Speculation rife that SW19 may not have seen the last of Sampras
Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent
Do not tell Tim Henman because he would probably choke on his Weetybangs, but a certain man with a decent track record on grass still regrets the way he departed the championships and has discussed the idea of righting a wrong.
A rumour doing the rounds yesterday was that Pete Sampras had been offered a wild card into the 2007 tournament, but Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the All England Club, said that no such thing had happened. “He’s a member, though, and if he ever wanted to come back and play, it is something we’d happily discuss,” Ritchie said.
But who is to say it will not happen next year, or the year after that? The seven-times champion is 35 – the same age as Jonas Björkman, the Swede who reached the semi-finals last year and the last 16 at the French Open this month – and is the same weight as when he stepped off the treadmill, fresh from a stupendous triumph at the 2002 US Open for his fourteenth grand-slam title.
When Sampras returned to competitive action this year, playing Team Tennis for Newport Beach and in the Outback Champions Series – an American “golden oldies” tour in which he is unbeaten – there was a sense that he would not be satisfied merely with hitting a few balls with his old pals, that there was an ulterior motive.
When you hear Sampras speak on the sport’s present trends, it sends a shiver down the spine. “I have a hard time watching how these guys play today,” he said. “It’s just amazing that everyone stays back and hits with so much spin. When you put spin on the ball on grass, it doesn’t really do anything. Slice does, top-spin doesn’t. I was watching [Igor] Andreev playing [James] Blake in the first round and Andreev hits that big top-spin backhand and it just sits up there, waiting to be hit. Granted, the guy is a clay-court player who isn’t real comfortable on grass. But still . . .
“The bottom line is that nobody comes with heat and can back it up.
There’s no Richard Krajicek around to really attack you and take your time away. That’s the key to winning with the serve-and-volley game: deny the other guy his time. Roger [Federer] can win without doing it because he has so much game and such good hands.
“I think the 1990s may have been the toughest time to win Wimbledon. The grass was fast, the balls were fast and there were a lot of guys around who could turn it into a crap-shoot: Stefan [Edberg], Boris [Becker], Goran [Ivanisevic], those guys really made you uncomfortable.
“By contrast, I always loved seeing guys who wanted to play back against me – players who liked to load up and hit their shots. Andre [Agassi] was different because he played up in the court and he played pretty flat, so he was coming to the table with something – an ability not just to keep you from getting in but maybe even push you back. But with other guys who played back, I felt if I could hit one shot and be in there, I’d be in control. And control is what it’s all about.”
A look at the players who have reached the fourth round in the singles this year emphasises that grass has become a surface for all the talents, not the preserve of the serve-and-volley exponent. Juan Carlos Ferrero, who won the French title and reached the final of the US Open in 2003, has made the last 16 for the third time in seven attempts – he is no “stay-away Spaniard”.
Control being the operative word, as Sampras said, it is worth extolling the levels of command Ferrero displayed in his 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 victory over James Blake. That the American has not been beyond a quarter-final at this level, given his quality, indicates that he does not quite believe enough, but give Ferrero his due. For a Spaniard to win 19 of 23 points at the net is not a statistic that would immediately be recognisable in his homeland.
Ferrero now plays Janko Tipsarevic, the trail-blazer for the present crop of Serbian tennis vitality and one of three nonseeds left in the top half of the draw. Clubbed together in one portion are three French players – Richard Gasquet, the No 12 seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the last remaining wild card in either draw, and Paul-Henri Mathieu, who is beginning, at 25, to live up to the full range of his talents.
Gasquet against Tsonga has the makings of a minor classic, which is what we had hoped Federer’s meeting with Marat Safin would prove yesterday. Federer won the first set in 19 minutes – “It’s like watching a train wreck,” my Centre Court neighbour said.
Safin pulled out as many stops as he could, spun his racket repeatedly into the turf and kept trying to use his cross-court forehand to peg Federer back deeply enough to be able to hurt him. The trick worked a few times, but never enough. Tommy Haas, of Germany, is next in line.
Federer, having extended his grass-court winning streak to 51 matches, is among those who have tried to persuade Sampras to give this gig another go, without giving his reasons. Maybe he is as fascinated as the rest of us to see if the legend could be extended.
Eric Butorac and Jamie Murray are beginning to build a little legend of their own on the doubles court. Booty and Stretch, to given them their stage names, defeated the No 7 seeds, Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, of Israel, in four sets to earn a third-round place in only their second grand-slam tournament together. Butorac, of Croatian descent, jokes that he’d really like to be British. Now where’s that LTA dotted line?