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Steve Flink: Sampras at 40

1/10/2012 2:00:00 PM

Five months ago, the man who had once turned tennis into his kingdom hit another milestone in his remarkable life. Pete Sampras—a 14 time victor at the majors, among the most prodigious athletes of his era, and the greatest American ever to play the game of tennis—turned 40 this past August. It has been nearly a decade since he competed for the final time on the ATP World Tour, toppling Andre Agassi to capture the last official match he would ever play in the final of the 2002 U.S. Open. Sampras put down his racket for a good long while after that storybook ending in New York, and not until 2006 did he reemerge in different forms of competition. He has been back in the public public view periodically ever since, and was in considerable demand across 2011, travelling three times to China in a very short stretch for various events, taking five of the seven tournaments he played on the Champions Series 30-and-over circuit in the U.S., competing when and where he wanted during a productive year.

When we spoke on the phone last week, he sounded realistic yet upbeat about playing tennis up to his normal standards. “Physically, I really felt this past year that my style of play is very difficult to keep going, “he said. “ As far as my body is concerned with the serve-and-volley tennis, it is changing. I have to be more diligent about my back and my hips, and maybe this is because I am 40. To serve-and-volley at my age isn’t easy with the violent moves you have to make. So if I am going to do it, I have to be careful.”

It was an ailing back that prevented Sampras from having the chance to hit some balls with Novak Djokovic when the Serbian was practicing in Los Angeles over the summer of 2011. The Serbian had been on record many times affirming and reaffirming his admiration for Sampras, who inspired him immensely during his youth. But Djokovic and Sampras did have a meal together in California, and the current world No. 1 had the chance to pick the brain of an idol, to benefit from the wisdom of someone who fully understood his plight.

“We had dinner, “Sampras recollects, “and talked about his game, about his year and about his progression. There are a lot of similarities with Novak and me in terms of our progression into being the best player in the world. It took some time and a couple of bumps in the road for both of us to get there. One thing he was really curious about was how I was able to stay on top for six straight years and I told him I just tried to not make things complicated. I explained that I didn’t have a big entourage. It was all about keeping it simple and winning for me. I told Novak that I was very understated and I didn’t say or do a lot. It was all about a complete one hundred percent focus on winning tennis, and that was what worked for me. You only have so much energy in a day and I wanted it to go completely to tennis.”

As Sampras continued reflecting on his conversation with Djokovic, his respect for the Serbian’s evolution as a player and person was unmistakable. “I told Novak,” he said, “that everyone is different and having that complete focus on tennis was just how I did it, because I had a sense from him that he is playing to give people hope in his country. He talked a lot with me about growing up in Serbia and trying to be a good role model. I think he feels a big sense of responsibility to carry the sport in his country. So I think he is dealing with a lot more than I did. I was very isolated and kind of guarded while Novak is putting himself out there because of his country. I think he heard what I said. I told him that it is very hard to be everything to everyone, especially in an individual sport like tennis. You can’t be in ten different places at once. I said, ‘If you want to stay on top for the next four or five years you have to keep it pretty simple and have it only be about you.’ That was how I did it.

“We also talked about his diet and conditioning. I was curious about this whole gluten free diet he is on. The new diet changed his energy and he felt a lot better out there. Novak is a gifted athlete and probably one of the best movers I have ever seen in tennis. The biggest difference with Novak now is he has turned into a rock. To have the game to beat Roger and Rafa so often the way he did this past year was a great credit to him. He has the whole package. I think Novak could stay on top for quite a while. He might lose his No. 1 ranking at some point--- we all did. But he is going to be right there in the last weekend of all the majors and he is a great player.”

Another player who decidedly impressed Sampras in 2011 was Milos Raonic, the fast emerging Canadian who just opened 2012 with a tournament triumph in Chennai.  Sampras and Raonic played an exhibition in November, and it was a contest waged with seriousness and professionalism on both sides of the net. Raonic was victorious 7-6, 6-1.

“He has got a lot of long term potential”, says Sampras of a player who is in the process of perhaps developing the best and most effective serve since his own. “ Any time you have got a serve of that magnitude, you are going to be a threat. Being up close and trying to return it as I was that night, he can serve it really hard but also accurately, and he can hit his spots. His second serve has a lot of bite on it. He is the real deal. We talked a little bit about his game afterwards and he is looking to improve his transition game. The way he plays now, he could disrupt a lot of players. He is not just staying back and grinding for four hours. He hits the ball very well from the back of the court. I was very impressed and Milos seems like a very nice kid. He is very well thought out in everything he says, very meticulous about his whole thing. He has a great future.”

Raonic wanted to learn whatever he could from Sampras, about life between the lines but also beyond the boundaries of the court. Sampras recalls, “We talked about our games, which are different even though we both serve quite well. I was looking to come in and take time away from the guys. He is curious about my style of play and how I saw the game. I just said that I wanted to dictate play and be aggressive, and I wanted to see how the match goes on my terms, not on their terms. And I think he understood that. But he is comfortable doing what he is doing while he tries to improve a few areas like coming in more. For a big guy he moves quite well and he has got good hands at the net. I played as hard as I could against him and he was not holding back, which was fine. We had No-Ad scoring and I had three 3-3 points on his serve and lost them all in that first set. He picked up his game in the second and mine dropped off. This wasn’t a dog and pony show. We both played hard, but he just sort of steamrolled me in the second set. Physically it was a different, faster pace than I am used to these days.”

Sampras, of course, dominated the Champions Series, which was held in twelve American cities starting in late September and stretching into the latter stages of October. The events have been televised recently on Tennis Channel and Fox Sports, packaged seamlessly into two hour shows that have come across appealingly on the air. Sampras fared exceedingly well in a format which afforded all of the primary competitors—including Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors—a chance to shine. The events featured four man fields, with one set semifinals and an eight game, Pro Set final. Each event was a one night occasion. Sampras took the opening tournament in Fort Lauderdale with an 8-6 final round triumph over Courier, then lost the next night to Chang 6-4 in the semifinals of Washington (D.C.).  But in his third consecutive night of competition, Sampras recouped to oust Agassi 8-7 (5) in the title round match at Philadelphia.

On the west coast swing, he maintained his winning pace, capturing the Surprise, Arizona event with an 8-7 (4) final round triumph over Courier, winning Seattle 8-4 over Chang, and stopping Agassi 8-6 in the final of his hometown event in Los Angeles. That was enough for Sampras to secure the top prize of $500,000 as the No. 1 ranked man on the 2011 Champions Series. He lost to Agassi 8-5 in the final of his last event in Las Vegas, but he has sealed his status as the best player on the circuit by then. The tennis among all of these accomplished Americans was always entertaining, but the level of play varied.

Sampras reflects, “I thought the [Champions Series] tour was fun and it was nice hanging out with Jim, Andre and Michael and John a little bit. We travelled together, and got to know each other in a different way. It looked good on television and the tour was successful. Andre and I are still pretty good draws and Jim and John are both great names. I think Jim Courier [whose company Inside Out Sports owns and runs the tour] was happy and the format was much better for us. I enjoyed it and would probably do it again.”

One of the primary challenges for Sampras on the Champions Series was dealing with the show business part of the equation. There was a significant amount of banter between the players during matches, and Courier particularly seemed to enjoy that aspect of it. Given that Sampras has always been more comfortable remaining serious, intense and concentrated on the court, how did he feel about some of the joviality?

“It was an adjustment for me,” he answers. “Looking at the big picture, it is entertainment, and I understand that. But, at the same time, people want to see the good tennis and there are moments in a match when I am sensitive to maybe too much banter with everyone trying to be too funny. I think you can go too far with that. So for me, it is a combination of trying to play good tennis and then having certain moments to have some fun. A lot of the banter came from Jim, who is very expressive and very talkative. It is new territory for me, playing and sort of bantering at the same time. But you roll with it, have some fun with it and try not to do it too much. Ultimately, people want to see the good stuff and the best tennis, which I think we gave them.”

Sampras displayed his finest qualities as a competitor when the stakes were highest and there was no margin for error. For example, Agassi recovered from 5-2 down to reach 5-5 in the tie-break against Sampras in Philadelphia. Sampras promptly served a bullet down the T that Agassi could not handle, followed by a backhand return winner down the line (taken early) to win the match. With Courier serving at 3-6 in the tie-break at L.A., Sampras ran around his backhand on match point for a scorching and spectacular forehand inside-in return winner, making a shot lifted out of his heyday.  Asked to assess his ongoing knack for coming through on the most propitious points and playing his best and boldest tennis when the stakes are highest late in sets, Sampras says, “ At crunch time I seem to tighten up my game a bit defensively and on my returns, and serving-and-volleying well on the bigger points. I might not find the court until 4-4, 30-30 and then all of a sudden I tighten it up. I thought that was evident in the sets I played against Jim and Andre especially, and also against John.”

At 59, Connors seemed to be at a distinct disadvantage in his losses to Courier (7-5) in Fort Lauderdale and to Sampras (6-4) in Philadelphia. He was facing adversaries nearly twenty years younger. But Sampras had some genuine praise for the eight-time Grand Slam tournament champion. “I have a lot of respect for Jimmy, always have. He was keeping me deep and returning my serve very well. At 59, I thought he did a really good job and the crowds loves seeing him. I was glad to play him.”

Although Sampras enjoyed playing a limited amount of tennis in these one night events, it was not always easy to play three nights in a row. He explains, “On the east coast, it was a little tricky because of the travel. We left a city after we played and did not get into the next city until 3 or 4 in the morning. So by the third night, I knew it was plenty for me. I wouldn’t have wanted to do any more than that. The west coast was easier because I stayed at home and flew up and back to Vegas, and the same with Seattle.”

But there was one crucial aspect of the Champions Series that made it particularly gratifying for Sampras. His two sons—9-year-old Christian and 6-year-old Ryan—came with their mother Bridgette and watched him win the Surprise, Arizona and Los Angeles events. They have reached an age of awareness where they are beginning to fully understand who their father is and what he accomplished. As Sampras says, “I think they got a real sense of what I used to do and who I used to be. It was a treat for me to have them in Surprise and L.A, to be with them in the locker room. They often see me when I travel or when I go work out, or when I pick them up from school when I am technically not working. So it was good for them to see that I did work hard and I think they now have a sense of my place in history. They really do. Just seeing my No. 1 trophies around the house, they realize that their Dad was pretty good at what he did. When I retired, Christian wasn’t even born so for them to share a few of these matches with me and to watch me play is exciting for me.”

The conversation turns to the brand new alliance between Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl. How much of a difference can Lendl make as he earnestly does his best to get Murray over the finish line at a major?  Sampras responds, “It will make a difference. Ivan has been where Andy has been, coming close and getting to a few major finals. Ivan was in the same boat and he can give Andy advice on getting over the next hurdle and winning a major. I tell you: Ivan is very smart, he knows the game, and he has kept in touch with tennis just by watching. He knows Roger’s game and has seen all of the different styles of the top players. I think Ivan will really help Andy because he is so smart. He will have a positive influence on Murray’s game.”

So how does Sampras envision the upcoming Australian Open? A day before Federer defaulted his semifinal at Doha to Tsonga with a bad back, Sampras said, “I look at the top four all getting through the first week and then tightening up their games and playing even better the second week. I do find Murray a little vulnerable at some of the majors in the early matches while Roger and Novak seem a little more dominant. When it comes to the second week of majors, you want to have had a first week that has gone smoothly. I think there is a good chance the top four guys will all make it to the semis. Those four guys are so much better than the rest that you almost know the result before they play.”

The interview is drawing to a conclusion. Pete Sampras has demonstrated once more the extraordinary clarity of his mind. He does indeed keep things as simple as possible, but his depth of understanding about complex issues should never be underestimated. Now that he has turned 40, where does he see himself at 50, and will he still be out there in the field of senior competitive tennis? “I don’t know,” he replies. “ I always said when I was in my twenties that I would never play senior tennis, and here I am playing it. I am taking it year by year. When things pop up and make sense for me, I try to do them. Each year, I might play less and less tennis, but 50 is pretty far down the line. I know John McEnroe is a rarity in his early fifties and he still plays a ton of tennis. I don’t know where I will be at that point in my life, but as long as I am enjoying playing tennis and I am healthy, I will keep going.”