Sampras wasn’t nearly as imposing from the back of the court as the men who followed him this century and formed the greatest trio of rivals men’s tennis has ever known in the Open Era. This is why Sampras didn’t do well at the French Open and was not as proficient in the realm of attritional tennis on days when his serve wasn’t popping. At Wimbledon, though — a place where first serves put champions in place to win and second serves seal those championships — Sampras reigned supreme.
Would anyone fundamentally object to the idea that Roger Federer is a better Wimbledon champion or a better grass-court player than Sampras? No. That claim stands well within the bounds of reason. Yet, the undisputed greatness of the Sampras serve — enhanced by grass — makes it impossible to anoint Federer as the best Open Era grass-court player without at least a debate. Sampras, at the very least, is owed a place in the conversation. It doesn’t mean he should — or would — win the argument, but it DOES mean that his serve would always give him a say in the outcome.
Sampras’s career and achievements are important to note at this point in tennis history because #TennisTwitter has a pervasive — though not universal — distaste for the big serve. “Servebotting” has become a pejorative term which makes people tune out major finalist Milos Raonic, Masters 1000 champion John Isner, and major finalist Kevin Anderson, among others. It is certainly true that Sampras — who could crack a down-the-line backhand when he needed to and sharpen his return game when he had to — was more than just a serve. Yet, Raonic is more than just a serve — his improved touch and feel around the court enabled him to make the 2016 Wimbledon final. A volley hit under immense pressure late in the fourth set saved him from defeat in a semifinal against Federer, the only time in 12 Wimbledon semifinals Federer has lost.
Anderson has a huge serve, but his run to the U.S. Open final was made possible by groundstrokes which did not break down under pressure. He engaged Sam Querrey in a lot of tense backcourt exchanges in a tough U.S. Open quarterfinal before ultimately prevailing. He fended off Pablo Carreno Busta, a practitioner of attritional baseline tennis, in the subsequent U.S. Open semifinal. Both Raonic and Anderson have become top-seven ATP players in their day. They are servers who built their games to the point that they achieved much more than the likes of Ivo Karlovic, Sam Groth, or other players who could TRULY be referred to as “just a serve and nothing more.”
Sampras was indeed more than just a serve, but make no mistake: The serve — the obviously dominant first ball, but also the historically significant second serve, which was arguably even MORE central to his success, especially at Wimbledon — was the foundation of Pete’s empire. The Pistol who fired so many bullets under pressure is the Open Era’s ATP equal to what Serena became on the WTA Tour. Sampras — more than any man since 1968 — perfected that swift but significant art of toeing the service line under suffocating pressure and throwing the fastball his opponent couldn’t touch.
People and pundits and publishers all called Sampras “boring” in his time.
If winning seven Wimbledons and 14 majors is boring, we should all be so dull.
Like Pete Sampras, the late singer Karen Carpenter was born in the Eastern United States before moving to Southern California in her youth. (Sampras was born in Washington, D.C., Carpenter in New Haven, Connecticut.) Sampras developed as a tennis player in SoCal, just as The Carpenters — Karen and older brother Richard — honed their musical skills and became their own American success story.
In a documentary on The Carpenters from 1997 — coincidentally during the heart of Sampras’s prime, in general and at Wimbledon — the songwriter and musician Paul Williams had this to say about Karen and Richard:
“Somebody was talking about their sounds being vanilla at one point, but I went, ‘What an exquisite flavor of vanilla it is!’ They make great records. They took our songs and gave them a life.”
Pete Sampras really was The Carpenters of men’s tennis. His product was simple yet enormously successful, and though the outer product carried the appearance of being easy, so much work behind the scenes went into the creation of that silky-smooth product, the uncomplicated service motion with the same simple toss which was so hard for returners — even Agassi, an iconically great returner — to read. Sampras was that exquisite flavor of vanilla who had Federer’s low-stress playing style but also, like Rafael Nadal, won a major before turning 20 and captured most of the significant matches against the foremost rivals of his time.
Strawberries and cream might be the ultimate Wimbledon dish, but I prefer an exquisitely flavored vanilla milkshake in honor of Pistol Pete.
The Sampras serve, like a Carpenters smash hit, won millions of dollars; achieved eternal global fame; and went down oh-so-smooth and easy.