Was Pete Sampras the real GOAT? An eye-opening debate

Pete Sampras is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Retiring at just 32, he had already secured 14 Grand Slams and an unforgettable legacy.

Pete Sampras was born in 1971, turning pro at the age of 17 and winning his very first Grand Slam at the US Open just 2 years into his professional career. Upon his retirement in 2003, he had been deemed the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), leaving behind a world record of 14 Grand Slam titles and 64 ATP Tour titles to his name.

With a relatively short professional career of just 14 years, Pete Sampras secured 14 major titles, meaning he was winning on average at least one Grand Slam per year. In an era of many tennis greats, such as Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, winning even one Grand Slam was no easy feat for the young American.

Nevertheless, between the years of 1988 to 2002, it seemed that nothing could stop Sampras from shining bright in the world of tennis, and his records seemed to be untouchable. That is of course, until Roger Federer came along.

Roger Federer is largely considered the GOAT of tennis in today’s era, a title he has earned since surpassing Pete Sampras’ record in 2009 when the Swiss Maestro won his 15th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. Not only had Federer surpassed Sampras’ Grand Slam record with this win, but also his grass-court titles, securing a record-breaking 11th grass-court title to his name.

As Roger Federer continued to break down Pete Sampras’ career records, the likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had also joined the club, with the incredible Grand Slam and ATP Tour records set by Sampras being surpassed by today’s ‘Big 3’ of tennis. The question now comes down to this: was Pete Sampras surpassed by the Big 3, or by the new era?

There is no doubt that the 90s was a time where serve-and-volley was the optimal style of tennis, and Pete Sampras was the Maestro of this style. This is because the 90s was a time in which the courts had not yet been modified to support slower bouncing baseline plays, yet at the same time, tennis racquets had evolved from the old wooden kind to a more advanced model that facilitates more power and control.

Arguably, tennis in the 90s would have required a higher level of reaction-timing to counter the incredibly fast bounces produced by big serves and groundstrokes from high-tech racquets. Breaking your opponent’s serves would have been as difficult as ever, and holding your own serves was an absolute must to ensure victory.

Pete Sampras was quick to adapt to these conditions, and his serve-volley record was and still is coined as the greatest the game has ever seen. Naturally, Sampras was also a great returner and baseline player, as these were critical weapons for him to turn the tables on his opponents when he was at the receiving end.

Equipped with one of the most beautiful single-handed backhands in the game, and a unique arsenal of athletic abilities, Sampras was able to return a ball from anywhere on the court. His athleticism was only amplified when he was at the net, where his attacking and defensive volleys were simply out-of-this-world, rendering his opponents awe-struck by both his flawless volley-winners as well as his clutch volley-saves.

Not only did tennis in the 90s possibly require faster reactions, greater execution, and stronger defensive abilities, but it was also a time where players were at greater risk of sustaining career-changing injuries, due to the lower quality of medical technology compared to today. Pete Sampras may well have played for another decade if given the opportunity to undergo sophisticated knee and back surgeries as many of today’s top players have done.

To truly validate this debate for Sampras being the undisputed GOAT, it is important to remember that not only did he dominate tennis during the era of serve-volley, but also towards the late 90s, where courts had begun to change to a slower-paced baseline game. Pete Sampras demonstrated incredible baseline capabilities in the final years of his career, taking down baseline specialists such as Andre Agassi, even as late as 2002, where the serve-volley era was practically history.

Of the current Big 3, Roger Federer is most likely to win in a bout of serve-volley tennis, as he still incorporates this style to a small extent in his game today. However, it is clear that the current Big 3 would not have been able to adapt their current styles to the era of the early 90s, where relentless attacking was the way to go.

On the other hand, Pete Sampras demonstrated that he could play at a high level in both eras of tennis, even taking Roger Federer to a 5-set thriller in their only ever match in the 2001 fourth-round of Wimbledon, demonstrating his incredible ability to adapt to different court-speeds and surface-specialist opponents. Had Pete Sampras continued to play in his late 30s as Federer did, there is no telling how much more he would have accomplished in the new era of tennis.