ESPN Tennis: Pete Sampras
May, 8, 2014
By Matt Wilansky | ESPN.com
When a superstar talks about another superstar and compares said superstar to yet another superstar, it creates enough buzz to call pest control.
Such was the case when Andre Agassi, in a recent interview with Singapore newspaper Straits Times, endorsed Rafael Nadal, not Roger Federer, as the greatest of all time.
First, kudos to Agassi for actually having a steadfast opinion and not going all, um, Switzerland on us.
This debate, Rafa versus Fed, has raged on for years, perhaps over a half a decade. You could make the argument that no two players in any sport have ever been pinned against each other in a GOAT debate as much as these two fellows, at least in recent times. For the purposes of this article, let’s save this duel for another time.
I'm actually wondering if there are any compelling arguments to be made that Andre Agassi was a greater tennis player than Pete Sampras.
To the board we go:
The Case For Agassi
• A career Grand Slam: And Agassi did it in an era when no one was winning on all surfaces, not even Sampras. Before Agassi, the last player to successfully wend his way to the trophy table at all four majors was Rod Laver, a feat he completed in 1962, when he actually pulled off the even rarer season Slam. Today, Federer and Nadal both have a career Slam, and Novak Djokovic is a French Open title away from joining this elite group. And it must be noted that Agassi won an Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, as well, which gives him the Golden Slam.
• Longevity: Agassi played until he was 36 years old. Today, sticking around on tour into your 30s is more commonplace for a variety of reasons, but in the Agassi era, it was an aberration. Not only was Agassi a viable member of the tour at that dotage, but he was a successful one, too, making it to the US Open final a year earlier, at 35 years old. Agassi won the 2001 and 2003 Aussie Opens after turning 30. Sampras, who at 31, won the US Open in 2001 after a couple of crestfallen years and then called it quits.
• His getup: One look at Agassi and he was a sponsorship deal waiting to happen. Loud clothes, big hair, just all-around ostentatious attire with an equally large charisma. He perhaps made the tabloids more than he wanted to, whether it was his romantic link to Barbra Streisand or marriage to Brooke Shields or his positive test for crystal meth, which he revealed in his autobiography “Open.” Still, the man made headlines compared with Sampras, who could double for plain Jane in any movie. And that really has nothing to do with anything in comparing their on-court credentials, but still …
The Case For Sampras
• Success against multiple generations: When Sampras came along and won the US Open in 1990, guys such as Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg were still very much five-star players. Sampras had winning records against them all, young and old. He was 12-7 versus Becker, 8-6 versus Edberg, 5-3 versus Ivan Lendl, and on and on. Then it was on to the next era: 12-6 versus Goran Ivanisevic, 12-4 versus Patrick Rafter, 11-2 versus Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 6-1 versus Tim Henman, and on and on. But against his main rival, Agassi, Sampras won 20 of his 34 matches, simply dominating him in nearly every event they played, except Australia. They played in five Slam finals with Sampras winning four.
• Time accrued as No. 1 player: Before Fed came along, Sampras set a record for the longest stint as the world’s top player, sitting atop the field for 286 weeks. Sampras finished the year as the No. 1 player on six different occasions, which to date is a record. Agassi reached the top ranking for 101 total weeks.
• Slam success: Sampras won 14 majors, six more than Agassi. That in and of itself could end this contrived debate without saying a word more. So we’ll leave it at that.
Given Sampras’ overall body of work, including his Slam titles, stint at No. 1 and dominance over Agassi, it’s pretty clear who the more accomplished player was. But it’s fun to talk about, no?