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Steve Flink: Sampras reflects on 2013 with typical clarity

12/23/2013 3:00:00 PM

As I embark on my fifth decade as a full time tennis reporter, it occurs to me that the game is ever evolving, constantly reinventing itself, endlessly fascinating. We are living in a sterling time, a period when sports fans everywhere on the planet have been raising their awareness and deepening their appreciation for tennis and all it has to offer. The 2013 men’s season was riveting in every way. Andy Murray established himself as the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon, igniting a nation with his standout display. Novak Djokovic captured his third Australian Open in a row. Rafael Nadal made a stupendous comeback after seventh months away from the game, securing two majors, collecting ten singles titles altogether, reclaiming the No. 1 world ranking.

After such a captivating season, I wanted to speak to someone of singular prominence and authority to put it all in perspective, to reflect on what transpired, to project what will happen in the immediate future. The way I look at it, there was only one person who could fit this bill, one man who could enlighten us with clarity and earnestness across the board, one individual who can talk about tennis with unimpeachable authority and clear-minded reason. That fellow, of course, is none other than Pete Sampras, a 14-time Grand Slam tournament singles champion, the greatest American ever to play the game, a champion who was unassailable, thoroughly professional and exemplary.

We spoke by phone last week, and at the outset of the interview I asked Sampras to comment on the breaking news that Novak Djokovic had hired Boris Becker as his new Head Coach despite concluding 2013 on a blazing four tournament, 24 match winning streak. Sampras replied, “Boris has been around. He knows the game and understands what it is like to be out there at that level. Obviously, Novak has done just fine for the last number of years with Marian Vajda, who has always been there for him. Boris can add a few things here and there that Novak is looking for. It is a good move for Novak. I don’t think this was an urgent decision since Novak has done so well with the team that he has. Novak just had a great year but maybe he needs to hear a different voice. Boris is someone he respects so it can only help. Boris knows the feeling of being out there in the final on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. I see this as a good match.”

Meanwhile, there is widespread speculation in the tennis community that Roger Federer may hire Stefan Edberg as his new coach for 2014 and perhaps beyond. How does Sampras assess that possible union? Would Edberg succeed in encouraging Federer to serve and volley and attack with more frequency? Sampras responds, “Stefan is a great guy and one of the best serve-and-volleyers ever. But I feel like Roger is always going to be more comfortable staying back and not really looking to come in too much. Maybe Stefan would shed some light on movement up at the net because playing the net is about movement and intuition. There may be some other things Stefan could help Roger with. When push comes to shove and you get nervous, you always rely on what you do best. I don’t see Roger really changing his game and he doesn’t have to, but if there is a way he can utilize Stefan with some chip-and-charge it could help against some of these guys. Stefan has such a great temperament and that would be a good match if Roger decided to have Stefan travel and work with him. I have a lot of respect for Stefan and his knowledge of the game.”

Asked to elaborate on Federer’s plight after the Swiss dropped to No. 6 in the year-end 2013 Emirates ATP Rankings, Sampras asserts, “Roger has done everything in the game. He has been a great champion and he seems very motivated. My experience is when you start struggling as you get older, it is very easy to get consumed with your career and the end of it. Every time you walk into a press conference you are sort of this pink elephant in the room and they keep asking when you are going to retire and questioning if you are moving as well or not playing as well. After a while you start to believe it, but you don’t really want to believe it, so you have to find a way to get into your own world and not worry about what people are saying. I have seen Roger lose a little confidence and things that were second nature to him he seems to be second guessing. I remember my last U.S. Open  in 2002 I struggled a bit with Albert Portas in the first round, struggled against Rusedski a few rounds later and then played a pretty good match against Tommy Haas. I went on to beat Roddick and Agassi and I won the tournament. Once you get through a few tough matches in a major, you can breathe easier.”

Sampras pauses for a moment, then continues, “I think Roger is on his way to having a really good year in 2014. He will put the last year behind him. This is a time he should really enjoy. If he retires tomorrow or plays another five years, he deserves to do whatever he wants. It is not easy to have fun when you are not doing as well as you would like, but you have to look at the big picture, which is not easy to do when you are in the middle of it. But I am not worried about Roger. I just hope he gets some confidence and can contend for some more majors because he is too good. He needs to find something somewhere, to just dig deep and find a way.”

The game’s best and deepest diggers in 2013 were clearly Nadal and Djokovic, and Sampras was impressed with the high standards they set in controlling the climate of the game. Their series of contests across the years has become increasingly compelling and largely unpredictable. Nadal now holds a 22-17 career head to head edge but they split six duels in 2013 and they stand dead even at 3-3 in career major finals against each other. Where does it go from here?

“When you see that matchup,” says Sampras, “a lot depends on their draw and on how they are feeling physically. It is more of a physical test than a tennis test when they play. Whoever is fresher is going to win the match. Whoever has the extra energy to play those long, grueling points will win. Watching the U.S. Open final, Rafa just had that extra gear. I don’t know if Novak got tired or if it mentally just got to him, but that is the difference between the two on any given day. It is not like someone has a better forehand or a better backhand or anything like that. They play the same game and they play it very well. They both are mentally and physically very strong so it is a matter of who is feeling better on the day. I don’t look at any strategy making the difference when they play. It’s just a matter of who can stay focused the longest and who can handle the stress of those 30 ball rallies. Novak had his opportunities at the Open but Rafa is a scrappy, scrappy player. It is fun to watch him and he probably has the best attitude I have ever seen on a tennis court.”

Does Sampras believe Nadal is the best competitor he has ever witnessed? “Yeah,” he answers, “I really feel like Rafa hardly ever gets down on himself and when he does he recovers very quickly. You almost need amnesia to play tennis and he has that. He sprints out there to the baseline after the coin toss. You just know you are in a battle against Rafa. He is always positive and upbeat. If he is momentarily a little down, he will just throw up that fist pump and that is a real lesson for the young kids playing the game.  His personality and attitude added to the fact that he is a great player makes for a winning formula.”

Shifting his attention to Nadal’s astonishing and unprecedented, large-scale comeback in 2013, Sampras contends, “It was a great effort for him to do all the proper treatment and everything you have to do to make that kind of a comeback. From a tennis standpoint I wasn’t surprised because he always hit the ball so well. It is a matter of getting that confidence back. It can sometimes take a match or two to find your feet and then, there you go. Nadal is in the prime of his career and he has turned a clay court game into a really good indoor game and hard court game. He is just a flat-out great player. It was a smart call for him to take a break to heal his knee and to give himself a really good push for the rest of his career. I look at him doing great things in 2014, and Novak as well. I see Novak as a real warrior out there and I am a big fan of him and his mentality.”

Addressing the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry once more, Sampras is asked if he expects to see them meeting on a bunch of auspicious occasions across the next few year. He replies, “I really do. I feel these two are the leaders of the pack. Sure, there are some dark horses out there but you will probably see Djokovic and Nadal battling it out in the finals a lot. That is the way I see the game. Obviously Roger can still contend and do well, and Murray is up there. Everyone is beatable but Nadal and Djokovic are consistently the best at the moment.”

And yet, Sampras was deeply impressed by Murray’s triumph on the Centre Court last July as the 26-year-old secured a second major title and his first on the lawns of the All England Club. “It was just a great effort for Andy with all of the pressure of his country,” says Sampras “It was just his time. You felt like he had chances against Roger the year before in the final and then he won the Olympics on that court. It was meant to be. Andy handled it very well. Novak played that long semifinal with Del Potro which was a war. So he hit the wall emotionally.  Novak’s energy was low and everything was just so much up against him. Novak was playing against the whole country. As strong as Novak is, it would have been too tough a challenge for him.”

Having said that, Sampras unhesitatingly heaped praise upon Murray for how he has elevated his game over the last few years and for taking matters more into his own hands. As Sampras puts it, “I always felt before that Andy was scared to miss and he would still beat a lot of guys playing that way, but to beat the very top guys you have to take your chances and be more aggressive. Andy is doing that now. He is obviously a great player and a great mover and he does a lot of things well on the court. He had a great year winning Wimbledon. It will be interesting to see how Andy handles this coming year. From my experience, when you defend a major there is always a little more at stake, but Andy will do fine. He has a good team around him and Ivan Lendl has really helped him.”

Having examined all of today’s leading players in depth, it was time for Sampras to talk about something that has been on my mind ever since Nadal won his 13th major at the U.S. Open. Sampras concluded his career in the ultimate style back in 2002 when he won his fifth U.S. Open and fourteenth major. His four set triumph over leading rival Andre Agassi in Arthur Ashe Stadium was the last tennis match he would ever play. A year later on the same court, he officially announced his retirement from tennis in a poignant evening ceremony. That was in 2003, less than two months after Federer claimed his first Grand Slam title. By 2009, the purposeful Swiss had broken Sampras’s record at the majors, winning Wimbledon in an epic over Andy Roddick for his 15th major with Sampras sitting in attendance.

Federer, of course, now owns 17 “Big Four” prizes, more than any man in history. Nadal is only four behind. I asked Sampras how surprised he is that his record could be broken so swiftly by one great player, while another now needs only two more majors to surpass him. Only eleven years have passed since Sampras played his last match, and many of us thought when he left tennis that he deserved to wear a label on his lapel as the greatest player of all time. Among the best modern players, the chief historical target for Sampras was always the redoubtable Rod Laver, the only player ever to win two Grand Slams (in 1962 and 1969). What were the chances that two all-time greats like Federer and Nadal would collect so many big prizes in barely over a decade?

“I really didn’t see it coming,” replies a thoughtful and pensive Sampras, who conveys no self-pity about the chain of events. “I didn’t know what was next in the game and who was going to dominate, but if you would have said eleven years later that there would be two great players with 17 majors and 13 majors--and I really feel like Novak when he is done could very well have double digits—that would then be three players with double digit majors, and I wouldn’t have predicted that. I feel like in my time there were more major winners. It just seemed it was harder for me to dominate. There were some dark horses that were tough for me.”

Sampras says that without even a vestige of resentment or remorse. He adds, “I knew Roger was going to be a great player after I lost to him at Wimbledon [in 2001] but I had no idea he was going to come out there and win 17. Rafa is at 13. It is more than just playing great tennis. It is a lifestyle and a sacrifice. It is being willing to do it all, and there are only a handful of people who are willing to do that. But we have two players in the same generation that have done it and continue to do it. I really didn’t see it coming. Those two guys really impress me. They have done great things and have been so consistent for so long. It is not easy to do. It’s not that I thought my 14 was going to last forever, but it happened so quickly. Boom, it seemed like Roger won his first 12 majors in three years [it was actually five years from 2003-2007]. It was just where the sport was at and how great Roger and Rafa are, and everything was set up perfectly. I mean, look at Rafa at the French—from the court, to his technology, to his mentality, it is like a match made in heaven. When you get to a surface where you can dominate, you can win a bunch of them, like I did at Wimbledon.”

Sampras definitely expects Nadal to surpass his total of majors, but will the Spaniard move past the Swiss to No. 1 on the list of major singles title winners for the men? “It’s a good question,” says Sampras. “I am not sure. Numbers-wise and depending on how long he wants to play and if he stays healthy, he very well could do it. If Rafa plays three more years, that is 12 more majors he will play in that time. He could get a few more French’s, he could do well at Wimbledon again and he could break Roger’s record. But I am not sure he has to or wants to. I am not saying he will break it but he is definitely capable of doing it.”

If Nadal does pass Sampras and move to No. 2 on the list over the next year or two, would that inevitably inspire him to chase the Federer record at full force? Wouldn’t it be impossible then for Nadal to ignore the quest? “I don’t know Rafa,” answers Sampras, “but with the things he says he doesn’t seem that much into records. He speaks very humbly about it all. But maybe deep down when he passes me and he looks at Roger’s number, he will fight as hard as he can to do it, which he always does. Will he play an extra year or two if his body is banged up? I am not sure, but when he is at 15 majors, it is something he would have to think about and figure out what he is willing to do. He is still quite young and from a numbers standpoint with all the majors he has left to play and the fact that he is pretty much in the semis or finals of just about all of them, he could pull it off.”

Being regarded by the experts as the best player of all time is partially about the numbers but other factors must be considered: how complete is the player, how good was he at his best relative to the others, and how consistent has the candidate been over a lengthy span? How does Sampras look at this debate in terms of prime candidates like himself, Laver, Federer, and Nadal?

“You can look at it from the numbers, “says Sampras, “and give it to Federer or Nadal or whoever comes out on top. You go with styles of play and you look at Rafa on grass and feel he may be a little vulnerable. You look at Roger and the fact that he got to four French finals and won it once, plus he won all of those Wimbledons and U.S. Opens. He has been more consistent on all the surfaces so you can give it to him. I don’t know. It is barroom talk. There are so many different ways to look at it, but I just look as each generation having their player--- certainly Laver was the player of his generation, Borg in his time, myself in my time and then Roger and Rafa. It is hard to say one guy is the best.”

Few champions have been as modest and understated about their greatness as Sampras has been. Since Sampras retired, three players have celebrated seasons when they secured three majors—Federer in 2004, 2006 and 2007; Nadal in 2010; and Djokovic in 2011. Sampras never captured three Grand Slam events in a single year, yet he had four prime years (1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997) when he took two majors, and he is the only man in the “Open Era” to establish himself as the No. 1 player in the world for six consecutive seasons (1993-98). I brought that fact up to him and asked if he is being overlooked by some critics today who are caught up in the glow of Nadal and Federer?

“I don’t know,” he replies. “You know me pretty well. I look at it as having a great career and being No. 1 for those six years was pretty good. But there are a lot of different lists out there. I just know that in my time for the most part I was the best in my decade, and that is all I need. I don’t need more. If I am not in the top whatever it is, I still know what I have done and who I have beaten. Honestly, at 42 I don’t really worry about it. I have moved on with my tennis in a way and where I end up being doesn’t really matter. I go to bed at night knowing I was the [best] player of my time. And that is all I can really ask of myself.”

Sampras played Federer once in that Wimbledon classic back in 2001, and then collided with the Swiss four more times in exhibitions late in 2007 and early in 2008. But he never had the chance to take on Nadal or Djokovic. How does he imagine those showdowns would have played out?

“I feel I would have matched up pretty good against Rafa just because he stands so far back on the return of serve. I feel like I could get in on him. He is one of those guys like Andre Agassi where you try to keep the ball away from the center of the court and if you are able to get him moving you can try to take control. With Rafa, as great as he moves I would have gotten him off the court a little easier than I could have with Novak. I would get in and serve-and-volley on both serves with Rafa staying so far back on his returns. With Novak, I think he would also be very tough. He returns from closer to the baseline and hardly misses a return with his long reach. I think I would try to do with him what I did against Agassi and Jim Courier—try to get in on both serves and chip and charge. The last thing I would want to do with Rafa and Novak is get into those long rallies, which those guys love to do. I have always had the mentality where I am going to be the enforcer. I felt I served-and-volleyed successfully against Agassi and if I could do that against him, I could serve-and-volley pretty much against anyone in the history of the game.”

Since he seemed to enjoy chewing on this topic, I asked Sampras to expand a bit more on the notion of competing in a time warp against the two best players in today’s world of tennis. “It would have been fun in both matchups,” he says. “Certainly technology would have helped me out because I couldn’t use the racket I used to play with. I would use the Babolat racket and it would certainly help out my serve and volley and give me a little more zip on the backhand. It really has made the game easier. But playing Novak and Rafa would be tough. I look at those two guys as similar to playing Andre and Marat Safin and maybe a little like Lleyton Hewitt, who was fast and returned well. My whole thing is just trying to get in, which is not easy to do against these guys. That is the only way I know how to play.”

Having covered so much ground already, Sampras is still going strong. Asked how he compares this golden generation of top players with his generation which featured Agassi, Courier, Michael Chang and even Becker and Edberg, Sampras replies, “It is a Golden Era now because you have all of these great players winning majors. Part of it is the nature of the game. Everyone is playing pretty much the same way but these two or three guys are just so much better at it that it than the other players. It seems at times like they have won their matches before they even walk out there on the court. Back in my day there was more of a contrast. One day you would play Andre and the next you would face Boris. You were dealing with different styles of play and dangerous players like Goran Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek. Those guys could take the racket out of your hands. They had the capability of doing that. You look at Rafa playing David Ferrer now and you feel Ferrer has no chance against Rafa. Rafa is so much better at playing the same game. The second tier with Tsonga and Berdych is not dynamic enough to really scare the top guys. That is where the game is at.”

Having spent so much time reflecting on the great players of today and of days gone by, Sampras shifted gears to speak of his own tennis these days. He will play three of the PowerShares Series events on the west coast in Salt Lake City, Sacramento, California, and Surprise, Arizona during February and March. He will meet Agassi on “World Tennis Day” in March at London. And he has some other possible exhibitions on the table of discussion, including one in Egypt and another in Germany.

Turning his attention to the PowerShares Series events run by Jim Courier’s InsideOut Sports & Entertainment company, Sampras is glad that Roddick and James Blake will be competing on that tour for the first time, adding some new spark and energy as they join the likes of Courier, Chang, Lendl, Agassi, John McEnroe and himself. “It is good for the tour and guys like Jim and Andre and John and myself that we will have some new blood with Andy and James. For me personally, to sort of lay it on the line and play a little harder against someone like Blake is something I look forward to. Andy and James are both popular American players. You have to step up your game against these younger guys because you won’t want to embarrass yourself. I wanted to stay on the west coast this coming year and be closer to home.  You are making pretty good money to play some tennis. But I wanted to keep it pretty short this year and just play the three events and that works out well for me.”

Meanwhile, Sampras is playing golf regularly, sometimes with tennis friends including Paul Annacone, Blake, Roddick, Mardy Fish and Roddick, working out regularly in the gym to keep himself sharp and fit, and leading a good life with his family. “I am playing a ton of golf and going to the gym. There are a lot of sporting events at school for my kids so I do a little bit of everything but the gym is a big focus. In L.A., you are driving a lot and you pick up the kids at 4PM and your day is over. I didn’t play much tennis this year, but next year I will be playing a little more, and I am going to the Australian Open in January to hand out the trophy. I am looking forward to that.”

The fans in Melbourne will heartily welcome back the estimable 1994 and 1997 victor. In the eye of my mind, I can see Sampras shaking hands with Nadal or Djokovic very late on the evening of Sunday January 26 in a memorable post-match tournament ceremony, as one luminary greets another.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.