Greatness Revisited: Djokovic Reflects On Hero Sampras
Steve Flink's new book on American legend
The following is an excerpt from Steve Flink’s new book ‘Pete Sampras Greatness Revisited’, which will be officially released on 1 September. Flink reflects on Pete’s sparkling career and his extraordinary domination of the 1990s, writing extensively about the American's 14 major titles and his record six year-end finishes at No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. The author interviewed Sampras for many hours, but also spoke with more than 20 other notable individuals in the game including Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Goran Ivanisevic, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Patrick Rafter and Novak Djokovic. He interviewed coaches Paul Annacone, Tom Gullikson and Robert Lansdorp. This portrait of Sampras reaffirms why he was one of the central figures in the history of tennis and what set him apart as a champion, who, in many ways, was larger than the game he played.
In this excerpt, Flink writes about Sampras’ first Wimbledon title in 1993 and the impression it left on Novak Djokovic, who watched on television at home.
The 1993 Wimbledon final between Pete Sampras and Jim Courier took place on a stiflingly hot day. Sampras — much like Novak Djokovic in later years — was uncomfortable in the extreme heat. He could play through it with his own will and stout heart, but it was a tougher task. The heat complicated his challenge against Courier, a fighter through and through with astounding physicality.
Watching the match from his home nation in Serbia was a six-year-old Djokovic, a kid with a large imagination and even a sense of destiny about his future in the sport.
Djokovic recalled when he spoke to me for my book ‘Pete Sampras — Greatness Revisited’, “I was six and watching Pete play this Wimbledon final. The first video image of professional tennis I had was Pete winning this final over Courier in 93’. I was so amazed with his skills and his composure and the whole setting of watching him play on the most sacred court of the sport. I just fell in love with everything. When you are that young, you believe in everything. You live through your dreams and your dreams are your reality. You have that moment of, let’s say, a revelation when you just know that one day it is going to be you holding that trophy.”
Elaborating on that theme, Djokovic said, “I really felt that day watching Pete that it was kind of a higher power instilled in me. I just kind of received that information from above. It is just one of those things that you can’t explain. You just feel it and know it deep inside. But for me, Pete was the guy. I was actually doing my impersonations from very early stages of my tennis career and by the time I was seven, a year after the Wimbledon final Pete played against Courier, I started impersonating the top players and taking the best shots from each one of the top guys. But with Pete, even though our tennis styles were quite different, I still looked at him as my idol. And what impressed me the most about watching him that day in the Wimbledon 93’ final — and later on — was his ability to stay present and stay calm at the most decisive moments, to be mentally tough when it matters the most. That is what separates him as one of the greatest tennis players ever to hold a racquet.”
Djokovic came away from observing Sampras beat Courier in that Wimbledon final of 1993 with a lasting admiration for his hero. He explained, “I was his big fan. I remember when my Dad and I would watch tennis, he would cheer for Agassi and Courier even though he liked Pete more at the time. That was because of me and my feelings. He was purposefully cheering for Agassi and Courier so he could provoke me and trigger me. In those days especially, I was such an avid fan of Pete and I kept following his results. When I got the chance to hit a few balls with him at Indian Wells in 2010 it was amazing when I saw him coming my way because I felt a flashback of my entire childhood and all those moments of supporting him and looking up to him. Here was my idol coming up to me, shaking my hand and acknowledging me.”
With the young Djokovic sitting in front of a television screen watching, Sampras and Courier went out onto the Centre Court on the balmy afternoon of July 4, 1993 and both men were ready for the appointment. It was a high-quality contest as Sampras won the most important tournament in all of tennis for the first time, prevailing 7-6(3), 7-6(6), 3-6, 6-3. He had at long last collected a second major title, moving past his anxiety to reward himself handsomely with a hard-earned triumph that would put him into a different sphere of the sport from that point forward.
Pete Sampras Greatness Revisited can be ordered on Amazon.