3/7/2011 3:00:00 PM
by Steve Flink
When my phone rang last Wednesday morning, it had only been just over 33 hours since Pete Sampras had accounted for Andre Agassi 6-3, 7-5 in their eagerly anticipated BNP Paribas Showdown at New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden. Sampras was now on the line, calling from back home in California, and he was right on schedule. It was 8AM as he spoke from Los Angeles, but Sampras sounded upbeat and clear-headed, his mind uncluttered, his voice full of conviction, his outlook positive.
As our interview commenced, Sampras easily conveyed how much he enjoyed performing admirably on a renowned stage in New York in front of 17,165 people. “It was pretty cool,” he said. “When you come to the Garden you always want to be at your best in your home country in front of more than 17,000 people. People paid good money to see good tennis. I felt we did that. There is still a lot of pride I feel out there. When the ball is in my hand and I am about to serve, I want to do something special with it. That is just the way I am built, to try to do something well. Obviously I am not as good as I used to be but to be able to still hit the ball pretty well is important to me. I felt I owed those fans some real good tennis. It is not a dog and pony show. I felt I had a real responsibility to go out there well prepared and play some good tennis. I am glad I was able to do that.”
At 39, Sampras plays his tennis very selectively these days, sensibly choosing when and where he wants to compete without overdoing it, making certain he has spent the right amount of time getting ready for his exhibitions and senior tournaments, planning a schedule in a way that allows him to be consistently enthusiastic about what he is doing. But for his appointment with Agassi in New York, Sampras was primed for the occasion, fueled by the volumes of history he and his rival had created together. Agassi was always Sampras’s premier rival across the years; from 1989-2002, they collided 34 times, with Sampras recording 20 victories. More importantly, they met in five Grand Slam tournament finals, with Sampras the victor in four of those duels.
Above all else, Sampras and Agassi ran into each other at every stage of their careers in New York. Sampras stopped Agassi in three U.S. Open finals (1990, 1995, and 2002), and bested his rival all four times they clashed at Flushing Meadows, including their epic 2001 four set, all tie-break quarterfinal under the lights. Moreover, Sampras was 2-0 against Agassi at Wimbledon. Sampras, of course, celebrated a record six years in a row stationed at No. 1 in the world (1993-98) and collected 14 major singles championships, while Agassi had to settle for only one year-end No. 1 ranking, and eight majors.
And so, for the fans of New York, the memories of these two prodigious American players remain vivid and enduring. It made their Garden showdown that much more appealing. Agassi is 40 now, while Sampras will hit that numerical milestone in August, and their followers know full well that there won’t be too many opportunities left to watch them compete against each other, even if exhibitions can never match the intensity of the matches they contested during their heydays. Sampras realized that the New York audience on February 28th wanted to be reminded of what it was like to watch him play when he was at the height of his powers.
In the second game of the match, with Agassi serving at 0-1, 15-30, he served wide to his adversary’s backhand, and Sampras chipped a return down the line. Agassi cracked a forehand into the open court, sending Sampras scampering for his famous running forehand. Sampras suddenly seemed transformed straight back to the middle of his prime. On the dead run, at full stretch, as if by wizardry, he released a vintage forehand winner up the line.
I asked him how gratifying it was to play the old running forehand with such astonishing verve. He replied, “At the beginning of the match and even in the warm up, I could feel the energy and vibe of the arena. He got me out wide on my forehand and I just went for it and made it. To hit it that hard on the run felt good to me. I am not really in that situation that often these days. Quite honestly, I haven’t done that in about nine years so it has been awhile. I just sort of leaned that way after hitting a weak return of serve. Honestly, these days I don’t know what is going to happen when I play so that shot surprised me a little bit. Maybe it is like riding a bike and it always going to be something that is in me, something I am not going to forget how to do. I could see that crowd of 17,000 people and they seemed like they were on the edges of their seats when it happened. That lifted my energy up and got my adrenaline going more than I have experienced in a long time. That is my signature shot. It felt great to pull that shot off.”
That dazzling winner took Sampras to 15-40 and moments later he had the break and control of the set. He went up an early break in the second, lost his serve in the following game for the only time in the match, but from 4-5 in the second set he garnered three games in a row to close out Agassi, who did some exemplary ball striking when he was set up but did not move nearly as well as Sampras. Whenever Sampras drew Agassi wide and volleyed to the open court, Agassi was unable to answer the bell. Sampras told me, “With the conditions being reasonably quick and the falls flying a bit, Andre was having a hard time controlling it. When he started playing better in the second set, he said something at one of the changeovers like, ‘It’s nice to make a few.’ I think he may have been a little stressed out because he doesn’t play as much these days and my game matches up well against his. He was a little anxious and he missed a few that he normally doesn’t. I felt I was playing well.”
Asked to analyze what happened in the second set when he had the early break before Agassi managed to fight his way back into the set, Sampras said, “I took my foot off the pedal and played a loose game and he stepped it up. I thought that set might go to a breaker but I was able to break him at 5-5. So when I served for the match at 6-5, I felt confident in closing it out. When you have the serve as a weapon it can be a great asset at a time like that and it can be discouraging for my opponent. So I felt pretty comfortable serving that one out. Aside from the one game I got broken it was going pretty smoothly for me. I had a pretty good night overall.”
Many observers wondered whether there was any lingering animosity between Sampras and Agassi after their much publicized incident in March of 2010. Sampras and Roger Federer were playing Agassi and Rafael Nadal in a dream doubles match at Indian Wells, raising money following the massive earthquake in Haiti. They called it the “Hit for Haiti”, and all of the players wore microphones to entertain the crowd. Agassi was highly amusing at first but then insulted his old rival with a tasteless routine about Sampras giving a valet driver a one dollar tip way back when. Sampras was clearly put off by the demeaning way Agassi was portraying him, and he served a ball at Agassi in response. That doubles exhibition ended awkwardly for both players. Agassi had stepped well beyond the lines of decency with his conduct, turning what should have been a happy occasion into a time of sadness and angst for everyone concerned.
I asked Sampras if there was any lingering animosity between himself and Agassi when they came to New York to play at the Garden. He gave me his take on the “Hit for Haiti” incident, and explained how he had put it behind him. Sampras said, “It had been a good night. We were talking back and forth and having a good time, and we had four of the greatest players all on the same court. Hitting that ball at Andre was my way of keeping it light and just having fun with it but he kept going on and on and that was when I got really uncomfortable. I felt like I had just swallowed a frog. It just got so serious after I had some fun aiming that ball at him. It got to a point where it was personal in a way about an issue I never really understood: the whole tipping thing. It wasn’t like my feelings were hurt. People that know me know that I am not like whatever he was claiming I was. They know I am not cheap. “
Sampras paused briefly, then continued: “We finally touched base and a few months later we cleared the air when we played in Puerto Rico. He said, ‘Pistol, I apologize. I went too far and that was five minutes I wish I could have taken back.’ I said, ‘It’s over. I don’t want this to linger and affect our relationship’ because as much as we were different when we competed for majors, we actually came out of our careers as pretty good friends. Not best friends, but respectful unlike some of the other generations like Lendl and McEnroe and those guys who genuinely did not seem to like each other in those days. Andre and I went into it with a pretty good relationship and came out of it with a pretty good relationship. I didn’t want one incident to change that. Sure he said a few things about me in his book but that is fine. I just didn’t want what happened in the Hit for Haiti to linger for the next six months or more. I wanted to clear the air at the Garden again and just say, ‘Listen, it’s over.’ People want to blow it up. When Andre and I are together we get along fine. I don’t know him extremely well and he doesn’t know me extremely well either, but that’s okay. So many people saw that incident on YouTube and you have this whole internet thing these days, but we have talked a few times and moved beyond it. In New York I did my best to diffuse the situation.”
It was apparent watching the two Americans compete at the Garden that they have indeed moved past that moment. They were clearly comfortable going about their business. Time and some thoughtful conversations have healed the wounds. But be that as it may, what else is on the Sampras agenda these days? “I am actually going to Zurich this coming week for a senior event over there with a good field. I think Stefan Edberg, Tim Henman, Michael Stich and Goran Ivanisevic will be there so it will be real tennis. I may do a few more matches with Andre later in the year, and there is talk of some events with John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Andre and me. Things pop up here and there and if it is worth my time and I still enjoy playing and my body holds up, I will keep going.”
Sampras also will play one night of WorldTeamTennis this summer. “I am excited to be playing one night in Newport Beach,” he says of that endeavor. “Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss are friends of mine and it is close enough to my home to drive and hour and play some tennis so I am looking forward to doing that.”
Across the next couple of years, Sampras will inevitably get his share of good opportunities to perform, and to display his remarkable athleticism and enduring shot making brilliance. And yet, he will be 40 in August. Where does he see himself ten years from now?
“I don’t have any timeline on how much longer I am going to play,” he says. “As long as there are opportunities and my body can handle it, I will play some. Tennis has given me a nice balance in my life. I love golf, I love my wife and kids and spending time with my family. But ten years is a long way down the road. I doubt very much I will be playing tennis then, but I said that when I retired from the tour also and here I am still playing. At 50, if something pops up in tennis that would be interesting like an academy, I would consider it. Being able to help young kids, juniors, and those looking to turn pro is something I would enjoy. Helping out kids in tennis would be fun and as I get older it might become more of a priority, but over the next couple of years I will continue to play a little bit here and there. I like the simplicity of my life right now. It is a good rhythm for me. As I get older it is hard to say what I would want to do. If a good business opportunity is there for me that makes sense I will look at it, but right now I make pretty good money playing a little bit of tennis and it pays the bills and it is good for my kids to see me on television playing tennis. They know their Dad is working and going to the gym and that is important for me to have them not see me just sitting around and waiting for them all day. It’s important for a man to work.”
Yet the work he is doing on court now might become slightly less burdensome as he moves to a larger headed racket with the new strings used by the likes of Rafael Nadal. Sampras has been trying some different frames over the last six months and used one of those in New York against Agassi, but as he explains, “Wilson and I are working together on a racket that works for me. The strings with these new frames have given me the ability to hit the ball flat with control and it helps me generate more power and spin on the rest of my shots. The technology has got to a point where it is as far as you can possibly take it. With these powerful rackets, it gives me the ability to swing hard and have control while generating a lot more spin. I can feel it on my second serve and on high backhands. It is easier to generate more power from above my shoulder, and you can just really feel the spin. It is easier on my body and easier on my arm. It really makes tennis more tolerable to play. I remember playing Verdasco last year in San Jose and his ball was jumping and kicking. A lot of it is the way guys are hitting the ball but a lot of it is the technology as well. I have enjoyed experimenting and coming full circle from a guy who didn’t want to try anything to a guy willing to try a lot of different rackets and strings. But at the end of the day I am working with Wilson to find the right one for me.”
As important as it is for Sampras to target places to travel in pursuit of practicing his old craft as a tennis player, he also recognizes the significance of staying in excellent shape. That is why he makes certain to place great value on his workouts. It was apparent to one and all in New York that Sampras seems trimmer and in better shape than he has been in for quite a long while, probably since he played the last official match of his career in defeating Agassi to win the 2002 U.S. Open. What is Sampras doing these days to get himself in such stellar condition?
“I am working in L.A now, “he replies, “with this trainer who I worked with in my last year on the tour. His name is Gunnar Peterson. I see him three times a week and run for 40 and get into the gym for an hour with him and he just busts my ass. I feel exhausted when it is over but I also feel great. I feel like I have achieved something. I have done that for the last eight months plus I do some things on my own. I put that time into the gym not just for my tennis but to feel good in my everyday life. Obviously the stronger and fitter I am, the more I am going to enjoy playing tennis. Gunnar is an excellent trainer and he puts me in an environment where I really work hard. I put in that hour-and-a-half as hard as I did when I was playing on the tour. People have mentioned to me that I look thinner and reasonably lean. I don’t see it, but when you put in the time like I have you get the results. When I stopped playing the tour and didn’t do anything for three years I hit almost 200 pounds. In my old playing days I was about 183. Right now I am at 187 or 188 and that is a comfortable weight for me. Quite honestly, working out makes me feel good throughout the day and taking good care of myself makes me a more patient Dad and husband. If I don’t do anything and sit around all day that is no good for anybody.”
Meanwhile, Sampras’s older son Christian, 8, is taking some tennis lessons, but his father is not overbearing in the least. As Pete Sampras explains, “With school it is tricky. He is done at 3:30 and sometimes even later. I have got him taking lessons once a week on Friday with my sister Stella’s assistant coach, who is great with kids. Christian is enjoying it. He likes playing football and a little baseball, but tennis is a great activity for him. I love to see him out there learning how to play but I am not pushing him in any way to play tennis. If he is into it, that is great. If not, that is okay. But he is enjoying it. A half hour or 45 minute lesson is plenty for him. He enjoys hitting the ball—primarily over the fence! He actually has good hand-eye coordination, moves well, and is a good athlete. I am not sure if tennis will be his thing or not. Time will tell. He is going to a private school now and he has got so much homework that it is amazing. When I was in public school I was done by 1PM and then I would do my homework but his day gets done pretty quickly so playing any sport is difficult. There is no time for him to be a kid.”
Before the interview ended, I wanted to get Sampras to weigh in on the Davis Cup captaincy of his old rival and colleague Jim Courier. How does he feel about that selection? “They made a wise choice with Jim, a great choice,” he asserts. “He is respected by the players and he played a lot of Davis Cup himself. He knows the feeling, knows the game and knows strategy, which is a great asset for the team. He has been a top player and he dominated the game for a few years. Jim is very organized and practices hard and he will be there for the guys in any way that he can. He is smart enough to mould his personality to make it work, whether that is for Andy Roddick or John Isner or other team members. But there is only so much he can do. The rest is up to the players.”
Courier may well reside as captain for a long time, but would Sampras ever be interested in that job himself if it became available? “At this point,” he answers, “probably not. Maybe later on down the line as I get older it might appeal to me, but now I don’t think it is for me, at least for the next number of years. I would like the tennis part, and helping the guys out on the court. If I ever did it, I would arrange to get someone else that would work with me and take care of all the minutia so I could stick with the tennis.”
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