Sampras: I hated (and loved) Wimbledon

Story highlights

Pete Sampras admits he "hated" playing on Wimbledon's grass in his early years

American legend took time to adapt to the bounce of the London surface

Sampras won seven titles from 1993-2000 as he dominated at SW19

Roger Federer is still bidding to equal the men's record held by Sampras

CNN  — 

Wimbledon holds a special place in the tennis calendar, an elegant tournament rich with tradition, style and sporting majesty.

The modern era of the men’s game there has been defined by the legacy of Pete Sampras, who won a record seven titles in eight years.

However, it was not exactly love at first sight for the confident young American, who – despite winning his first grand slam at the age of 19 – suffered early exits in his first three visits to the famous grass-court venue.

“I didn’t like grass at all and when people ask me about grass and when I first went over there, I tell them I hated Wimbledon. I hated the surface,” he told CNN.

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But, speaking to Open Court’s Pat Cash, a fellow Wimbledon champion, Sampras quickly qualified his remarks.

“I loved Wimbledon and what it meant, but the surface felt uncomfortable. I just didn’t like it, I was a hard-court guy, a Californian kid.

“On hard courts the ball is going to be just there, but with grass you have to adjust, so the first two, three years I had to adjust and came out with a bad attitude.”

Sampras paid tribute to his former coach Tim Gullikson, who tragically lost his life to brain cancer in 1996.

The ‘owner’ of Wimbledon

“He helped me. I had these long swings, and he shortened them up and told me my attitude had to be more positive at Wimbledon,” the 40-year-old recalled.

The fruits of their labors came in 1992 when Sampras advanced to the semifinals before being beaten by big-serving Croatian Goran Ivanisevic, who subsequently lost to Andre Agassi in the final .

Success was just around the corner the following year.

“Mentally I felt better. By ’92 I felt really comfortable, I was the owner of the place for the next seven years.”

Only a quarterfinal defeat to eventual winner Richard Kracijek in 1996 interrupted an incredible run which saw Sampras claim seven of the next eight Wimbledon crowns.

His 1999 victory in the final over Agassi in straight sets was rated one of his best performances as he demolished his arch-rival.

“That sixth Wimbledon (title) against Andre I got in the zone,” he said.

“I felt if I was serving well, I would do well, get into the net, be aggressive. It was bit more high risk, I was okay with that.”

In 2001, Sampras was beaten in the fourth round by a youthful Roger Federer as he sought an eighth Wimbledon title, and he retired the following year after winning the U.S. Open in fairytale fashion.

He is still involved in tennis and plays the occasional exhibition or seniors Champions Tour event, but spends most of his time with his wife Bridgette Wilson and their two children at his home in California.

Federer domination

Federer began his era of domination in 2003, but the 16-time grand slam champion is still one short of the Wimbledon record held by Sampras – whose tally is matched only by the seven won by Britain’s William Renshaw in the tournament’s formative years of the 1880s.

Sampras believes that the Swiss maestro can still claim another, but he may struggle with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic – who he was to face in Friday’s semifinals – and Rafael Nadal in their prime.

“Roger needs to find a way to be creative, stick to his game and serve and volley now and again,” Sampras said.

“He’s won 16 majors in a certain way, he’s not going to change now.”

The task of giving Federer advice falls to his current coach Paul Annacone, who also guided Sampras in the latter part of his career.

The American acknowledges the difference in their playing styles but told CNN that both shared a key ingredient to success.

“Both these guys are superstars in regards to handling pressure,” Annacone said.

Sampras accepts that his style of big serving and volleying at Wimbledon is from a bygone era, and he regrets its passing.

“It’s sad to see Wimbledon today with the players staying back, with the balls being different, but grass is grass – you can still get into the net but it’s a lost art, and it’s unfortunate.”