Pete Sampras captivated tennis fans worldwide when he captured his maiden Grand Slam title at the 1990 US Open. At age 19, the big-serving American became the youngest men’s singles champion in tournament history, a record which still holds today, and found himself thrust into the spotlight.
Although Sampras appeared to handle the increased expectations well, he reflected on the moment 30 years later and said he wasn’t ready for it as an introverted teenager.
“I struggled off court being around people, the media, the attention… I just struggled for the next six or eight months,” Sampras told Tim Henman in the latest edition of ATP Champions Tour: Legends Live. “It was a tough adjustment for me… I’ve won the US Open and I’m recognised around the world. I wasn’t ready for it. I was 19 and it takes time to become more secure in your game or even who you are as a person. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I won the Open. It was a great moment. But it was a little too soon.”
Sampras arrived in New York with two titles that year in Philadelphia and Manchester, along with several other deep runs that contributed to his FedEx ATP Ranking rising in eight months from No. 69 to No. 12. Although he had a pair of Top 10 wins to his name, Sampras had yet to show he could beat the world’s best players on the biggest stages.
“I was pretty young at the time. I was only a pro for a couple of years and was sort of a dark horse,” Sampras said. “I was just trying to make the second week. I’m not looking to win it… The mindset was that I had nothing to lose. I just went out there and played great tennis.”
Sampras made headlines by taking out World No. 6 Thomas Muster for his first Grand Slam quarter-final, but he was far from done. He stunned three-time US Open champion Ivan Lendl in the last eight, then defeated John McEnroe in the semi-finals and Andre Agassi in the championship match.
It was the start of Sampras’ love affair with New York. He won the tournament four more times (1993, 1995-1996, 2002), fittingly playing his last professional match against Agassi in the 2002 US Open final.
”I won that match against Ivan and everything changed… For those two weeks, I just got in the zone,” Sampras said. “I developed this 125mph serve down the middle and was painting the lines, trying to get into the net and serving-and-volleying. I can’t explain it.”