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Flink: Sampras on Sampras

12/3/2007 8:21:00 PM

by Steve Flink

In many ways, Pete Sampras conducts himself in an interview with the same kind of understated and quiet authority he has always brought to his business on the court. He speaks comfortably, easily, without any pretenses. He answers questions directly, candidly, knowing full well who he is and what he wants to convey about himself and his priorities. He comes across earnestly, sensibly, in utter control of himself and his emotions.

I was reminded of all of these qualities when I talked with Sampras last week over the telephone. I wanted him to put in perspective what had happened in his recent three match exhibition series with Roger Federer contested in Seoul, Korea (November 20), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (November 22), and Macau, China (November 24). Federer had prevailed 6-4, 6-3 in Seoul and 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) in Kuala Lumpur before Sampras captured the last clash 7-6 (8), 6-4 in Macau. Many had seen these skirmishes on Tennis Channel; others watched it online over the past week. [click here to watch the matches] I viewed these confrontations when they were first put on television, and offered my own take on the proceedings. No column I have written has drawn more reader response or passion; fans were universally exuberant about seeing these two icons performing on those Asian stages together.

But I thought the time had come to let Sampras hold court himself, to tell us precisely how he saw it. How hard did he step up his training beyond the work he had done earlier in the year preparing for his appearances on the Champions Series [senior] events? "I definitely stepped it up," said Sampras. "I hit every other day for two weeks with Sam Querrey, and we were playing a lot of sets. Sam hits a very big ball and has a big serve and I wanted to play at that pace so I could find my range and find my game while getting my body used to serving-and-volleying and the change of directions and explosive movements you need for that. I stretched a lot more before and after I played and warmed up with jogging and stretching. It was as close as I have been to back in the day [during my career] when I used to prepare and focus so hard. I wanted to play well against Roger but also wanted my body to hold up to play three matches in five days. I was pleasantly surprised that my body held up quite well."

What were his expectations as he headed over there? "I didn't know where my game was going to be," replied Sampras. "I didn't want to be embarrassed out there and I didn't think I would be. I wouldn't have signed up for these matches against Roger if I didn't feel I could be competitive. I felt if I could pull of a set [in one of the matches] that would be a big bonus for me. I didn't think I would beat Roger. Going into these exhibitions some people expected him to beat me 2 and 2. I just wanted to compete well against him."

Sampras built a 4-2, first set lead in Seoul before Federer took over and glided to victory. Sampras played sporadically brilliant tennis but was inconsistent and devoid of his customary match playing instincts in that encounter. How did he feel? "I lacked confidence," he said. "Not only was I battling my game having not played, but I was a little uneasy with where I was at and then I was dealing with the great things Roger brings to the table. That combination made me uncomfortable. I also didn't feel great physically because of my jet lag. I pretty much got over there the day before. So I was a little bit out of sorts and didn't feel I got into a rhythm. I felt like I hit the ball o.k. but I felt a little overanxious and I was going for too much because I was playing Roger."

Two days later in Kuala Lumpur, Sampras was delighted to push Federer much more before falling in a pair of tie-breaks. Recollecting that battle, Sampras said, "I just felt a lot less nervous. I got off to a good start. It was fast conditions and he was having a hard time returning my serve. I was having a hard time getting into a rhythm from the back court but I felt a lot better out there. The anxiety went away. Seoul just broke the ice for me and in Kuala Lumpur I hardly missed a volley and served pretty well. I had a few chances here and there. I could have pulled off a set there which would have been great, but even though I didn't I felt I was right there with him, while in Seoul I was kind of a deer in the headlights. In Kuala Lumpur I lost 6 and 6 without losing my serve, so that made me feel really good going into the match in Macau."

In Macau, Sampras came out firing on all cylinders, serving stupendously on another awfully quick court, not losing his serve for the second match in a row. He never even faced a break point in recording his triumph, and, as was the case in Malaysia, did not serve a single double fault. As Sampras recalled, "I remember warming up for that match with Roger and saying, "Wow, this court is fast!' You would hit a slice on that court and it would just keep on slicing. It was one of those courts where you could hit a three quarter speed serve and still pull off an ace. I think we both wished maybe the court would have been a bit slower which would have added some creativity."

Sampras paused, then said, "I started off serving well [he released 7 aces in his first three service games] and so did Roger, and I was thinking, "If we keep this up we are going into a breaker and anything could happen.' When I went for a forehand return and made it at set point in the tie-break, I felt really happy. I was thinking, "I can leave this court having achieved my goal.' It went to 4-4 in the second set and he missed a forehand and I played a good break point, and then I served it out. It all happened pretty quickly at the end. I just popped an ace and a few service winners when I served for the match and the next thing I knew I had won it. The crowd was electric. That match was all about confidence for me. I didn't feel any anxiety out there. It was a good feeling walking off that court."

Not only did Sampras put on nearly immaculate serving displays in Malaysia and China, but he absolutely found his comfort zone in packaging his delivery and backing it up superbly with his volleying. He got in swiftly behind the serve and his first volley was often breathtaking. Moreover, he would not back away from that tactic, rarely staying back on either his first or second serves. In the senior events, he has mixed it up more, but he fully recognized that he needed to attack relentlessly on serve against Federer, who has grown so accustomed these days to trading punches from the back of the court with his chief adversaries. 

"Serving-and-volleying at this stage of my life takes its toll", Sampras explains. "So in the other events I don't serve-and-volley quite as much on both serves in other events. I like to hit a few balls and find my timing, whereas when I played Roger I knew I needed to come in constantly and bring in the gas. The serve-and-volley is a bit of an art. It takes time to get into that timing and rhythm but I finally found it against Roger in the Kuala Lumpur match and it came pretty naturally from then through the match in Macau."

Beyond the joy he found in elevating his game, Sampras was buoyed by the enthusiasm of the crowds in both Kuala Lumpur and Macau, and appreciative of their energy. "In Kuala Lumpur," he said, "they had 11,000 people and it was loud. They gave us great ovations, some good tennis was played and they were into it. In Macau the crowd was about the same size and they said the toughest ticket to get was for our match. It was a big deal over there. In Macau it was packed with great energy and I felt like they were rooting for the old guy a little bit. That felt good. I almost felt a little sheepish at times. I didn't feel bad for Roger but I have been in those shoes where you are the heavy favorite and everyone is kind of rooting for the other guy. And Roger didn't need to do this. He really didn't. I told him that a bunch of times."

The entire experience was one Sampras celebrated. As he puts it, "I got a great kick out of it. It was fun and I enjoyed preparing for it. It was just like old times. The amount of coverage in Asia was incredible. I said to my wife a bit sarcastically when I got home, "Where do I go from here?' It was very exciting. It was competitive and we had some light hearted moments but we were taking it seriously. We were playing hard and Roger and I were going a hundred percent. My wife put the matches on TiVo and when they did the close ups I could see Roger had the same look that he has all the time. Maybe we were not quite as intense but I felt good about the whole experience and to pull off a couple of sets was a thrill for me. It was a tricky situation for both of us in a weird way and I thought we both handled it well. I had not played in five years and Roger is the best player in the world. Roger could have done this with anybody but he was nice enough to throw an old man a bone by giving me a chance to play against him over there."

Through it all, Sampras also enjoyed the time he spent away from the arena with Federer. "I was having a great time hanging out with Roger. He is a great guy who is fun to be around and we kind of connected in a way of just like two kids acting like two kids. I hope we can maybe do it again next year in Asia, but that is up to him. I took away a lot of great memories, took a lot of pictures and liked getting to know Roger better."

Ever since the announcement was made on the last day of the 2007 U.S. Open that Sampras and Federer would meet in March at Madison Square Garden, American enthusiasts have eagerly awaited that occasion. Some in the industry say now that there is a chance the Garden exhibition might not take place after all, not because the two players would not like to do it but for other reasons related to the costs surrounding such a big night in New York. Be that as it may, Sampras wants to take advantage of any good opportunities he might have to push himself competitively across the next couple of years.

"I still enjoy playing," he said at the end of our conversation. "Playing those matches against Roger was very satisfying. I still believe that I can be competitive with anyone in the game today. I am not saying I can beat anyone. I am saying I could at least go up against whomever on a hard court or another fast court and still hold my serve pretty handily and still pop some winners here and there. For the past year or so I have felt I could be competitive. I would love to play some more exhibitions next year against some of the younger guys, if it is a Blake or a Roddick or someone else, just to go out and test myself to see where I am at. I am not sure these guys would want to do this but it would be fun for me while I still can be competitive because that window is getting more closed as I get a little older. For the next year or two I think I can do it."

Irrefutably, he proved that with his sparkling play against Federer. And as he finished up this interview and left to take his son to school, I was reminded once more that when he makes up his mind to pursue a new challenge, when he finds a target and goes full force after it, when he puts it all on the line, Pete Sampras invariably gives himself every chance to succeed.

He always has, and always will.

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