Read & Watch: Remembering Sampras' Rise To No. 1... 25 Years On

ATPWorldTour.com speaks to the legendary American about life as the leading player in the ATP Rankings for 286 weeks

In the era of social media, access to the past can be instant and there’s now rarely a need to look through books on dusty shelves. So if curiosity gets the better of 12-year-old Ryan and 15-year-old Christian Sampras today, they can simply type ‘Pete Sampras’ online and see for themselves the commitment, will and drive of their father, an iconic figure in the sport of tennis. “They are now both interested in what I did, watching clips on YouTube, and seek my advice about what they need to do and how much commitment it takes,” Sampras told ATPWorldTour.com. “Ryan’s now 12, and at the stage where he must take his tennis more seriously if he is to get better.”

Today, 25 years ago, on 12 April 1993, the American throwback to a bygone era, reared on stories of the great Australians of the 1950s and 1960s, started his journey at No. 1 in the ATP Rankings. For much of Sampras’ career, his opponents weren’t just the likes of Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Patrick Rafter and Marcelo Rios — incidentally, four of the eight players who knocked him off the top spot during his 286 total weeks at the pinnacle of men's professional tennis — but the historic greats, such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson.

“Every kid says they'd like to be World No. 1 as a dream growing up, but you don’t really mean it,” said Sampras. “The goal for me was always to win Wimbledon, to be mentioned in the same breath as Laver and Rosewall, but being No. 1 was the icing on the cake... Staying at No. 1 was the hardest part. You need heart, mind and talent to be a No. 1 for years. You need the heart to win when you’re not playing your best. You need the mind to overcome challenges and a strong will that few possess. You really need the whole package. It doesn’t come so often, it’s really something the all-time greats – such as [Roger] Federer and [Rafael] Nadal – have.”

Initially, Sampras wondered if he’d been left behind in a talented generation of American players, including Agassi, Michael Chang and Courier, who had first risen to No. 1 in the ATP Rankings on 10 February 1992 and won four Grand Slam championship titles by the age of 22. But Sampras, with one major to his name at the 1990 US Open, used Courier as his yardstick. “With Jim doing well, I remember the general feeling of wanting that too,” Sampras told ATPWorldTour.com, 25 years on. “His success and performances opened my eyes to being the No. 1. He had matured earlier than me and pushed me to work harder. I first got comfortable being No. 3, No. 2, but then it became a case of, ‘Yes, I can do that. I’m ready to be No. 1.’”

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After Courier was upset by Jonathan Stark 6-4, 6-2 in the third round at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships, Sampras stepped out onto centre court at the Ariake Coliseum on 9 April 1993 knowing that a quarter-final victory over fellow American David Wheaton would guarantee him No. 1 in the ATP Rankings. Distracted by the prospect a couple of times during his 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory, en route to that week's Tokyo title (d. Brad Gilbert), it gave Sampras 3,591 points to Courier’s 3,563 points in the ATP Rankings. At 21 years and eight months, Sampras had become the fourth American at No. 1 — after Jimmy Connors (268 total weeks at No. 1), John McEnroe (170 weeks) and Courier (58 weeks) — and [at that time] was also the fourth youngest leader at the top of men’s professional tennis.

In the space of 12 calendar months, Sampras compiled an 80-16 match record, and seven titles from nine tour-level finals — including a runner-up finish at the 1992 US Open (l. to Stefan Edberg). While Sampras admitted getting to No. 1 in April 1993 was a “great achievement”, he wasn’t entirely happy. Sampras told ATPWorldTour.com, “I prepared to be No. 1 and when I got there, there was satisfaction, but it wasn’t until after I won Wimbledon (d. Courier) a few months later that I felt I deserved it. But certainly, after getting to No. 1, [my coach] Tim [Gullikson] and I felt that we could now push and work harder in order to win another major.”

Six days after Sampras first attained No. 1 in the ATP Rankings, the American hit 15 aces to beat defending champion Courier 6-3, 6-7(1), 7-6(2) over nearly three hours, in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district, for his fourth crown of 1993 (also Sydney, Miami and Tokyo). Thereafter, for all but three weeks of that season, Sampras held onto the No. 1 ranking and he set an ATP World Tour record by becoming the first player to serve more than 1,000 aces in a year.

“I didn’t feel the impact of being No. 1 immediately,” remembers Sampras, who went 85-13 and won eight titles — including Wimbledon and the US Open — in 1993. “It was only when I came to Wimbledon, when there was the expectation that I could win a major or a big title that I felt that there really was an ‘X’ on my chest. It was in London that I realised I had the mind, the will and heart to be No. 1. You conduct more interviews and you really figure out what it means to be No. 1, how you’re going to go about holding onto it. In the end, it’s about winning matches and big tournaments.”

Between 19 April 1993 to 19 November 2000, Sampras spent 11 different stints at No. 1 – 12 April-22 August 1993 (19 weeks), 13 September 1993-9 April 1995 (85 weeks), 6 April 1995-28 January 1996 (12 weeks), 19 February-10 March 1996 (three weeks), 15 April 1996-29 March 1998 (102 weeks), 27 April-9 August 1998 (15 weeks), 24 August 1998-14 March 1999 (29 weeks), 29 March-2 May 1999 (five weeks), 14 June-4 July 1999 (three weeks), 2 August-12 September 1999 (six weeks) and 11 September-19 November 2000 (10 weeks).

“It was comfortable being No. 1,” Sampras told ATPWorldTour.com. “I knew what I needed to sacrifice and worked really hard to be there for six straight year-end No. 1 finishes [1993-98]. There were times when I lost it to Agassi, Rafter or Rios, but it came down to where I was in December, not February. I would keep tabs on results and I knew I could always push in March, play extra tournaments and pick up points here and there.

“The one time I really worked hard to be No. 1 was in 1998, when I lost and won No. 1 a few times. I played a couple of extra weeks in Europe in order to break Jimmy Connors’ mark of five straight year-end No. 1s, a record that still means a lot to me. When I lost the top spot in November 2000, I wasn’t sad by any means. I had nothing to prove and I was okay with being No. 2 or No. 3. It took a lot of energy, the will and drive to maintain the ranking, and to win a lot of matches. But perhaps being No. 1 for so long also shortened my career.”

Sampras’ record of 286 weeks at No. 1 stood for almost 12 years until 16 July 2012, when Federer broke the mark. The Swiss superstar spent his 308th week in the top spot as recently as 1 April this year. Sampras ultimately retired after winning the 2002 US Open, his 14th major crown, a haul that has been bettered by Federer (with his sixth Wimbledon title in July 2009) and current No. 1 Rafael Nadal (with his 10th Roland Garros crown in June 2017).

On 26 November 1998, the American was eating pasta in his Hanover hotel, ahead of the 1998 Nitto ATP Finals, when he learned that he had attained the milestone of six straight year-end No. 1 finishes (1993-98). That achievement still stands.

LEADING NUMBER ONES
A list of leading players for most weeks and year-end finishes at No. 1 in the history of the ATP Rankings (since 1973):

Player Total Weeks At No. 1 Year-End No. 1
1) Roger Federer (SUI) 308 5 (2004-07, 09)
2) Pete Sampras (USA) 286 6 (1993-98)
3) Ivan Lendl (CZE/USA) 270 4 (1985-87, 89)
4) Jimmy Connors (USA) 268 5 (1974-78)
5) Novak Djokovic (SRB) 223 4 (2011-12, 14-15)
6) John McEnroe (USA) 170 4 (1981-84)
7) Rafael Nadal (ESP) 169* 4 (2008, 10, 13, 17)

* Current World No. 1 (as of 9 April 2018)