Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The Best: Allen Barra writes in the WSJ that Pete Sampras may be the most dominant athlete of the past quarter century:
Future sports historians, when looking back on the last 25 years of the 20th century, will probably name Tiger Woods over Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretsky and Lance Armstrong as the most dominant athlete of the era. In doing so, they will leave themselves vulnerable to those who would take up the case for Pete Sampras.

Mr. Sampras will need no future historians to make his case as the greatest tennis player of our time. His career credentials--the 14 Grand Slam singles championships; the 63-7 record in Wimbledon and seven Wimbledon titles in eight years; the 71-9 record at the U.S. Open with 87 consecutive service games won there; the six straight seasons of being ranked No. 1--do that admirably.

I bet Flyer has a take on this too. With a brief nod of the head to Rod Laver, who sat out several prime seasons, Barra points to Sampras's domination in slam events. This is true enough, but it deserves some context. Despite Barra's implication about the quality of the competition Sampras faced ("At the time when Pete was at his best, there were more good players coming into the game from all over the world than at any previous time in tennis history," he quotes Pete's coach Paul Annacone as saying), it's clearly not true. Several of Pete's best years were men's-game doldrums. Pete's acknowledged rival, Andre, seemed barely conscious for several of those years. Beyond Andre, who else was there as a consistent threat in a slam or elsewhere in the mid-late 90s? Meanwhile, the man with far and away the most tour wins, Jimmy Connors, played during an era that makes Annacone's claim on the talent pool ridiculous.

As for the Tiger Woods comparison, I see Pete's dominance in much the same way as Tiger's: pace Annacone, both dominated at a time when no one was stepping up to the challenge. Both had a reputation for cold, consistent play that invoked the "Who's going to lose to him this week?" mantra. As I said recently, Pete's one of the greats, but is it any wonder that the boom in women's tennis coincided with a decline in men's?

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