“It wasn’t fun.”
Pete Sampras knows what it takes to be No 1 in the world. The 14-time Grand Slam champion spent 286 weeks on top of the ATP rankings, the third highest total of all time behind Roger Federer (310) and Novak Djokovic (347). He also finished as year-end No 1 for six seasons in a row from 1993-1998. That was a record for most year-end No 1 finishes until Djokovic surpassed it this month with his seventh year-end No 1 trophy.
But which is the bigger achievement – Sampras’ six in a row or Djokovic’s seven, spread over the last decade?
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‘My biggest achievement’
Former British No 1s Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski were split when they discussed the issue during Djokovic’s opening-round win over Casper Ruud at the ATP Finals. Rusedski argued that losing the No 1 ranking and then getting back it was more impressive, especially considering the strength of competition with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray also battling for top spot. Henman said he was swayed by the consistency and longevity of Sampras’ six in a row.
Before considering the merits of each achievement, it’s worth noting how significant the year-end No 1 ranking is to players. While often careers are measured by titles and Grand Slams, finishing the season as the best in the world holds weight among the players.
“I look back on my career and I did a lot of great things, won a lot of majors,” said Sampras. “But staying No 1 all those years I think was my biggest achievement.”
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Lifting the year-end No 1 trophy is comparable to winning the league in football. It’s about consistency and longevity, rather than being the best for one week of the year. “In the league every game you have to stay there,” explained Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola a few years ago when comparing winning the Premier League and the Champions League. “You cannot imagine. It is every three days for our side and everybody else. It is the most difficult thing.”
The difficulty of finishing as year-end No 1 is demonstrated by the select group that have done it. In the last 49 years, only 26 male players have been ranked world No 1, and just 17 have finished as year-end No 1. Many of the greats have only managed it on one occasion, including Andre Agassi, Andy Murray and Mats Wilander, while Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg both finished year-end No 1 on just two occasions.
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Djokovic’s record is undoubtedly enhanced by the fact he has achieved the feat in the era of Federer, Nadal and Murray. Having first finished as year-end No 1 in 2011, Djokovic reclaimed the prize from Nadal, then from Murray, and then again from Nadal on two more occasions. His longest consecutive run as year-end No 1 is two seasons in a row. That doesn’t stand against the consistency that Sampras’ showed with six years in a row, but the level of competition also doesn’t compare.
Sampras finished as year-end No 1 for the first time in 1993, pipping Michael Stich to the award despite losing to the German in the final of the season-ending ATP Finals. From then on he was mainly competing with Agassi and Becker for the year-end No 1 ranking. Both were great players, but neither were at their very best in the mid-90’s, aside from Agassi’s 1995 season, when he got to the top of the rankings for the first time and went on a career-best 26-match winning streak that ended with defeat to Sampras in the US Open final. Agassi was still No 1 after the match but only played one more tournament that season, losing in the last 16 in Essen, Germany, and Sampras reclaimed top spot on November 6. Agassi then fell away over the next couple of years while Becker was dealing with off-court issues and didn’t have the consistency at the majors to challenge for the No 1 ranking.
'It took a lot out of me'
But if Sampras’ didn’t have the same standard of consistent competition as Djokovic, he certainly had the same determination. Nobody else has managed six years in a row as year-end No 1 – Jimmy Connors held the previous record of five – and Sampras showed in 1998 how much the record meant to him. With Marcelo Rios close behind in the standings after the US Open, Sampras committed to a busy European schedule to try and earn more ranking points. Among the tournaments he entered was an indoor event in Vienna, which he won after entering on a wildcard that had been given to him by Becker. Sampras then clinched the year-end No 1 ranking at the ATP Finals after Rios withdrew due to a back injury.
“It felt great but it took a lot out of me emotionally,” Sampras said last year in a chat with Djokovic organised by the ATP. “Even the next few years, staying on top of the game year after year after year, it’s very hard to stay No 1 and do six years in a row.
“To be dominant and not just stay No 1 for six months but to really cement it. It’s very difficult. It’s one thing to get there and another thing to stay there.”
Djokovic said that he had “huge respect” for Sampras’ achievement of six years in a row.
Pete Sampras at the 1998 US Open
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“The amount of dedication you need to undergo in your life and the way you have to organise not just on the court but off the court is tremendous. I understand what Pete is talking about, not sleeping well, not eating well, having a funny stomach, maybe a little bit more of a difficult relationship with people around you. You care so much about it. Six years in a row I don’t know how you did it Pete, but huge respect for that.”
Djokovic’s achievement also deserves enormous respect. Even though he hasn’t managed to finish year-end No 1 on the same consistent basis as Sampras, he has been in the top three in the world for almost all of the last 11 years. And were it not for an incredible run by Murray in the second half of the 2016 season, Djokovic would likely have eight year-end No 1 titles rather than seven.
But he still hasn’t come close to six in a row – and when comparing Sampras’ six and Djokovic’s seven that has to count for something. Djokovic has broken a lot of records over the last few years, and will likely break even more, but as Sampras predicted in 1998, six in a row will be very difficult to top.
“It’s an ultimate achievement,” he said at the time. “It will probably never be broken. I’m trying to stay humble through all this, but the record speaks for itself. It’s a little overwhelming.”
Six or seven: Which is better?
Ultimately whether you go with Sampras or Djokovic depends on your view point and how you weight the different factors involved. Does the level of competition sway it to Djokovic? Or is the consistency of Sampras more impressive?
Both are amazing achievements and it seems unlikely that Sampras or Djokovic will have to worry about their respective records being broken for some time.
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