Back in the late 1990’s, I looked forward each February to attending the Sybase Open men’s tennis tournament at HP Pavilion in San Jose, California. Interestingly enough, the Sybase (now the SAP Open) is the second oldest tournament in the United States having been played in various Northern California locations since 1889. Sybase was the event’s sponsor from 1994-2001.
It was at an early evening reception a few days prior to this tournament’s start that I met one of the greatest tennis players of all-time, Pete Sampras. Sampras, who played his last top-level tournament in 2002, was the year-end World No. 1 for six consecutive years (1993–1998), a record for the open era. His seven Wimbledon singles championships is a record shared with William Renshaw. He spent 286 weeks at number 1, the most of any player. His five US Open singles titles is an open-era record shared with former World No. 1 players Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer. He won five ATP World Tour Finals, a record shared with Ivan Lendl and Federer. Sampras is the last American male to win Wimbledon (2000) and ATP World Tour Finals (1999).
When I had the opportunity to attend this invitation only reception, I immediately said yes I want to go. At the time, Sampras was clearly the best tennis player in the world. It was a chance to say hello and possibly get a photo with a sure-to-be sports legend. When I arrived at San Jose’s HP Pavilion, I quickly found my way to the reception. It was a casual, friendly get-together for sponsors of the event. It didn’t take long to find Sampras. Guests were hovering around him as he politely signed autographs. For such a huge sports superstar, he seemed very down to earth, friendly, not arrogant in any way. Wearing faded jeans and a checkered shirt, Sampras said he looked forward to this tournament and that he was feeling at the top of his game. When I asked to take a photo with him, he didn’t hesitate and was very friendly. You could not help rooting for him and I did as he began Sybase Open play a few days later.
What legendary matches we watched in those days as both Sampras and his rival Andre Agassi both played in the tournament. Sampras made the Sybase Open final three consecutive years, 1996-1998. In 1996, Sampras faced Agassi in the Sybase Open final and won in two straight sets, 6-2, 6-3. In 1997, he beat the United Kingdom’s Greg Rusedski, and in 1998 Agassi got revenge beating Sampras 6-2, 6-4. Meeting a sports icon is always special, but when the sports great is personable and friendly as Sampras was, it’s even better.