Tennis: Smooth stylist Sampras ascends throne: Courier usurped as compatriot takes over as the 11th men's world No 1 in ATP history

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PETE SAMPRAS will gain membership of one of sport's most exclusive clubs on Monday as only the 11th male player to become the world No 1 since computer rankings began 20 years ago. The lean American is guaranteed to supplant his compatriot, Jim Courier, at the head of the IBM / ATP Tour after advancing to the semi-finals of the Japan Open yesterday.

It has taken courage as well as superior shot-making for Sampras to raise himself to the top. His progress has been hampered by shin problems which manifest themselves during prolonged periods playing on the rubberised concrete courts favoured in the United States and Australia. Competing on such a court in Tokyo this week, he secured the No 1 position by defeating David Wheaton in the quarter-finals after Courier, the defending champion, had lost to another American, Jonathan Stark, in the third round.

Sampras, at 21 years and eight months, is the fourth youngest No 1. He must trust that the achievement sits more comfortably than his one Grand Slam triumph. The youngest winner of the United States men's singles title at 19 in 1990, Sampras enraged the veteran Jimmy Connors at Flushing Meadow the following year by describing a quarter-final defeat by Courier as 'a monkey off my back'.

A reflective Sampras said that his game was not mature enough to absorb such spectacular early success - 'I just got hot for a couple of weeks' - though he followed consecutive victories against Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi at the 1990 US Open by pin-pointing his serve to win dollars 2m at the inaugural Grand Slam Cup in Munich three months later and won the ATP Tour title in 1991.

Sampras, who as a youngster studied tapes of Rod Laver, is a classical exponent of serve and volley, rivalling Stefan Edberg as the smoothest stylist in the game. The American's first serve is appreciably faster than the Swede's, but he does not have the variation of Edberg's kicking second serve. What he does seem to have in common with Edberg is an even temperament, an ambivalence towards fame and a fragility of confidence that cost the Swede dearly during his early days on the tour.

Edberg defeated Sampras in four sets in the final of last year's US Open, and in January Sampras lost to the Swede in the semi-finals of the Australian Open after leading 4-0 in the first set and 5-2 in the third.

The worst experience of Sampras's career was his Davis Cup debut in the 1991 final against France in Lyon. The French, inspired by their non-playing captain, Yannick Noah, surpassed expectations, and Sampras was overwhelmed, first by the occasion and then by his opponents.

Fred Perry and Donald Budge nevertheless predicated that Sampras was a future Wimbledon champion after the Californian Greek-American (his description) won his first tour title in Philadelphia in 1990. Sampras considers he needs to improve his return of serve if he is to win the premier championship, as was evident against Goran Ivanisevic in the semi-finals last summer. Time is on his side.

Andre Agassi and Ivan Lendl, the top seeds, succumbed to straight-sets defeats in the quarter-finals of the Conde de Godo men's tournament in Barcelona yesterday. Agassi, seeded No 1, fell 6-3, 6-1 to Spain's Sergi Bruguera while his fellow American, the second-seeded Lendl, was beaten 7-6, 6-2 by Andrei Medvedev, of Ukraine.

----------------------------------------------------------------- The World Number Ones ----------------------------------------------------------------- First Total No 1 weeks I Nastase (Rom) Aug 1973 40 J Newcombe (Aus) June 1974 8 J Connors (US) July 1974 268 B Borg (Swe) Aug 1977 108 J McEnroe (US) Mar 1980 170 I Lendl (Cz) Feb 1983 270 M Wilander (Swe) Sept 1988 20 S Edberg (Swe) Aug 1990 72 B Becker (Ger) Jan 1991 12 J Courier (US) Feb 1992 55 P Sampras (US) Apr 1993 - -----------------------------------------------------------------