- 21 Apr 2021
What happened exactly on that day?
On this day, April 21, 1992, future world No 1 Pete Sampras made his first appearance at the Monte-Carlo Open. He was defeated in his first round by Carl-Uwe Steeb, from Germany (6-3, 6-4). In his entire career, he would only play the tournament four times, winning only one match, in 1998, against his rival Andre Agassi.
The guys involved
Carl-Uwe Steeb, born in 1967, turned pro in 1986, at the age of 18. The German southpaw broke into the top 100 the following year, reaching the semi-finals in Stuttgart (lost to Henri Leconte, 7-5, 6-3). In 1988, he obtained his best Grand Slam performance at the Australian Open, where he reached the fourth round (defeated by Andrei Chesnokov, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2). In December that year, ranked only No 74, Steeb, after saving a match point, upset the undisputed world No 1 Mats Wilander (8-10, 1-6, 6-2, 6-4, 8-6), to give West Germany the first point in the Davis Cup final against Sweden. The German reached his highest ranking of world No 14 in 1990, and in 1991, he made his way into the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the second time, at the US Open (lost to Paul Haarhuis, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4). In April 1992, he was ranked No 40 in the world.
Pete Sampras was born in 1971. Although he was a part of a golden American generation, along with Agassi, Chang and Courier, he was the last of them to become a top player. At the end of 1989, while his rivals had all claimed titles and achieved remarkable Grand Slam performances, Sampras was only No 81 in the world. In November that year, Ivan Lendl, world No 1 at the time, invited him to his house to practice with him for 10 days: the young American then realized what kind of work ethics were required to become a champion. Six months later, he had already broken into the top 20 after having claimed his first two titles in Philadelphia and Manchester. In September 1990, he took the world of tennis by surprise by becoming the youngest player to ever triumph at the US Open, defeating Agassi in the final (6-4, 6-3, 6-2).
Thanks to this great win, he entered the top 10, but in the first half of 1991, Sampras struggled to confirm his new status. Since the beginning of the American summer tour, he had obtained better results, triumphing in Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Lyon, but he had lost his US Open title, defeated by Courier in the quarterfinals (6-2, 7-6, 7-6). A first title at the Masters Cup, where he took his revenge against Courier (3-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4), confirmed his improvements. However, he finished the year on a big disappointment, during the Davis Cup final against France, where he lost both his matches, defeated on the opening day by Henri Leconte, and on the last day, by Guy Forget. In April 1992, he was ranked No 4 in the world.
Located at the top of the Rocher de Monaco, with a unique perspective on the Mediterranean Sea, the Monte-Carlo Country Club has hosted one of the oldest international tennis tournaments since 1928. Usually considered as the start of the clay-court season, it was a part of the ATP Masters 1000 category. Amongst its former champions, there was a long list of clay-court terrors, such as Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl.
In April 1992, 18 months after having become the youngest US Open champion in tennis history, Pete Sampras was world No 4. With his aggressive game style, the 21-year-old had already claimed nine titles since the start of his career on faster surfaces, but on clay, he had never reached a single final on the Tour and had never gone past the second round at Roland-Garros. Hence, despite his ranking, when Carl-Uwe Steeb, a left-handed clay-court specialist from Germany ranked No 40 in the world, faced Sampras in the second round of the Monte-Carlo Open, he had all the reasons to believe in his chances.
In the first round, Steeb had eliminated Martin Jaite (6-2, 4-6, 7-6), while the American had received a first-round bye as the second seed. The German got off to an explosive start and, after only 19 minutes of play, the world No 4 trailed 5-0. Sampras then gathered himself together and tried to come back, but Steeb sealed the first set, 6-3. The second set was not as one-sided, but at 4-4, the hero of the 1989 Davis Cup broke his opponent and finished him off in the next game (6-3, 6-4).
“I couldn’t get anything going,’ Sampras said, quoted by upi.com. ‘He played well and got off to a good start. I just made too many errors.”
Carl-Uwe Steeb would reach the quarter-finals of the 1992 Monte-Carlo Open (lost to Frenchman Arnaud Boetsch, 1-6, 6-2, 6-0). A few weeks later, he would confirm his great form by making his way into the semi-finals in Rome, only to be defeated by world No 1 Jim Courier (5-7, 6-1, 6-2).
Pete Sampras would fly back to America, reaching his first-ever clay-court final in Atlanta (defeated by Andre Agassi, 7-5, 6-4). However, the event was played on Har-Tru, the American clay, known to be faster than the European one.
Steeb and Sampras would meet again on clay in 1992, in the fourth round at Roland-Garros, and this time, the American would easily prevail (6-4, 6-3, 6-2), before losing once again to Agassi in the quarter-finals (7-6, 6-2, 6-1).
Sampras’ struggles on clay would last until the end of his career. Roland-Garros would be the only Grand Slam missing from his list of achievements, his best result there remaining a semi-final run in 1996 (lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 7-6, 6-0, 6-2). Throughout the years, the most dominant player of the 1990s would only show up at Monte-Carlo four times, and only in 1998 would he manage to win a match at the Country Club, defeating his main rival Agassi (6-4, 7-5), before suffering a heavy loss in the next round against Fabrice Santoro (6-1, 6-1).