by Steve Flink
Among his many laudatory qualities, Pete Sampras’s decency and humility are the twin attributes that always spring to mind when I am interviewing him. He is prideful without being arrogant, self assured yet not cocky, steadfast in his convictions but able to understand and appreciate other points of view. During a telephone interview at the end of the first week of this new year in a new decade, Sampras sounded upbeat and near the top of his game as he reflected on an eventful 2009. He talked about his first visit back to Wimbledon in seven years for an historic occasion, his exhibition in China against old rival and friend Andre Agassi, his ups and downs on the Outback Champions Series Tour, and how he views the future from the vantage point of a 38-year-old champion looking to compete in his own way and decidedly on his own terms as he selectively goes about his business.
The natural launching point for our discussion was the dramatic and unannounced trip Sampras made to see Roger Federer defeat Andy Roddick in an epic final at Wimbledon on July 5th. Federer, of course, not only secured a sixth Wimbledon singles crown, but broke a record he had shared with Sampras, winning a 15th career major title to stand alone atop the historical ladder at the Grand Slam events among the men. As the fortnight progressed at Wimbledon and Federer moved safely through the draw to reach the final, everyone speculated about whether or not Sampras would show up for the big occasion. In the end, he felt he needed to be there.
Did he have a difficult time making the decision? “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Sampras replies. “There was no guarantee that Roger was going to get to the final. I had been thinking that it is quite a long trip and I asked a ton of people what they thought I should do. They all said, ‘You have to go.’ I felt that was easier said than done, hopping on a plane for 12 hours, and needing to make sure my kids were taken care of. But when push came to shove, it was the right thing to do for me to go, and I wanted to be there out of respect for Roger. The fact that we are pretty good friends certainly added to it.”
After landing in London and rushing into town with his wife to their hotel for a change of clothes, Sampras arrived in the Royal Box early in the first set. As he joined former champions Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Manolo Santana in the prime seats behind the court, the audience murmur rose to a remarkably excitable buzz, and the seven time champion acknowledged the fans with an appreciative wave as he sat down in the Centre Court.
“I really didn’t know what to expect walking in there,” he explains now. “I sort of sat down and figured during a changeover people would be doing other things. But all of a sudden the attention went towards the Royal Box. It was a nice ovation they gave me and then Roger kind of signaled to me. It felt good. People didn’t know I was coming and I kept it pretty quiet. For those few seconds it was nice to get the response from people. There was a buzz and people were looking over and photographers were turning my way, but I didn’t want to take away from the match.”
Sampras settled in for what turned into a stupendous contest, and enjoyed himself immensely. “It was the highlight of the year being back at Wimbledon. It was surreal. Being back there brought back a lot of great memories for me. Seeing Roger break the record made people ask me if I was rooting against him, and I really wasn’t. I think all of us--- Laver, Borg and myself--- were kind of wanting Andy to pull the match out because this would have been his first Wimbledon title. Andy was working so hard and sitting behind him we could see the strain on his face while Roger always looks so cool. Roddick was so close and he just slipped for about 15 seconds in the tiebreaker and that gave Roger a little bit of breathing room.”
Sampras paused for an instant, and then added, “We all felt bad for Andy. That was his one shot really to be assured of a Hall of Fame career. To beat Roger on that court would have solidified his career. It is not that he hasn’t had a very good career, but winning Wimbledon over Roger would have added a ton to what he has been able to do, and he came up just short. At the same time Roger has been a great champion and I have said many times if somebody was going to break my record I would like it to be him. I felt it was a great moment for the sport having myself and Bjorn and Rod all there in the Centre Court to see it. You won’t have many moments like that in tennis. It was very cool and I got a lot of nice compliments from people who really respected that I was there. At the end of the day I was glad I did it.”
Meanwhile, Sampras made his share of appearances on the court in 2009, winning two Outback Champions Series event in Boston and Los Cabos, and losing the final of Charlotte to Jim Courier. In Boston, he took a hard fought final from John McEnroe 7-6 (10), 6-4. McEnroe will be 50 next month, but somehow he plays on phenomenally well at senior events despite being significantly older than his most of his adversaries. I asked Sampras about how McEnroe manages to defy the clock to such a large degree, and he answered, “John hasn’t ever really stopped playing, while I went through a stretch of about three years where I didn’t pick up a racket and I play sporadically now, so it has made my body not as ready or as sharp as it needs to be at certain times, while John keeps playing a lot of matches and even at 50 he is in great shape. He stretches a lot in the locker room. And he still has the discipline and the hands, which you are not going to lose. The only thing you lose is some flexibility and movement, but I am amazed that at 50 he still holds his own and is so consistent in his play.”
At Los Cabos, Mexico, in the spring of 2009, Sampras took on Patrick Rafter in the championship match, meeting his former rival for the first time since their U.S. Open round of 16 clash in 2001. That was another high quality skirmish, with Sampras fending off one set point at 4-5 in the opening set on an unstoppable first serve scorcher to the backhand, and saving another set point in the tie-break. Eventually, despite not serving out the match at 5-3 in the second set, Sampras exploited his superior resources and shot making skills to prevail 7-6 (6), 6-4 over the affable Australian.
As Sampras points out, “Pat is young and is in good shape and still plays well. I remember the court in Los Cabos was moving quickly and we played straightforward tennis where I was coming in a lot and so was he. He is in shape and the tennis was good. I squeaked that one by and came through in the end, and then made it a vacation with the wife afterwards. It was a good event for me.”
Perhaps the most surprising loss Sampras had in an otherwise productive and successful 2009 season of competition was his final set, Super Tie-break defeat against an unwavering and purposeful Courier on the hard courts of Charlotte. On that occasion, Sampras routinely took the opening set before Courier retaliated in the second. In the Super Tie-Break, Sampras was serving into the sun at 8-9 and match point down when he double faulted to lose the contest.
What does he remember most about that encounter? “It was a reflection of my not preparing all that well at home before that event, and that can catch up with you”, he answers. “I really felt that this past year my hips and my back were just [giving me problems] and sometimes I don’t have the spring in my step. If I am going to continue to play I will need to be more diligent with my body and my tennis and just be more consistent. Against Jim that day, I played well enough to win but Jim is playing quite well and after winning the first set I sort of let it slip there, but I got over it quickly. It is such a change from when I used to play and I was so wrapped up in every win and loss. I am still competitive and like to win, but if I don’t I am okay with it.”
Having said that, there are clearly times when Sampras is driven by an occasion or a moment that inspires him to perform with more panache and greater vitality. Such an occasion was his exhibition duel with Agassi on October 25th in Macau, China, in the same setting where he toppled Federer in another meeting two years earlier. The two prodigious Americans had last clashed in an official match at the 2002 U.S. Open in the final, when Sampras toppled his compatriot in four sets in the last match of his illustrious professional career. It was the fourth time without a defeat at the championships of their country that Sampras had bested Agassi, and his 20th triumph in 34 head-to-head clashes against his most storied rival.
Now, seven years later in China, it was time for a renewal of sorts. They were playing simply for pride and a good payday, but both men put on a terrific show. Was this like watching Sampras and Agassi competing in their primes? Plainly, it was not. The passage of time has diminished both men in different ways, and yet they performed admirably, and played a match worthy of the time and the situation. In fact, taking into consideration that Agassi is 39 and Sampras only a year younger, they were first rate.
Agassi set the pace in the early stages. He broke Sampras for a 3-1 first set lead, and served almost unconsciously well all through that set, releasing 8 aces in five service games. Agassi was going for broke on his delivery, finding the corners uncannily well, and keeping a not yet gelling Sampras at bay. But Sampras was finding his own groove on serve, and the rest of his game fell neatly into place. Sampras commenced the second set with two aces and two service winners in a love game, and that set the tone. He broke Agassi for a 3-1 lead, and seized control of the set. At 5-3, 40-30, Sampras directed a first serve to the backhand, followed it in, and made a vintage backhand half volley pickup down the line off a sizzling return. Agassi chased that shot down, but Sampras had the net covered, placing a forehand volley carefully into a wide open court, celebrating his second set win with a patented fist pump.
On they went to a Super Tie-break, and Sampras remained ascendant. He opened that sequence by walloping a trademark forehand crosscourt winner for a quick mini-break, then advanced swiftly to 3-0 with a solid serve-and-volley combination followed by a crackling first serve that Agassi could not handle on the backhand return. It was 3-0 for Sampras, but Agassi recouped quickly. He took both of his service points, and then reached 3-3 when Sampras netted an easy backhand first volley down the line from close range after a strong first serve.
Sampras went immediately back to work. He sent out a huge first serve down the T that Agassi could barely touch to reach 4-3. An aggressively struck backhand return from Sampras coaxed Agassi into a backhand mistake, and now it was 5-3 for the younger American. Yet Agassi stood his ground to take his next service point for 4-5. Sampras answered that with two excellent first serves to the backhand, with Agassi unable to make either return. 7-4 Sampras. Agassi obstinately closed the gap to 7-6, but Sampras was unyielding. He made a remarkable backhand half volley off a fine return from Agassi to force his adversary into a passing shot error, and then aced Agassi out wide in the deuce court with an impeccably delivered sliced first serve.
It was 9-6 for Sampras, but Agassi was not through. He saved two match points, erasing the second with a magnificent backhand down the line passing shot winner. Serving at 9-8 with a third match point opportunity, Sampras reproduced a clutch serve that had worked wonders for him across the years on big points against Agassi. He went down the T in the Ad Court with his opponent leaning the other way, and that emphatic ace was a fitting way for the clash to end. He had aced Agassi with the same serve on match point to seal his victories at the 1995 U.S. Open and 1999 Wimbledon finals. Match to Sampras 3-6, 6-3, 10-8.
Unmistakably, Sampras improved substantially as the match wore on. After losing his serve in the opening set, he was untouchable, taking 36 of 41 points on his delivery thereafter. He won 20 of 22 points on serve in the second set, and 8 of 9 in the concluding Super Tie-break. Moreover, he found the range off the forehand, volleyed with precision and feel, and stopped allowing Agassi to dictate with any regularity from the back of the court.
Recalling that confrontation, Sampras says, “It was special. I got over there and practiced the day I got in and again the next morning. The intensity of the practices was a little more than usual and walking on the court with Andre with 15,000 people there to see us, there was just a buzz in the air so I tried to step it up a little bit. I thought we both played quite well. We both don’t move as well as we used to but Andre still hits the ball, great, still hits it hard. It was good for us to play in that environment and they slowed the court down from how it was when I played Roger, which was a good thing. It was much more of a medium pace, whereas against Roger it was like playing on ice. I settled down in the second set and got a hold of his game and the pace and started getting my serve going and I got into a good rhythm. It was good to see Andre and catch up with him a little bit. It was a good match and maybe a springboard for us to play a few more times this year.”
That exhibition was played not long before Agassi’s controversial autobiography “Open” was released. I asked Sampras if Agassi had mentioned the book to him when they were in China. “He did. We talked about my book (“A Champion’s Mind”) and we talked about his, and we spoke about his process and my process. He didn’t give me any details. He just said, ‘There are some things in there that are going to shock you. Fasten your seatbelt.’ This was literally a week or two before his book came out, and then the whole thing exploded.”
Has Sampras read the Agassi book? “I haven’t read it,” he responds. “I have gotten wind of some of the things he said about me, the part about me being robotic and the lack of inspiration, something of that nature. People wanted me to respond but it has never been my nature to take shots. When I wrote my book I didn’t want to offend anyone. I wanted to explain to people about my career and my childhood and how I did it. Andre took a different approach and that is fine. I have always respected Andre and we have been pretty good friends over time.”
I brought up the fact that Sampras and Agassi were always deferential towards each other all through their careers, and that they always seemed to fully endorse an unwritten code of not saying anything negative about each other. In my view, Agassi broke that code flagrantly in his book and I told Sampras I thought Agassi seemed to go out of his way to make derogatory remarks and tell unflattering stories about him.
“There is a friendship and a respect there between us,” says Sampras, “and you are right that there is a certain code that even when we were really competitive we sort of rose above all of the catty things. Taking shots and doing it in a book did surprise me. It is something I might ask him about if we sit face to face, but it is his choice and he has to live with whatever he brings up in his book. But with me and him I just always felt we have always been above that. I do respect Andre, but I think when you get in a situation where you are talking to a writer and doing a book, you are using this writer as therapy. You start talking and you are getting into it and maybe his real feelings came out and maybe there is some animosity he has towards me deep down. I don’t know.”
Shifting from Agassi to the subject of Tiger Woods and the great golfer’s altered and shaken world, Sampras speaks thoughtfully and with his usual sense of restraint. “I don’t know Tiger that well, but we are all surprised and it is a sad situation. I am not going to sit here and judge him and point fingers. It is all very sad and it is going to take some time for Tiger. Maybe he is a little embarrassed now and is not sure what he wants to do. Once he puts a club in his hand it will be like riding a bike and he will still do well. It is just going to take some time for Tiger to figure out what is next for him.”
Next up for Sampras will be an exhibition against Fernando Verdasco at San Jose in February. He says, “It is a tricky situation for me, dealing with so many different elements, being older and trying to find my game and be consistent in a one off match. Even in my prime it took me a match or two to find my bearings. Verdasco is a top ten player with a big serve and a huge forehand. Hopefully I don’t embarrass myself. It will be a tough test for me. Especially in the last year or so my body has not been quite as limber. It won’t be easy but I will do what I can and it will be easier to find my game indoors.”
Aside from the Verdasco match, and possibly a few more friendly showdowns with Agassi, Sampras says, “I don’t have much scheduled. I am not going to do the Outback Series events in Boston and Charlotte this year. If there is something closer to home, maybe down in Mexico, I will consider it. I am just sort of slowing down with it. I think the romance is sort of dying. I was a little more inspired when I came back three years ago after not doing much for three years before that. I was a little more inspired back then. It is not the training that I mind--- it is just the practicing on the court. When you want to move and feel a certain way and you don’t, it can be frustrating. The way I play, serving-and-volleying, is such a physical game that it is tough on the joints. To get up and serve now, I need like 30 minutes to warm up. It takes a while for the body to get going. I still enjoy playing and I am always going to play a little bit, but it isn’t going to be like it was a few years ago.”
Along with so many other keen observers of the game, Sampras looks forward to the upcoming Australian Open. “I look at one of the top five guys probably winning it,” he projects. “Nadal seems eager and so does Roger. I see Murray having a big year and I think it is time for him to step up and win one of these things. It should be an interesting and a good year and the Australian Open is such a fair test. I look forward to it.”
Over the course of a sterling career which featured 14 major title victories, Sampras seldom was at his zenith at the Australian Open. He took seven of his Grand Slam championships at Wimbledon, captured five more at the U.S. Open, but had to settle for two Australian Open triumphs. “I always felt,” he muses, “that every time I went to Australia with the balls and the changing conditions and the Rebound Ace surface, I never really felt comfortable playing there except for a few years. Every year it was something new. Now they have finally got a good hard court and the guys seem to enjoy it and I just wish they had that 15 years ago. Rebound Ace for me personally was the worst court that I could play on. I never like conditions to change in the middle of a tournament. On Rebound Ace the court varied too much. I was very temperamental when it came to the conditions. I felt reasonably good in Australia and won it a couple of times, but it was not great for me.”
As the interview was concluding, I wanted to know how Sampras felt about the parallels between Federer now and himself in 2000. When Sampras took possession of the men’s Grand Slam title record with 13 at Wimbledon that year, he had growing problems with his motivation, and endured a 33 tournament drought before making a spectacular comeback to win his last tournament ever at the 2002 U.S. Open. Federer has the record now. Will he find himself in the same predicament?
According to Sampras, “When you have achieved so much and have broken the record, I found I didn’t have the same urgency to win week in and week out. But when it comes to the majors, Roger will be motivated to add to his record. He won’t win ten more majors but he will be striving to peak at the majors and I think he will win two or three more. He is a little older and a father with twins who has had a shift in his life. There are younger guys coming up to make it tougher. I went through it with Hewitt and Safin, and he is dealing with Del Potro and Djokovic and Murray, but Roger is still a great player and Wimbledon is always a tournament he could win as long as he plays the game. It is human nature to have a letdown when it comes to the grind of the tour, but when it comes to the majors, Roger is a perfectionist. He is a very competitive guy. As nice and as cordial as we both are, deep down we hate to lose.”
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com
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