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Steve Flink: Chat with a Champion

12/22/2008 2:13:00 PM

by Steve Flink

If you don't believe that time passes much too swiftly, consider this: it has been more than six years since Pete Sampras finished his official professional career, defeating Andre Agassi for his fifth U.S. Open and 14th Grand Slam championship, making a unique departure from the game after establishing himself unequivocally as the man a good many authorities considered the best ever to step on a tennis court. For the better part of four years, he stayed away from the field of competition, returning in 2006 to play World TeamTennis and some exhibitions.

In 2007, he branched out and won three tournaments on Jim Courier's Outback Champions Series senior circuit, faced Roger Federer in three entertaining Asian showdowns (winning the last of those encounters in Macau), and played a number of other exhibitions. And this past year of 2008, he played Federer once more before a capacity audience at the fabled Madison Square Garden in New York, serving for the match before bowing in a final set tie-break against the Swiss stylist. He then played some other events on Courier's tour and the BlackRock Tour of Champions (winning the event in Sao Paulo, Brazil over Marcelo Rios), and took on a wide range of competitors in exhibitions including Sam Querrey, Todd Martin, Tommy Haas, Radek Stepanek, Dominik Hrbaty, and last, but not least, James Blake.

Sampras toppled Blake 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on December 14, after upending Stepanek and Hrbaty during a European swing late in the year. Over the last three seasons, he has recorded wins over Federer, Andy Roddick, Haas, Querrey and Mardy Fish among others in exhibitions. A few days after his victory over Blake, I spoke with Sampras over the telephone, and found him in good spirits as he reflected on the year gone by and his plans for the future. He talked about himself and the state of his game with characteristic self awareness and modesty.

"Whenever I play current guys, "he said of his battle with Blake, "I definitely push it and step it up a little bit harder and serve and play as hard as I can. I am realistic about my game today. I can still play at a pretty high level and against James I did the things I used to be able to do, but I am not in the greatest shape in the world. Playing James I was having to work hard and serving-and-volleying on every point takes its toll on my back, feet and legs."

How seriously were the players taking the match? Sampras responds, "We were having fun [between points] but once the ball was in play we were playing hard. It was serious tennis but I did not take it too seriously and I don't think James did either. At the same time I really wanted to win and he wanted to win and it was nice to be on a reasonably slow court so we could actually play a little bit."

"One thing I am still doing pretty well is serving and I have the same attitude and confidence with my second serve as I used to back in the day. I am popping my second serve pretty good and James said after the match he could understand why guys had a hard time picking up my first and second serves. Once I feel someone is having a hard time with my second serve--- and James was a little bit--- I feel like I am making an impact. In the third set of that match, I served well. It is interesting that the more I play and the more I serve, the better I serve. So I was in a good rhythm in the third set with James. When I break someone, I just countdown how many times I need to hold to win set or the match. So as I was crossing the net I was thinking to myself, 'James, two more holds and you are done.' I was able to hold those two more times and when I served it out at 5-4, I felt pretty relaxed and comfortable."

Not long before that triumph over Blake, Sampras made his first journey back to London since his astonishing loss to lucky loser George Bastl in the second round of Wimbledon in 2002. The 37-year-old American travelled to Great Britain for the BlackRock senior event. He had come off solid exhibition wins over Hrbaty in the Slovak Republic and Stepanek in Prague, and then took his first two matches at the Albert Hall over John McEnroe and Jeremy Bates. But in the semifinals against Cedric Pioline--- a player he never lost to in nine career head-to-head contests (including two major finals) during their pro careers--- Sampras came up short and fell in two tie-breaks.

What happened there? "Cedric returned great and was serving huge," Sampras replies. "He was almost more relaxed and confident today than he was back [then], at least in the match I played against him. So I lost two tough tiebreakers and that was it. The court was fast there, almost too fast, sort of like rolling the dice. Honestly, I woke up that morning a little bit flat, thinking 'I really feel I am now working for a living.' I had been in Europe for a while [because of the exhibitions against Hrbaty and Stepanek] and it sort of hit me that day in London."

Continuing his analysis of the Pioline defeat, Sampras says, "I think I sort of hit [the wall] and it was enough tennis for me. Being over in Europe for eight or nine days was a longer trip than I would want to do again in the future. It was high level tennis against Cedric and I don't want to take anything away from him because he played great, but I wasn't too disappointed to be honest with you. I was deflated a bit after that loss but I was fine. And at the same time I was looking forward to getting home and seeing my wife and kids. My body was a little beat up and it is something for me to know for the future that I don't want to overplay.

"I don't want to feel like when I wake up I am just grinding through these events. I felt that way when I woke up the morning of the Pioline match. It is what it is, so I am not crying about it, but I am to a point where I can be very selective about the things I want to do and what I don't want to do."

He has expressed those sentiments to Courier as he makes plans to play some of his fellow American's events in the coming year. As Sampras explains, "I am just going to play a few senior events here and there, and Jim is trying to cut down his fields. I know that four matches in five days--- those days are over for me. I would like to get over there Friday, play Saturday and Sunday, and call it a day. That is sort of what I am looking for. That is what I hope to do in Boston in February and probably [Los] Cabos on Jim's tour. Jim is trying to accommodate me if possible so I can just do the two matches and just condense it a bit, which is better for me."

He has a good schedule worked out for next year and will probably play two events on the Courier tour and perhaps appear in a BlackRock event or two as well. He will probably play Blake again in San Jose, California on the Monday night coinciding with the ATP Tour event in February. He will meet Lleyton Hewitt in Memphis and is expecting to play in South America in April against Luis Horna, David Nalbandian and Roddick. "That will be a tough trip," he says. "Nalbandian and Roddick back to back will not be easy." And he could conceivably take on Rafael Nadal in Asia during the fall, although that remains a long shot.

Sampras is clearly intrigued about a potential confrontation with Nadal, for whom he has the highest respect. "He is obviously the best player in the world right now," says Sampras. "But I think in the right situation, indoors on a reasonably fast but not too fast a court, I would hold my own. I am really curious to see what his ball is like, to get a taste of the pace of his ball, the spin, his movement and his serve. I wouldn't mind playing Nadal and seeing his tools. I would love to do that and get to know him a little bit and see what I could do. I would love to serve-and-volley against him and see how difficult that would be."

Will Sampras return to London in May of 2009 to be there for an exhibition at Wimbledon testing the new roof over Centre Court? He is not sure if he will be invited to do that, or if he would be inclined to participate if asked. As he explains, "I had dinner with Tim Henman when I was in London and he mentioned the event to test the roof. I told him I would think about it but no one has really officially asked me. If they did, I would have to really think about it. I mean, it is appealing to me but I would have to give it some strong thought. I can't tell you yes or no for sure. It is obviously a court I would love to play on again. Going over to London is not an easy trip but that could be a pretty cool event, so would I consider it? Absolutely."

He is well aware of the widespread excitement over the upcoming unveiling of that roof for the 2009 Wimbledon, but Sampras at his core is a deep believer in tradition who cherishes the event for how steadfastly and unapologetically it has remained true to its roots, and for its indisputable authenticity. I asked him if he was happy about the Centre Court roof in the making.

He answered, "I don't like it. I understand why for television and for the fans this is happening, but one of the most difficult things to deal with at Wimbledon as a player are the rain delays. I feel everyone has to be on the same playing field and [with the roof] the top guys are at a slight advantage to get their match in versus someone that might lose his day off. As a player and a big fan of Wimbledon and the charm of it, and as a traditionalist about the event, I would love for it to have stayed the way it was. I understand that we are sort of catching up with modern times, but I just feel they should have kept it just the same as it was. I am not a big fan of the roof but fans in the U.S. who want to watch tennis from Wimbledon are going to be able to watch tennis now."

Sampras adds another cogent point in his case for continuity at Wimbledon. "Two of the best nights in tennis that I remember at Wimbledon were my match with Rafter in the 2000 final and the match Roger Federer and Nadal had in the final this year. It was just a great atmosphere both times at night. Obviously, it would be a pity to come back on Monday to finish a final. So it's great to have the roof for that reason. But that is how it has always been at Wimbledon. I played some years where I had a match on Monday and did not play again until Friday. That is what makes it so difficult and such a challenge." 

In any event, Sampras did not go out visit Wimbledon during his recent trip to London. He says, "I had a day off and was thinking about going but I heard from people over there that it is under construction with a lot of cranes around so I thought maybe I should wait to go back when it nice and clean and how I remember it, not like a construction site. So I decided not to go at that time."

Elaborating on his heartfelt feelings about the shrine of tennis, he says, "If I had my choice, I would like to take my kids over there when they are 10 and 7 so they could really appreciate Wimbledon and what this place has meant to their father's career. My older son [Christian] is 6 now and he is aware that I play tennis but I don't think he is aware of the history of my career and what I did. He sees me on TV, and knows that I play but he has not quite grasped sort of where I stood in the game. We get out on the court every now and again but he doesn't totally understand the trophies of mine that he sees every day. Maybe in two to four years is when he would start grasping it."

Interestingly, as Sampras points out, "In London they are going to have the Olympics in 2012 at Wimbledon. I will be 41." He pauses, and then asks playfully, "What do you think?"

He breaks freely into laughter as he lets those words hang in the air, amused at the frivolous thought of making a surprise appearance that year. I laughed and said, "Why not." But he does not seem to be seriously thinking about playing there at that age. "You know what," he says. "Tennis in the Olympics doesn't have quite the luster. I would like to go back to Wimbledon one day but I just don't know when. It will hit me when it is time. I will know. I think in a lot of ways it will be when I am ready to say goodbye to Wimbledon, because once I go I don't know how many times I will go back. People ask me if Roger is in the final and could break the record there, would I go? It sounds romantic to go out of respect for Roger and the record, but at the same time it is not an easy trip. We will see."

One thing the fans will not see this year, or perhaps ever, is another Sampras-Federer exhibition. As Sampras points out, "I think Roger is done with exhibitions. Hs is focusing on the majors and maybe trying to get back to No. 1. I think he did the other exhibitions out of respect to me but the days of he and I playing are probably over. I would say it is about 90% over. Maybe there is a chance later on when he is about done with his career but for the next number of years he is certainly done with exhibitions. I don't want to speak for him but that is the hunch I am getting."

What is his hunch about who will emerge victorious at the four majors in 2009? Sampras replies, "The shoo-in is probably Rafa winning the French. I would say it is kind of a shoo-in that Roger would win Wimbledon, not as much of a shoo-in as Nadal winning the French, but I like Roger's chances at Wimbledon. Australia is anyone's ballgame. And at the U.S. Open, because the court is a little bit quicker, I kind of like Roger there. Murray now believes that he belongs so I think he can win a major. He is right there on the edge and Djokovic is too."

Clearly, taking into account his prognosis for the 2009 Grand Slam events, Sampras expects Federer to break his record for major titles sooner or later. As he expresses it, "It is human nature to have a bit of a letdown. It is hard for anyone to keep up the pace he did in winning those 13 majors so fast. He knows he has some work to do to break the record, but I think he will do it. He will be hungry and he knows what he needs to do."

Without Federer as a friendly target to inspire him in the exhibition arena, Sampras is determined to sustain a lofty level of play as he moves through his late thirties and heads toward his forties. That means finding a good balance between pursuing victory as the champion he has always been, and recognizing that his competitive world is no longer the all consuming place it once was. "It is a different mentality for me now," he stresses. "It is real tennis but senior tennis is what it is. It is nothing more and nothing less than senior tennis. So I don't think we can take it too seriously, but we take it seriously enough for people and sponsors to want to watch and invest in it. And we still want to play well and we have a lot of pride. It is just not as cutthroat. We all want to win but are not holding on as tight --- at least I am not."

As that comment irrefutably demonstrates, his philosophy has changed to some degree, but not entirely. Putting it into perspective, Sampras says, "What I am getting with the benefit of playing is the lifestyle at home that makes me productive and focused. I go to play not feeling I have to win titles but working and preparing for something every three or four months--- a one-nighter or a senior event to keep me active and to keep me at home striving for something."

He fully understands that even as a part time, free lance player far removed from his heyday, he must not let too much time go by without getting the racket back in his hands. As Sampras puts it, "What I realized is that a year ago or even this year I didn't pick up a racket for two months because I didn't feel like it, so I would go out and play and get some injuries. And I realized I can't take that long off. I need to hit once a week, or at least once every two weeks, to get the arm ready and get the back in shape and move around a bit. It's like a pitcher who doesn't pitch for two months and goes out there and pitches. Something is going to break down. You have to maintain it."

He also has to maintain a certain competitive edge, even if his mindset is not precisely what it used to be. "Especially against the current guys, I have sort of an insecurity of wanting to be competitive against anyone in the world for one match. I couldn't do it for a week but playing against Hrbaty and Stepanek on reasonably fast courts I am looking to win a set while winning the match is a huge bonus for me. I don't want to embarrass myself out there. I just want to be competitive. When I start playing matches I am not sure what to expect. My biggest goal is just to play at a high level no matter who is on the other side of the net. That is all I am looking for. I am playing sporadically so it is harder for me to be sharp but I am still enjoying it. It is a challenge and I will do it for a few more years and just see how it goes."

The guess here is that it will go very well because Pete Sampras is an athlete of rare virtuosity, an individual who knows how far to drive himself toward his personal boundaries, and a man who recognizes how to maximize his opportunities anytime he walks out onto a tennis court.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com

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