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

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.

Calendar of the court: The six seasons of the tennis year

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

On court with Pete Sampras
On court with Pete Sampras


    On court with Pete Sampras


On court with Pete Sampras 08:03
Pete Sampras on the state of U.S. tennis
Pete Sampras on the state of U.S. tennis


    Pete Sampras on the state of U.S. tennis


Pete Sampras on the state of U.S. tennis 00:16
Sampras demonstrates his signature shot
Sampras demonstrates his signature shot


    Sampras demonstrates his signature shot


Sampras demonstrates his signature shot 00:30

"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.

Goran Ivanisevic: Wimbledon good and bad
Goran Ivanisevic: Wimbledon good and bad


    Goran Ivanisevic: Wimbledon good and bad


Goran Ivanisevic: Wimbledon good and bad 02:31
Keeping Wimbledon's grass green
Keeping Wimbledon's grass green


    Keeping Wimbledon's grass green


Keeping Wimbledon's grass green 03:27

"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."


    • Rafael Nadal of Spain watches the ball in his match against Martin Klizan of Slovakia during during day seven of the China Open at the National Tennis Center on October 3, 2014 in Beijing, China.

      What does 2015 hold for Rafa?

      Rafael Nadal's body might be giving him a few problems, but his mind remains as strong as ever. Will the Spaniard add to his haul of 14 grand slam titles?
    • LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 17: Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and his long time girlfriend Kim Sears arrive at Buckingham Palace on October 17, in London, England. Murray will become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and receive his medal from the Duke of Cambridge. (Photo by John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

      Love game: Andy Murray to tie knot

      The Scot has served up a few changes to his support team in 2014 but there's one person who isn't going anywhere -- his new fiancée Kim Sears.
    • Despite being forced to retire at the age of 24 due to health problems, Lacoste remained in the game and went on start the "Lacoste" brand in 1933, which specialised in tennis products. The inspiration for the company's logo came from his nickname as a player, "le crocodile."

      'Crocodile' who broke all the rules

      His distinctive crocodile logo is seen on clothing all over the world, but Rene Lacoste also left a lasting legacy in the development of tennis.
    • Serena Williams of the US holds the US Open trophy after defeating Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during their US Open 2014 women's singles finals match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Center September 7, 2014 in New York. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

      Serena savors U.S. Open win

      Serena Williams is without peer in the modern women's game and now she is on a par with two American tennis legends from the past.
    • American tennis player and golfer Althea Gibson (right) receives a kiss from compatriot Darlene Hard, whom she beat in two sets to become the first black woman to win the Women's Singles Finals at Wimbledon.

      The amazing life of Althea Gibson

      Over the course of her remarkable life, Althea Gibson was many things to many people -- but it was tennis where she really left her mark.
    • Courting couple at match point

      "I didn't cry once when I practiced in front of the mirror," says Martin Emmrich. But the nerves kicked in when he got down on one knee on court.
    • LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 03: Tennis / Frauen: Wimbledon 2004, London; Finale; Siegerin Maria SHARAPOVA / RUS 03.07.04. (Photo by Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images)

      'Baby' Sharapova's big moment

      It's 10 years since a teenage Maria Sharapova became the darling of Wimbledon's hallowed Center Court, launching herself as a star.
    • 'Swiss Miss' follows mom's lead

      Five-time grand slam champion Martina Hingis has followed her mom into a coaching role, setting up a new tennis academy in Barcelona, Spain.