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Steve Flink: Sampras examines 2012

11/27/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

It is the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, and Pete Sampras is talking expansively about the year gone by, the injuries he endured, the events he played, the top players in this shining era, his immense pride in being a father, and the life he is leading these days. At 8AM from his California home, he commences a telephone interview with me by addressing the problems he had in 2012 with calf injuries, how it disrupted his schedule, and the way he dealt with the nagging process of recovery. As usual, Sampras speaks with a certain dignity, a measure of restraint, and the voice of a man who knows himself well and recognizes that his lofty achievements have given him a license to be very selective about what he wants to pursue. As always, Sampras sounds sensible and clear-minded as he answers a wide range of questions.

We start with the considerable struggle the 41-year-old had with those calf injuries over the course of the year. It started over the summer when he played an exhibition in Stanford, California. “I was playing pretty hard, “he recollects, “and then I really felt my calf go. It really pulled and I couldn’t walk for three or four days. I was out for a couple of weeks. That concerned me. But I got back into playing again and was trying to get ready for a couple of Jim Courier’s PowerShares Series events, and I felt my other calf get tight. I took three or four days off and tried to hit a little more, but re-aggravated it and it just lingered. It was like a cramp that just gets tight. So I was held up for a couple of days and tried to get ready for Philadelphia, but I had to pull out. I then went to Madison Square Garden in New York a few days later and taped it up and did all the things I could do to play.”

A highly charged audience had come to the Garden the evening before the 2012 Presidential election, and Sampras did not want to let Courier or the sponsors down. John McEnroe was in the field along with Patrick Rafter and Andre Agassi. Sampras was candid with Courier, making it clear that he was still hindered, probably “80 percent” at best.  But, as he says, “I was willing to make the trip, and wanted to do what I could do to put on a good show. I was concerned and the last thing I wanted to do was play two games and really hurt myself [even worse] and not be able to play at all. So I was very cautious with my movement when I played Rafter. I did the best I could. I was able to get through the set but I was playing very gingerly, taking a conservative route.”

Rafter defeated the gimpy Sampras 6-3, and then toppled McEnroe 8-3 in the final after McEnroe had upended Agassi in the other semifinal. And so Sampras had completed his work on Courier’s tour for the year. He had opened his campaign in Chicago, building a 7-4 lead in the final against McEnroe before the 53-year-old marvel battled back ferociously to win 8-7 (4). Of that account, Sampras explains, “I took my foot off the pedal and let him back into it when I should have closed him out. But I give credit to John for the way he came back. He played great. I had a few chances and let it slip away.”

Moving out of Chicago, Sampras discovered his form swiftly in both Detroit and Boston, winning both events. In the former, he ousted Courier in the semifinals before dismissing the 52-year-old Lendl in an 8-4 final. At Boston, Sampras struck down McEnroe 6-1 in the abbreviated final. “We do a few other things to help the events on the days that we play the matches, “says Sampras, “so it can take a while to find your feet. But those nights in Detroit and Boston my body felt better. The first event I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. You can’t go from zero to 120 miles an hour in two days. I learned my lesson the hard way with the calf injuries. I need to hit once or twice a week because if I don’t hit a ball for a long time and then go out and play, it is nothing but trouble. You don’t have the torque on your shots. I am going to be more diligent in the future about preparing.”

Yet the fact remains that Sampras did play with much more sparkle in winning his two events before the calf acted up. As he reflects, “I felt my game from the first city through the last progressed nicely. I thought I started playing pretty well and the events were fun. The crowds seemed to enjoy our tennis. I enjoyed the events this year as much as last year. It keeps me involved in the sport, playing in a few cities I never appeared in before. It was fun for me to hang out with Jim Courier and to travel with John and Ivan. It is always interesting to see those two guys mix it up. It was something fun to focus on. I am still good at it but there are times you want to be sharper. But you have to be realistic. Sometimes you walk out on the court and you are just not going to be that sharp.”

Having said that, Sampras was filled with laudatory remarks about McEnroe’s enduring qualities as a player. “He is very passionate about the game. John has a lot of pride and still wants to go out there and compete. He is still into these matches and it doesn’t matter to him if he is 53 or 63: John is still going to have the same attitude on trying to win. I think he is playing this year in all 12 cities on Jim’s tour. It is pretty amazing that he still wants to do it that much. He still loves playing. John is playing much more than the rest of us and all power to him. It is a great effort. I will tell you that at 41 it is tough to play tennis. At 53, I couldn’t imagine competing and being out there the way John is. It takes its toll. When I walk on the court to play John, there is still an intimidating feeling because growing up watching him, I felt John was an iconic figure. He still brings that. I admire the fact that he is still out there playing so well.”

Meanwhile, Sampras picks and chooses his appearances judiciously. He wants to be enthused about what he is doing. “I did play less this year,” he asserts, “I will continue to play if it makes sense. I played at Stanford and went to Greenbrier to play McEnroe at a cool resort. But that was pretty much it. I didn’t do a whole lot. In the future I will continue to play some of Jim’s events and there are a few things here and there I might do. But I am not looking to play any of those major senior events where you are there for three or four days in a row of tennis. I think those days might be over for me.”

I wondered what Sampras plans to do to fill the void of the more sustained time he put into competing in senior events up until this year. He responded, “What I need to do for myself is to get into the gym, which I do just about every day. I get a good two hour workout in and then play some golf. I feel when I am in good shape and using my body it is very good for my well-being as a father and a husband. I love getting into the gym, playing some golf and a little basketball here and there. I like being in good shape and staying somewhat lean as I get a little older.”

I asked Sampras what might drive him more than anything else across the next couple of years and on more deeply into his forties. He explains, “It is a work in progress. It really is. There is no magical solution here. I like to play every now and again if it makes sense for my schedule or financially or whatever the case may be, but I am more selective about what I am willing to do. I can’t play [exhibitions] against the current guys on the men’s tour. I have been asked to do that but it is just a little too much for me now. I am trying to be a good Dad and to spend time with my kids, to play tennis every now and again, play golf, and work out. That is all I need for now and maybe that is all I am going to need forever.”

As a father, Sampras is determined to guide his two sons as productively as he can. His older son, Christian, is in the fourth grade, while the younger boy, Ryan, is a first grader. As Sampras looks at his role in directing the future of his kids, he has a clear and unmistakable notion of how he wants to influence them. He wants his children to get out into the world and not be consumed only by computers. As he puts it, “They are playing a little golf. My older kid has mandatory sports at school which is good. He is playing football and now basketball and doing a bit of tennis with Grant Chen. My younger kid also plays sports but it is less organized. He is playing a little tennis and he loves to play football out here in our yard. I just want them to be active and get involved in sports. My goal is to keep them in motion, to keep them active outside instead of playing all of the W.I.I games on the computer. I understand that kids need to veg out, watch television and all that, but I am always pushing them to get out of the house and do something. But they are so bogged down with school and homework that they don’t have a whole lot of time to do anything else.”

The conversation turns to the game today, and Sampras tells me he watched a good chunk of the U.S. Open final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, “ a lot” of the Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Murray, and pieces of the Australian and French Open finals as well. As he points out, “I am watching enough tennis to get a sense of what a great year it was. The top guys were all pushing each other and it was fun to watch them growing up and doing great things.”

Was he surprised that Djokovic could not replicate his extraordinary feats of 2011, when the astonishing Serbian garnered three of the four majors and captured ten tournament titles? Sampras replies, “I thought he was great. What happened in 2011 was very hard to do in any year for any player. For Novak to come back and do that again in 2012 would have been pretty close to impossible. I thought he competed well but he ran into a tough schedule at the end of the U.S. Open which was a pretty tough situation for him. He won the Australian and played quite well at the French. I thought he had a great year. He has really come into his own and is such a great athlete and mover. Mentally he is very strong. He is going to be in the top two or three in the world for as long as he wants to be, for the rest of his career.”

In the summer of 2011, Sampras had dinner with Djokovic in California. Did they communicate again this past year? “We text every now and again. I sent him a text saying congratulations when he won London and we stay in touch casually. He is someone I admire and like and he has done a great job representing his country and the sport of tennis. He is such a good athlete and he has progressed into a tough champion. You wouldn’t have said that maybe four or five years ago but he has really grown up and he is turning his career into something of legendary status.”

At Wimbledon, Federer tied Sampras’s modern record of seven singles titles on the hallowed lawns. How did Sampras view that development? “I wasn’t that surprised,” he replies. “I still feel that especially on grass and on faster surfaces, Roger is the best player. On grass he is so good and so comfortable on the court. I kind of expected that he would win Wimbledon. On grass Roger is still the man to beat.”

I brought up the notion that Federer might need to alter his playing style in the next couple of years as he approaches the age of 32 in August. Will it be an imperative for the Swiss to serve-and-volley more, to approach the net more regularly, and to shorten points as part of a new recipe? Sampras does not believe that is the case. “I don’t think he has to do that,” asserts Sampras. “He moves well and is in good shape. Roger is a young 31. He has got a lot of miles on his legs but he is one of those movers who is not like Rafa, who you feel could break his legs the way he runs. Roger is so fluid and it doesn’t take a lot of effort for him to win many of these matches. He can trade rallies with these guys and he is just up against a couple of players now that can stay with him and at times be a little better at the same game. The biggest challenge for Roger is going down to Australia and trying to beat a Djokovic and a Murray back to back on a pretty slow court in best of five set matches. That is where he has got to be more creative and find ways to get in and be more aggressive, but that is easier said than done. Ultimately it is really about his forehand and his movement and being able to dictate from that standpoint.”

Turning his attention to Murray, Sampras is effusive. “Winning the U.S. Open will open the door for Andy to win more Slams and be in contention. He believes in himself now and believes in his game. He has battled through some tough situations and has figured out what he needs to do. Ivan Lendl has been there and is helping Andy to feel like he belongs in upper echelons of the sport. I am not saying that Murray will win every major but believing in himself is half the battle. This could be his coming out party where Murray could go on to win three of four more majors over the next couple of years.”

How worried is Sampras by Nadal’s long absence from the game since the Spaniard’s startling loss to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon in the second round late last June? He answers, “It is going to be a tough process for Rafa. He is someone that needs to practice a lot and needs to play a lot, not only for the sake of his game but mentally as well. It will take some time, not only tennis-wise but having the confidence in his legs again. We are all hoping that he has given his knee the proper time to heal and he has moved on and can play on normally now with no pain. It will take him time to get back into the groove. But I believe he will be right there. He will do all of the things he needs to do to get back to where he needs to be. I see him coming back strong. At 26 with eleven majors, if he stays healthy and plays for another four or five years, I think he is very well going to pass my total of 14 majors.”

The retirement announcement of Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open stirred a considerable amount of debate about the American’s place in history. Does Sampras believe Roddick deserves to be inducted someday at the International Tennis Hall of Fame? “I do,” he replies rapidly. “He won the U.S. Open, was No. 1 in the world for a while, he was the best American for years, and he was in three Wimbledon finals. I know he didn’t win Wimbledon but he was deserving of a title there. So I think you vote for Andy for the Hall of Fame. He deserves it.”

Asked to assess the future of John Isner, Sampras answers, “John is at a stage of his career where he wants to make a statement at some of these majors. He is a bug guy and it takes a lot of work to go out there and play three out of five sets. He can do it but it just a matter of putting it all together. Sometimes at these majors you have got to get a little bit dirty and he showed glimpses of that in Davis Cup this year. John needs to find a way to win when he is not completely clicking on all cylinders. I like him and he seems like a really nice kid. He has got a huge game and is one of the few guys that can take the racket out of your hand because his serve is so big.”

A shade more than 32 minutes has elapsed since the interview commenced. Pete Sampras has covered a lot of ground, speaking his mind on numerous topics, conveying his thoughts with typical clarity and earnestness, expressing himself with striking candor. I have admired his character and integrity for quite a long while. Crystalizing his outlook at this particular moment in time, he concludes, “Things are good. Sometimes you wonder what is next in your life and you feel like you need to do something. But sometimes you don’t. So you relax and stick to a routine. If things pop up in the future, I will entertain it. For now, I have nothing to complain about in my life.”
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.