The Best of the Rest: I think Sampras' Grand Slam record merits his membership in the elite 5 pantheon. If you can assume that everyone shows up for the Slams, and everyone knows that a good showing there is a ticket to endorsement city, then you can safely say that the winner of a Slam has taken on the best his/her opponents have to give. Yes, this buys into the premise that the opponents weren't that good, but as we have seen over and over again, any given player can catch lightning in a bottle for one tournament. Recall players like Stich, Courier, Chang, Noah and Kafelnikov who each had a run at greatness during times when more dominant players were at it (people often forget Courier won at Roland Garros twice and in Sydney twice). Critics complain that Sampras never won the French. Well, neither Connors nor McEnroe never won the Australian, and if there's ever a gimmee tournament, that's the one.
To rack up that number of trophies is an astounding achievement. The fact is most people don't want to give Sampras his due because he was dull, and he and Agassi never really got a great rivalry going as Agassi did sleepwalk through the middle 90s (as Eno points out). This is true, but it cannot take away from his achievements. The fact is we're more likely to enshrine with greatness those who not only won, but did it with elan. See: Bjorg, Mac, Connors, Becker (eventually Agassi, I'd warrant). We forget the boring ones, or downplay what they did, even though they were kicking the arse of everyone they came into contact with, see: Courier, Wilander (a slight stretch), Lendl, Edberg. I'm not saying all these guys are the absolute elite, but they all won more than one slam, and got into countless finals. Only the mythic Laver, who didn't play in many of the "open" tournaments yet still took home 11 Slams, can we unquestionably place at the top. But, if Sampras isn't within one or two slots of him, then it's beyond me. He may have been dull and reserved, but he was the player, above all others, who brought the game into the modern era. While his serve-and-volley techniques have become passe, his big serve, huge forehand, and range all are prevalent today. I didn't always enjoy his game, but I'll miss seeing him nonetheless.