“Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited” Shares The Champion’s Story By Steve Flink - UBITENNIS
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“Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited” Shares The Champion’s Story By Steve Flink

At 19, Pete Sampras won the first of 14 Grand Slam titles at the US Open. He closed his illustrious career claiming his final major in New York, the city where it had all began. Over the years, a library’s worth of stories have been written about him, but none compare to “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. In the book, renowned tennis journalist Steve Flink, in recognition of the thirtieth anniversary of Sampras’ initial triumph, offers a unique overview of the man that few know – The Real Pete Sampras.




Pete Sampras stunned the tennis world when he won the US Open singles title as a 19-year-old in 1990. In essence, an unknown became known and – borrowing from Frank Sinatra – reached the “top of the heap…” in New York. Twelve years later, he took full advantage of the opportunity in that same setting to bring the curtain down on his extraordinary career. At 31, he made a final entry in the record book when he won his fourteenth major championship in storybook fashion… It seemed as if it had come full circle… To once again quote Sinatra, with a slight alteration, “It brought an end to a very good career”. 


(At the 2003 US Open, after having not played another tournament since the triumph, he fittingly took a final bow where it all had begun and officially retired.) 

In “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”, Steve Flink paints a portrait as if he were Claude Monet, who saw the reality of the world and made it more beautiful. The acclaimed Impressionist relied on the eyes of the viewer to mix the colors he used for his captivating landscapes, many of which he painted in his Giverny garden. Flink, the 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, uses words similar to the way Monet utilized his palette to create an understanding of who Sampras is and more important, a genuine feeling for him as a player and an individual that many watched but very few really knew.

Sampras’ birthday is August 12, 1971. He joined the pro ranks at Indian Wells in 1988, five months before he turned 17. Early on, his talent had been widely recognized, but, because he was shy, he didn’t really burst on the scene. Actually, he never sought attention and he certainly wasn’t loquacious. With Rod Laver as his model and Wimbledon as his goal,  he lived by the motto – I let my racquet do the talking. As a result, many tennis aficionados knew him only based on his tournament results. Otherwise, he was nearly invisible. 

Flink, who has a photographic recall of points and matches played, travels through Sampras’ record setting; from New York and significant stops in between and then back to New York – from his first major to his last. The easy to read writing style weaves facts and observations smoothly, with no apparent seams in the story’s fabric. The author is so skilled that he makes the reader feel as if he/she is fortunate enough to be sitting in the room and listening to conversations between Steve and Pete as they discuss details gleaned from his Grand Slam competitive triumphs, the successes that were realized at ATP Year-End Championships and his most cherished accomplishment – finishing No. 1 in the world for six straight years – a record that may never be broken.

Every tennis “story about…” features a list of accomplishments and praise of the subject by former opponents and those who played prior to the individual’s time in the limelight. For the most part, the supporting quotes can be summarized in driving onto a dead-end street fashion – “Good player, Good guy”. Because of Flink’s relationship with current and former players, he can use a masterful variety of insights about Sampras to make the story compelling. He collects them from the likes of Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, rivals that date back to their shared junior days. Mats Wilander, Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic add to the richness of the canvas. So do the thoughts offered by Billie Jean King, Mary Carillo, Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin. Keeping with the tennis’ hierarchy parade, Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl make some revealing assessments, too. John McEnroe is quoted and naturally lives up to his being “ever-so-candid” by reputation. Todd Martin, a circuit opponent, who is now the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, is as usual, solid with his remembrances. Comments by Paul Annacone and Tom Gullikson, one a former Sampras coach and the other his Davis Cup captain, thread through a portion of the book and  enhance its depth.

(I wrote the first Pete Sampras story that appeared nationally. It was in the “Inside The Junior Game” section of the June 1978 issue of World Tennis Magazine. Coincidentally, Steve Flink was the editor of the publication all those years ago. Perhaps it was fate, but he would go on to become a Senior Writer at Tennis Week, and I found a spot as a Contributor to that magazine as well.)

Mark Winters and Steve Flink at Flink’s 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame induction in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo Cheryl Jones

Having had a lengthy career as a journalist and having already written two books that are “musts” for inclusion in every tennis library –  “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999 and later, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012, I asked Flink why he had decided to focus on Sampras. As one of the game’s premier historian, he could have written about anyone in tennis. 

He explained, “I interviewed Pete a bunch of times over the telephone from 1992 to 1995. We met at Wimbledon in 1995. I wrote about him countless times both during and after his career. I would say I have done at least 15 or perhaps 20 features on Pete over the years.” 

Flink continued, “It took about a year-and-a-half or slightly less to write the book, primarily because I knew the subject so well. As I said in my introduction, in my mind I had been writing the book since late in his career.”

There is much more to the book than an encyclopedic listing of Sampras’ wins and losses. In “Save the Best for Last” fashion, Flink explores one of the game’s universal questions – stepping from one era to another, in their prime, who would win? Though such ventures are speculation, it is always fun to wonder – Would Bill Tilden have been competitive against Jack Kramer? Would Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez have held his own against his one-time brother-in-law Andre Agassi? How might Rod Laver have dealt with John McEnroe?

Flink tantalizes the reader with a look at how Sampras could have done against Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. In a pièce de resistance, he brings the story to a close offering his Top 10 American men ever and Top 10 American men in the Open Era. I will not even hint at what he has to say, but these two chapters are standalone book-worthy in and of themselves.

“I felt it had to be done,” Flink said. “I had always wanted to do this book. Pete is too often taken for granted. His contributions to the game have been immeasurable. I felt that knowing him so well and understanding what he is about made me perhaps uniquely qualified to be the author of a retrospective examination of Pete’s impact on the game.”

A group of French artists used a complicated technique to create an optical illusion and it was called trompe l’oeil. In English, it means “deceives the eye”. In no way was there any deception or deceit to Sampras. Flink entertainingly points out that he is genuine and for that matter, purely and simply real.

“I always deeply appreciated not only his gifts as a player but also his quiet way of going about things. The bottom line is that he deserves a laudatory book done on his exploits. My goal is for many fans to be reminded of why they admired him so deeply. Hence the title: ‘Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited’.”

“Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited” will be available to purchase after September 1, 2020. (Check Amazon)


2020 Tokyo Olympics, Djokovic on the heat and the new scheduling: “I’m glad they listened to us”

Speaking to Ubitennis, the world number one describes the work that he, Medvedev and Zverev (among others) have done to obtain better playing conditions





So far, the tennis tournament at the 2020 Olympics has made headlines less for the match-play than for the difficult conditions in which it has been taking place due to the heat and the humidity. In the women’s draw, for instance, four players have been forced to retire during their matches: the last one has been particularly shocking, as Paula Badosa was taken off-court on a wheelchair after collapsing late in the first set of her quarter-final match against Marketa Vondrousova. Luckily, these issues appear to have finally caught the attention of the International Tennis Federation: starting tomorrow, no match will be played before 3pm (7am in the UK).


Part of the credit for this (still belated) decision goes to the lobbying and the complaints of the players, as world N.1 Novak Djokovic explained while speaking to Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta in Tokyo: “I’m glad the decision was made to reschedule tomorrow’s opening matches at 3pm. Today we went to speak to the supervisor – when I say ‘we’ I mean myself, Medvedev, and Zverev, along with the team captains. I have spoken to Khachanov and Carreno Busta as well, so the majority of the players who will feature in the quarter finals was of the same opinion.

“Of course I would have wished for this decision to be made a few days ago, but it’s still a good thing,” he added. “Nobody wants to witness incidents like the one that occurred to Badosa.

“The conditions are really brutal. Some people might think that we are just complaining, but all resistance sports (and tennis should be included among them) are taking place later in the day because the combination between the heat and the humidity is really terrible.”

He then concluded: “I’ve been a professional tennis player for almost 20 years and I’ve never experienced such hard conditions for so many consecutive days. It may have have happened once or twice in Miami or New York, but just for one day, whereas in Tokyo the situation is like this every day. I think that this decision will benefit the fans as well, because playing later allows us to play our best – these conditions were just draining for us.”

Article by Lorenzo Colle; translated by Tommaso Villa

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Tales from the International Tennis Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

The Original Nine highlighted a poignant ceremony during which Conchita Martinez and Goran Ivanisevic were celebrated as well




Since 1995, I have attended every International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This span has covered more than a quarter of a century, and for me it has always been one of the highlights of the season to be in Newport, Rhode Island, for the festivities. I witnessed Chris Evert’s induction in 1995, saw Jimmy Connors accept his honor three years later, observed John McEnroe giving his singularly lengthy speech in 1999, and was there when Martina Navratilova entered the shrine in 2000.


A cavalcade of superstars followed in the ensuing years including Ivan Lendl in 2001, Mats Wilander the following year, Boris Becker in 2003 and then Stefan Edberg and Steffi Graf in 2004 as the Hall of Fame celebrated their golden jubilee year. Summer after memorable summer on the weekend after Wimbledon, players with big names and prodigious achievements stepped forth to claim the highest honor in the game. Yannick Noah and Jim Courier were recipients in 2005, Gabriela Sabatini and Pat Rafter followed in 2006, and Pete Sampras broke down in tears as he joined the Hall of Fame in 2007. Four years later, Andre Agassi took his place among the immortals. Leading women players Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin were recognized for their accomplishments from 2014 to 2016. Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick were the headliners in 2017, when I had the good fortune to be inducted as a contributor for my lifelong dedication to tennis journalism. And then across the next couple of years Michael Stich, Helena Sukova, Li Na and Mary Pierce moved into their home away from home, landing in Newport.

Last year, the pandemic prevented the ceremony from being held, and so this time around there was a combined ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021. In my view, for many reasons, this year’s celebration was among the most poignant and powerful that I have ever seen.

After a scorching afternoon, the skies turned gray and the fog rolled in, but that only heightened the drama and vast appeal of the proceedings. Fittingly, it all commenced with the arrival of the “Original Nine”. For the first time in Hall of Fame history, a group was honored for their contributions as if they were an individual, and no one among the cognoscenti of tennis would dispute that these magnificent and audacious women were fully worthy of the honor they were receiving.

On September 23, 1970 in Houston, Texas, the nine female competitors—Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville Reid, Judy Tegart Dalton, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Peaches Bartkowicz, and, last but surely not least, Julie Heldman—signed one dollar pro contracts with the estimable promoter and World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys M. Heldman.

They played their first tournament at the Houston Racquet Club which was sponsored by Virginia Slims and offered $7,500 in prize money. They were in defiance of the governing bodies of their countries, knowing they were risking suspensions and potentially having their careers severely disrupted, realizing that they might find themselves erroneously labels as outlaws by the male establishment of tennis. Yet they refused to be swayed from their convictions that women deserved equal treatment in tennis rather than prize money that went eight to one against them and sometimes was even worse than that when compared to the men.

By 1971, a full fledged circuit was in place for the women. King established herself as the first female athlete ever to earn $100,000 in a year. In 1973, the women were paid equal prize money at the U.S. Open with Margaret Court and John Newcombe both taking home $25,000 as the champions. Women’s tennis flourished thereafter, largely because the “Original Nine” had paved the way for them.

In any event, seven of the nine players were assembled in Newport the weekend before last, with Dalton appearing on Zoom and warmly addressing her fellow players and the audience. Richey was not present but even her decision not to show up in Newport could not diminish the deep enthusiasm all of the others shared in knowing how much they had contributed to not only women’s tennis but women across the board in society as a result of what they did 51 years ago.

King spoke first at the ceremony and put into context what the “Original Nine” had done to shape the future of their sport. As she said, “The nine of us along with our fearless leader Gladys Heldman had one vision for the future of women’s tennis. We wanted any girl if she was good enough to have a place to compete, to be recognized  for her accomplishments and not only for her looks, and most importantly to be able to make a living playing professional tennis. Today’s women professional players are living a dream. Women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”

Next up at the podium was the taciturn Kerry Melville Reid, eternally shy and ever modest. Reid was a perennial world top ten player who won the Australian Open in 1977. This Australian star spoke fondly about winning the Virginia Slims tournament in Newport fifty years ago, taking the title over Francoise Durr after upending King in the semifinals. The final went to 4-4 in the third set tiebreaker so it was simultaneous match point for both players, but Reid held her nerve to secure the victory. She reflected, “Looking how far women’s tennis has come since then, I am really proud to have been a part of that… I thought if it is good enough for Judy and if Billie Jean is doing this, they are putting their careers on the line. So I decided to join the Original Nine and I am really happy that I did.”

Kristy Pigeon followed Reid in the speaking lineup. This left-handed American dynamo came out of California, possessed a big serve and adventuresome game, and was the No. 8 ranked player from the U.S. that landmark season of 1970.

Pigeon recollected, “In 1968 I broke into the international tennis scene. At that time women played on the back courts ad women’s sports were trivialized. That same year at age 17, I became the top junior in the world by winning the Wimbledon and U.S. titles. I set a new goal and that was to go to college, play on a team and receive a scholarship. No such thing. The phone didn’t ring. Then in 1970 Jack Kramer [tournament director of the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles] got aced by nine women. We were misfits, trouble makers, rebels. So we were just crazy enough to change the world of tennis. I am proud of our efforts that led not only to a broader range of opportunities for women players, but also for other sportswomen and collegiate athletes as well.”

One by one, these distinguished members of the “Original Nine” were conveying their thoughts with originality, humor and verve. Ziegenfuss was no exception to that rule. Ranked seventh among Americans in 1970, she was first rate in singles but even better in doubles.

Always known for her salt of the earth persona and a fundamental decency, Ziegenfuss spoke from the heart and did an excellent job of defining who the “Original Nine” are and what they have meant to the sport.

She said, ‘This award means our story is officially part of tennis history for ever and ever, and it means for generations to come my relatives will be able to trace their bloodline back to me and discover our group’s contribution to the world—that is fun. Just think: we grew up with white tennis balls, wood rackets, one tennis magazine (World Tennis) and no Stan Smith tennis shoes.”

That line drew considerable laughter among those seated at the ceremony, including from Smith himself. He is the President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and was the world’s best player in 1972 when he won Wimbledon, but is perhaps best known now for his Adidas tennis shoe that bears his name. He was more than willing to smile freely at Ziegenfuss’s gentle humor.

Ziegenfuss continued, “What is even more amazing is we’re older than the internet, color television, personal computers and cell phones- not to mention our friend Alexa. And, by the way, Alexa knows who we are and even pronounced Bartkowicz ad Ziegenfuss correctly. Talk abut we’ve come a long way baby!”

Becoming even more philosophical, Ziegenfuss said, “The game of tennis has always given to me more than I could ever give back to it. The game prepared me for adulthood, it gave me skills to earn a living and gave me friendships to last a lifetime. Tennis has always been there for me. It is part of my past, my present and hopefully my future. It has given me so much joy playing it, coaching it, following it and parenting it. I am very proud that my daughter Allison Bradshaw played the women’s tour for three years. Maybe one day her children, Mathew and Ashley, will follow in our footsteps.”

After Ziegenfuss wrapped up her thoughtful speech, it was time for Julie Heldman to address the public. Julie was raised by the great Gladys Heldman and thus grew up with the game and with her mother’s overriding passion—World Tennis Magazine. Julie was ranked second in the United States in 1969. She reached the top five in the world as well. She was among the most cerebral players of her era and later became an outstanding television commentator.

Her speech was in my view the best of all. Her words resonated not only with me but anyone out there who wanted complete clarity on the significance and ultimate impact of the “Original Nine.” Heldman was remarkably eloquent and even lyrical.

She said, “I feel thrilled and profoundly honored that the Hall of Fame is inducting us as a group and acknowledging our contributions to women’s tennis and to women everywhere. By now most of you have seen the iconic photo of our group taken in Houston in 1970, just before the start of the groundbreaking tournament that we have come to celebrate. The photo shows eight top women tennis players grinning and raising one dollar bills alongside my mother, the architect and engineer of the early tour. She is no longer with us but we remain grateful for all the miracles she pulled off.”

Heldman explained why she was not in that famous photo. “I hadn’t planned to compete in Houston because at that time I was so deeply wounded physically and mentally that I couldn’t compete in a tournament for another five months. But I, like the other eight women, understood the importance of the moment. And when I heard that my pals and rivals were taking a risk for women’s tennis, I  jumped in to join them. So I competed in Houston by playing just one point out of solidarity to stand up against the male denominated tennis associations that were threatening our right to earn a living. Billie Jean King and I went out on a side court and after a few moments of pity-pat tennis I intentionally hit the ball into the net— an act that that was totally foreign to my nature.”

As Heldman added, “Once we cemented the deal by shaking hands at the net, our group became the ‘Original Nine’. The nine of us were rebels but we were not alone. The Houston tournament could only accommodate eight players, but plenty more women would have taken the risk if they only had the opportunity. Sure, it is true that not every woman player chose to join us right away but lets not forget that soon after the tour got underway women players arrived in droves from around the world, ready to stand together. Without that kind of solidarity the tour might have fizzled out quickly. The Original Nine are being honored today for our courageous stand but also as the symbol of all the early competitors on the women’s pro tour who banded together for the present and future of women’s tennis.”

Nearing the end of her lucid, enlightening and far reaching speech, Heldman said, “This honor has been 51 years in the making, but it remains exquisitely timely. Since 1970, vastly increased numbers of girls and women have participated inn sports and many have excelled.  And once again the sound of rebellion is in the air, spearheaded by the women’s National Soccer Team, but repeated throughout women’s sports, echoing our long ago demand to be respected and paid for doing what we did best. By honoring the “Original Nine” today the International Tennis Hall of Fame is sending a message to female athletes in all sports. The message is ‘keep fighting. Your time is coming.’”

Heldman’s address soared mightily from beginning to end, and so Casals was following a very tough act. But Rosie— who along with King and Richey had already been inducted in Newport previously for her individual accomplishments—made her presence known with her usual spunk and sincerity.

“I am frightened to death of all these speeches,” she said. “And I am supposed to be the closer. So I am going to close this wonderful evening.”

She congratulated some of the 2020 inductees and thanked Ilana Kloss for her role in helping the “Original Nine” get the recognition they deserve. Then Casals said, ‘Thanks to all of you for completing our journey and allowing the “Original Nine” once again to make our history in the game that we have loved and helped shape into the future. To my warriors who stood tall and invincible so long ago so women’s tennis could be what it has become— the showcase for women’s sports. One last time—I am proud to stand with them and before all of you as a humble believer that anything is possible if women stand together.”

The time had become to hear from Lucy Garvin, former President of the USTA and a longtime friend and admirer of the late Dennis Van Der Meer. Van Der Meer was elected as a contributor to the class of 2021, and deservedly so for his singular role as a teaching professional over the decades. Van Der Meer was regarded universally at the “teacher of teachers” and in his industry no one was more highly regarded.

Gavin closed her speech by saying, “The genius of Dennis Van Der Meer is very clear. He was a brilliant coach, a revolutionary in his thinking, a true visionary and a mentor to thousands including myself. He was the teacher of teachers. His greatest gift was his love of people and the game of tennis. He is what Hall of Famers are all about, truly an icon.”

Goran Ivanisevic at his Hall of Fame induction (Credit: @atptour on Twitter)

After Van Der Meer’s widow and critical partner on and off the court Pat thanked Garvin and the Hall of Fame for the honor, Raquel Giscafre appeared on Zoom to present Conchita Martinez. Giscafre was the top ranked player from Argentina in the 1970’s and established herself as one of the premier tournament promoters on the WTA Tour starting in the mid-1980s.

She saluted Martinez for her multitude of successes. As Giscafre said of the Spanish stylist, “She was in the top ten in the world for nine years in a row. In 1995 she was ranked No. 2 in the world. She was the first Spanish woman to win Wimbledon in 1994, beating the great Martina Navratilova in the final. She reached the final at the French and Australian Opens and was at least a semifinalist in every Grand Slam. She also won four consecutive Italian Open titles.”

Giscafre lauded Martinez for leading Spain to five Fed Cup triumphs, for becoming the first Spanish woman to be captain of their Davis Cup team from 2015 to 2017, and for serving as Fed Cup captain from 2013 to 2017. And then Giscafre spoke of the great courage displayed by Martinez.

Martinez was true to her character— understated, dignified, appreciative, and honorable. She was terrific.

“It is a great honor for me to be here today and to be a part of world tennis history,” said Martinez. “It is my first time here [in Newport]. It is just an amazing feeling and something I will treasure all of my life.”

Eventually she spoke of the joy she found in winning Wimbledon 27 years ago. She said, “When asked by journalists and fans during which title is the most special to me, I have no doubt it is Wimbledon. I had mixed feelings about playing on grass at that time, probably because Spanish players did not have much experience of playing on this surface. But every year I improved my game on grass, working hard and accepting that I had to change things to get results. And, boy, did I get great results. I am so proud to have been the first Spanish woman to take the title home. The memory of playing against and defeating Martina Navratilova— who was going after her tenth championship at Wimbledon— will stay with me forever.”

She spoke of her pride in simultaneously being captain of both the Fed Cup and Davis Cup teams in her country and of playing for her country, which she clarified was never easy. “The responsibility is huge,” she said. “You feel you are carrying the hopes of your country on your shoulders.”

As she wrapped up her remarks, Martinez said, “This wonderful sport has given me unforgettable moments, moments that require dedication, sacrifice, effort, patience, positivity, optimism, and, above all, belief in yourself. If you want your dreams to come true, these words must become part of your daily life.”

And so it all would end the only way it could, with the 2001 Wimbledon champion accepting his honor with grace, humor and reverence. Ivanisevic—who also made it to three other finals in the 1990’s but lost twice to Pete Sampras (1994 and 1998) ands once to Andre Agassi (1992) was introduced by John McEnroe on film. McEnroe said, “Can I just say at the top—- I love Goran Ivanisevic and I am absolutely thrilled to induct someone at the International Tennis Hall of Fame who is arguably crazier on the court than I was. But here’s the truth— he has been great for the sport of tennis…The bottom line is this—both on and off the court Goran did things his way and we could certainly use more players like him.”

Ivanisevic— who reached a career high of No. 2 in the world —was deeply touched by McEnroe’s introduction of him. He then said, “42 years ago I started this journey from a little town of Split in Croatia and today 42 years after I am in Newport.”

He had to talk about his fans and how frustrating he made it for them. Ivanisevic said, “It was not easy to be my fan. Wow! It was frustrating and sad. Probably a lot of people got divorced because of me. But for sure one thing—it was entertaining to be my fans.”

He spoke briefly about an outstanding Croatian journalist named Neven Berticevic who had been kind to him in print across the years, proclaiming, “Thank you, Neven, for writing every beautiful word about me.”

And then Ivanisevic gave a heartfelt salute to his parents for all they did to shape and guide him through the years. “And now,” he said, “the most important thing—the two most important persons in my career, my Mom and Dad, two people who sacrificed their health and career and gave me unconditional love for me to succeed. Mom and Dad—there are not enough thank you’s, not enough words that I can say or do for everything what you have been doing for me. And if I have to go again on this trip I gonna choose you again to be my Mom and Dad and we go through it together again. I love you and thank you for everything.”

Ivanisevic mentioned his three kids and his wife, spoke movingly about his country and amusingly about Wimbledon for giving him a wild card in 2001 that led to a long awaited triumph on those lawns, and left the stage having made everyone who was there delighted they had witnessed his induction.

It was an outstanding ceremony and one of the most enjoyable I have ever seen. It brought out the best in a good many people and gave us all an even deeper appreciation for those who were elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. I am already looking forward to 2022.


Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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Conventional wisdom vs data: the seventh game and the importance of serving first

Is it true that whoever wins the seventh game at 3-3 ends up winning the set? And that he who will serve first in a decider has an edge? Let’s take a look at the last ten years of Grand Slam matches’ data to see if there’s some validity to these truisms.





It is a commonly held opinion that tennis is one of the sports in which the psychological component weighs the most during matches. Proof of that is, for example, that Timothy Gallwey, one of the fathers of Business and Life Coaching, was inspired by his experience as a tennis coach in writing his best seller “The inner game of tennis”, published in 1974 and in some ways still very relevant today. In more recent times, even Agassi and Panatta have insisted a lot on this aspect in their autobiographies, with the italian using this concept in the title of his book, stating boldly that “tennis was invented by the devil”.


This close connection between what happens on the court and what happens in the mind of the players often leads to proverbial statements that, it can be said, are viewed as conventional wisdom. For example, it is believed that, precisely for psychological reasons, the seventh game, in a set tied at 3-3, is particularly important because it breaks the balance just when the set enters its bottom half. Or, again, it is commonly believed that, particularly in a match that goes to the fifth set, the first player serving has an advantage in the decisive set, thus causing in the opponent the unpleasant feeling of chasing at a time when the match is about to end.

The growing availability of structured data related to ATP matches allows us to put these claims to the test, and to verify their veracity. For this purpose, we will consider all of the men’s singles matches in Grand Slam tournaments of the last decade, from 2011 to 2021. Considering this huge database, let’s start by asking ourselves the first question: does the one player who wins the seventh game on a 3-3 tied set win the set in the end?


Figure 1. Percentage of cases in which whoever wins the seventh game at 3-3 wins the set, 2011-2021 Grand Slam tournaments

At a first glance, it would be tempting to answer in the affirmative. In fact, in 54.3% of cases whoever goes 4-3 by winning the seventh game ends up winning the set. But to attest to the validity of this first superficial observation it might seems appropriate to ask ourselves, more specifically, whether gaining the advantage at that particular moment is more significant or helpful than doing it slightly earlier, or slightly later. In other words: does winning the seventh game at 3-3 carry more weight than winning the ninth game at 4-4, or the fifth game at 2-2?

Figure 2. Percentage of cases in which whoever wins the ninth game at 4-4 wins the set, 2011-2021 Grand Slam tournaments

The set is won by whoever wins the ninth game after a 4-all in 53.6% of cases. Comparable, but slightly lower than the 54.3% recorded for the seventh-game-case in a tied set. Considering that the ninth game is closer to the ending of the set, winning a game in that situation should have a bigger impact. Therefore it would be tempting to identify a correlation, albeit not particularly strong, between the vin in the seventh game at 3-3 and winning the set. Before getting to any conclusion, however, let’s repeat the analysis, this time examining the fifth game at 2-2.

Figure 3. Percentage of cases in which whoever wins the fifth game at 2-2 wins the set, 2011-2021 Grand Slam tournaments

Perhaps a little surprisingly, we find that, at 2-2, the set is won in 56.7% of cases by whoever wins the fifth game. Although this game takes place further away from the end of the set, it seems to have a greater effect on the final outcome of the set. Although this fact alone is not proof in debunking the myth of the seventh game, this simple analysis has perhaps the merit of generating some doubts and some more curiosity, bringing to the forefront a hypothesis that comes from experience in more direct touch with the data. Let’s try to apply this logic to another statement as well: it’s better to serve first in the final set.


Figure 4. Percentage of cases in which whoever serves first in the fifth set wins the game, 2011-2021 Grand Slam tournaments

Let’s focus on the 728 Grand Slam matches that have reached the fifth set over the last ten years. Indeed, the percentage of cases in which whoever served first in these 728 occasions won the set (and, consequently, the match) is greater than 50%: to be precise, the count is 380 cases (52.2% of the total). Looking back, we can consider that, if such an advantage really exists, it is reasonable to expect it to be greater in the case of the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, which, for a large part of the period considered, did not provide have final set tie-breaks or super tie-breaks, with (possible) prolongation of the psychological pressure on whoever is serving second.

Figure 5. Percentage of cases in which whoever serves first in the fifth set wins the game,,
Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon 2011-2021

Indeed, 310 of the 576 matches of the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon of the last 10 years in the fifth set were won by the player who served first: 53.8% of the total. A higher percentage, therefore, than the one observed also considering the US Open’ s data. We can therefore say that, in this case, at least for this analysis’ sake, there seems to be a correspondence between conventional wisdom and actual data.

Let’s now move on to the critical analysis of a third consideration, common indeed, but not necessarily supported by the data: in a hard-fought match, whoever wins the most games who go to deuce will win the match in the end.


Figure 7. Box-plot representing the percentage of game per advantage won by the winners of men’s singles matches in Grand Slam tournaments in the period 2011-2021

To analyse this statement, and to measure its coherence with the trend of men’s singles matches in Grand Slam tournaments over the last ten years, let’s first focus on the matches with at least ten games that went to 40-40. This will allow us to focus on the statistically more significant data. Winning ten deuce games out of ten (100% of them), for example, has a different weight than winning the only one who went the distance.

Preparing the dataset for analysis, we can see that in the last ten years 2,050 men’s singles matches have been characterized by at least ten hard-fought games. To evaluate whether, starting from this subset of games, the victory of the games with advantage points is significantly linked to match wins, let’s try to use a different graphic representation: the box-plot.

The box plot represents the statistical distribution of a variable, in this case the percentage of deuce games won by the winner of the match for the 2,050 matches considered. A commonly used concept, in the analysis of statistical distributions, is that of the percentile. Let’s imagine we order the hard-fought-game percentages won by the winners of the 2,050 matches considered in ascending order. Match number 205 of this ordered list would be classified as the to the 10th percentile of the distribution (given that 205/2050 = 0.1 = 10%). In the box plot, we see a thin yellow bar to identify the fiftieth percentile, also called the median of the distribution. If the percentage of deuce games won was particularly significant, we would expect a median value, for the winners of the matches, greater than 50% – but this is not the case.

Not just that: the green colored area of ​​the box-plot defines the range within which the “central” 50% of the distribution is found. That is, the lower end of the green colored area coincides with the twenty-fifth percentile of the distribution, the upper end with the seventy-fifth. We observe that the central band of the distribution has the same excursion towards the lower extreme (50% -36.4% = 13.6%) than the upper one (63.6% -50% = 13.6%).

As a further check, let’s ask the data the same question once again, using a different survey tool: the ROC curve.

Figure 8. ROC curve that correlates the percentage of games won to the advantages with the victory of the match, based on the men’s singles matches played in Grand Slam tournaments in the period 2011-2021

We will ask ourselves, this time, if there are thresholds (not necessarily 50%) of 40-40 games that can become decisive for the match win. Once again, for the reasons already mentioned, we will focus on matches with at least ten hard-fought games. To conduct this type of analysis, we can use the ROC curve.

To trace it, we will proceed as follows:

  1. every possible threshold value is considered in terms of percentage of deuce games won, starting from 0% up to 100%
  2. for each of these values ​​(let’s take 10% for example) we ask ourselves: how accurate would it be to say that whoever wins more than 10% of the game at the advantages wins the match?
  3. the answer to this question is analysed using two components: sensitivity (i.e. the percentage of correctly identified victories) and specificity (i.e. the percentage of correctly identified losses)
  4. each threshold can therefore be represented as a point, drawn in a chart in which the vertical axis is represented by the wording “Sensitivity” and the horizontal axis represented by “Specificity”
  5. by connecting these points, a curve can be drawn, called ROC curve (Receiver Operating Curve)
  6. it can be shown that the area included under this curve, called AUC (Area Under the Curve) equals to the probability that, given a pair of matches (match 1 and match 2), the percentage of deuce games won by the winner of match 1 is greater than the percentage of deuce games won by the loser of match 2.

The more the AUC approaches to the value of 1, the more the element considered (in this case the percentage of deuce games won) is relevant compared to the target (the match win). We observe that, in this case, the AUC is equal to 0.504, just above 50%. The lack of relevance of deuce games supremacy therefore seems to be confirmed.

Let’s now try to ask ourselves if, indeed, as is often supposed, the victory of the first set is often decisive, especially for the underdog player.


Figure 9. Distribution of 2011-2021 Grand Slam matches with respect to the question: who wins the first set wins the match?

The matches in which the winner of the first set has a better ATP ranking at the end of the season is represented by the green bars of the histogram, the other matches are represented by the red bars. So let’s ask ourselves if, especially in a Grand Slam tournament, considering the men’s singles matches only and therefore a three out of five set match, the victory in the first set is relevant and, more specifically, let’s try to understand if this consideration is more valid for players who face an opponent of greater clout, or with a better ATP ranking.

First of all, we observe that 2,271 of the 2,902 matches considered ended with the victory of the player who won the first set: in other words, in 78.2% of cases whoever won the first set also won the match. This is by far the strongest pattern explored in this article. For example, if we consider the effect of ranking on the outcome of the match, we observe that in 2,238 cases out of 2,902 (i.e. in 77.1% of cases) the match is won by that player who, at the end of the season, will occupy a better position in the ATP ranking. In other words, the victory of the first set seems to “weigh” even more (albeit slightly) than the ranking in the outcome of the match.

And, as conventional wisdom teaches, the combination of the two factors is even more predictive of the name of the match winner. In fact, if the first set is won by the lower ranked player, the opponent will manage to get away with it in 30% of cases (196 matches out of 664). If, on the other hand, the better-ranked player takes the first set, then his opponent seems to have less than a 20% chance of reversing the situation (435 cases out of 2238).

This is what the data tell us, which, as always, we try to approach with a critical eye. That is, always keeping in mind Henri Poincarè, according to whom “science is made of data as a house is made of stones. But a mass of data is no more science than a pile of stones is a real house.”

Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Michele Brusadelli; edited by Tommaso Villa

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