As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the US Open, we look back at the 50 champions who have left an indelible mark on this inimitable event.
Pete Sampras came of age at the US Open. He won his first Grand Slam title at the Open as a teen, and he closed out of his career in Flushing Meadows, as well, surging from the 17th seed to claim a fifth championship in what would prove to be his final professional match.
In between, the laconic Californian established himself as one of the best ever to have played the game, and his home-country Slam served as the defining tournament in his Hall of Fame career.
The moments are indelible. At 19, he went on a run for the ages, snapping Ivan Lendl’s streak of eight consecutive US Open finals with a five-set quarterfinal upset, then following that up with victories over John McEnroe and his fellow wunderkind, Andre Agassi, to become the youngest US Open men’s singles champion in tournament history.
Two years later, in 1992, Sampras was back in the final. But this time he was brushed aside in four sets by Stefan Edberg in what Sampras has called the most important match of his career. The six-time year-end No. 1 vowed never to let a similar opportunity pass him by again, and he held true to his word. He blitzed the draw to win a second US Open title in 1993, dropping just two sets in the process, and hoisted the trophy again in 1995 and 1996, the latter of which featured perhaps Sampras’ most famous Open moment – becoming sick on the court but rallying to outlast Alex Corretja in a gutsy five-set quarterfinal.
By the turn of the century, Sampras was no longer unbeatable. Yet in showing his age, he became more relatable, which endeared him to the New York faithful. He was never as flashy as his longtime rival Agassi, never outspoken. Tennis aficionados did not fawn over his game, which was more utilitarian than artistic. But what Sampras delivered was sustained excellence, the beauty witnessed in the results, in his near-magical ability to summon the one break of serve when he needed it, to conjure the second-serve ace when it was most required.
And so he continued to soar, if not quite as high. He was clipped by Patrick Rafter in the 1998 semifinals, by Marat Safin in the 2000 final and again by Lleyton Hewitt in the 2001 title match. He missed the 1999 event due to injury.
In 2002, Sampras arrived in Flushing having not won a tournament since Wimbledon in 2000, his ranking having fallen to No. 17 in the world. But this was still the US Open, still his place to shine. He won his first two matches easily, then edged Greg Rusedski in five sets in the third round, upset No. 3 Tommy Haas in the fourth and knocked off his heir-apparent Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals.
Suddenly, he was back in a familiar place: Finals Weekend. An overmatched Sjeng Schalken was dispatched in straight sets in the semis, earning Sampras a place in the final, once again against Agassi. A year prior, they played what was their greatest-ever match, a four-set win for Sampras that featured not one break of serve. In the course of their careers, Sampras and Agassi met 34 times, with Sampras winning 20. This would be their fourth meeting at the Open, their third in the final – amazingly, 12 years after their mutual breakthrough – and the result was the same in all four: a victory for Sampras.
This one, somehow, felt different, an air that they may not have this opportunity again. So the two men lingered at the net, and Sampras basked just a touch longer in the glow of his then-record 14th Grand Slam singles triumph and his record-tying fifth at the Open. He took the rest of that season off, and again the beginning of the next. Soon, it became clear that his 2002 Open victory would be his final professional achievement.
True to form, Sampras made a quiet announcement of his retirement. He returned to the 2003 US Open to make it official, but did not stay until the event’s end, ceding the stage to Roddick’s major triumph two weeks later. Greatness doesn’t always need to make a statement. Sometimes its legend speaks loud enough.
50 Fact: Sampras holds some of the most significant records in US Open history. He is the youngest man to win the event since its inception in 1881, is tied with Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer for most men’s singles titles in the Open era (five), is tied with Ivan Lendl for the most US Open singles finals in the Open era (eight), and is the only man in the Open era to have won the singles title in his teens, 20s and 30s.