Posted on Sat, Jul. 14, 2007
Pistol Pete's grand finale
By PETE ALFANO
Star-Telegram staff writer
He didn't swagger around a tennis court, torment chair umpires or bow to the crowd at the end of matches like his noted rival Andre the Entertainer.
Oddly enough, what characterized Pete Sampras' demeanor was an impassive air, and when things weren't going particularly well, a hangdog look -- like a bobblehead doll with a broken spring.
But as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. Sizing up Sampras by his body language was as difficult as reading his serve, which never broke speed records, only the spirit of the players on the other side of the net.
In the Open era of tennis, when fans have been reared on the volatility of John McEnroe, combativeness of Jimmy Connors and showmanship of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras is a throwback -- the gentleman player who was comfortable in white and still likes to say, "I let my racket do the talking."
And did it ever. Highlighting a 15-year career are a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, 64 tournament victories in all and a record six consecutive years of finishing as the No. 1 player in the world in probably the most competitive era in men's tennis history.
As Sampras says, you can't achieve all that and not be driven.
"There was a deep-down competitiveness that not many people saw," he said in a telephone interview Friday. "I was not going to compromise to market myself or change my look or attitude. But I internalized a lot. That's the nature of being a Sampras."
The fire literally burned in his belly. Sampras went two years with an undiagnosed ulcer, which made him feel nauseated whenever he ate and during stressful matches.
But if his stomach is churning today, it will be for a far different reason. Almost five years after he retired at 31, with the last of his Grand Slam titles accounted for at the U.S. Open, Sampras receives the sport's ultimate honor when he is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
And while he knows it was a foregone conclusion -- "I thought my chances were good," he joked -- the event has been a trip down memory lane and enabled him to put his career in perspective.
"It's been a weekend of reflection," said Sampras, who turns 36 in August. "I've stopped everything and looked at my career. It's time to thank people who helped me get here. I never even appreciated myself during my career. You'd win and then look at the next tournament."
Sampras is a student of the game. He admires the great Australian players and tried to model himself after them. "I'm a big fan of history and I'm happy to be inducted in the Hall with [Ken] Rosewall and [Rod] Laver," he said.
He is married now and the father of two boys, and relishes having his wife Bridgette, his sons and his parents sharing his day. "I'm sentimental sometimes, and to have my family here is pretty cool."
When he retired after defeating Agassi for the third time in a U.S. Open final, the debate centered on whether Sampras is the greatest player of all time. Now, of course, the question is kicked around about Roger Federer of Switzerland, who is only 25 and already has won 11 Grand Slam events. Eclipsing Sampras seems to be a matter of time.
Sampras said he was hitting with Federer in Los Angeles recently and jokingly told him, "You could have let me enjoy this a couple of more years."
"He's a great player and dominating much more than I ever did," Sampras said. "He's mellow, my type of player and personality. I don't see anyone stopping him."
The argument can be made that the game was stronger at the top during the Sampras years with players such as Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, among others. In addition to a galaxy of clay court specialists -- Gustavo Kuerten, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster, Carlos Moya -- there were also dangerous serve-and-volleyers like Goran Ivanisevic, Michael Stich and Richard Krajicek.
"I think the game was stronger [at the top] in the '90s," Sampras said, "but I think the players from number 15 on down are stronger today."
It is difficult to compare athletes of different generations, thus the nature of sports is to measure success by the numbers.
But greatness is another matter; it is about defining moments. Federer had perhaps his first in the fifth set against Rafael Nadal in Sunday's Wimbledon final.
The irony is that the supposedly reticent Sampras had some of the more unforgettable moments in tennis history.
Remember when he broke down and cried during his match against fellow American Jim Courier at the 1995 Australian Open in Melbourne, after his coach Tim Gullickson was sent home ill, suffering from a malignant brain tumor that took his life the next year?
Sampras won the match.
In the U.S. Open final that year, he and Agassi brought the crowd to its feet with a 22-stroke rally in which each player had apparently won the point several times. Sampras did win the point, which inspired a TV commercial starring the two Nike clients.
And he capped that astounding year in December when he fought through cramps and dehydration to beat Andrei Chesnokov of Russia in a Davis Cup final singles match on clay in Moscow. Sampras collapsed and was carried from the court, but returned the next day to win the doubles match, teaming with Todd Martin. He then clinched the Cup with a dominating straight-set victory against Kafelnikov. It was a tour de force on his weakest surface.
But an even more indelible example of his determination and perseverance came in a quarterfinal match at the 1996 U.S. Open. Sampras became ill and was barely standing during the fifth-set tiebreaker against Alex Correjta of Spain, leaning on his racket like a cane between points.
At 7-all, Sampras straightened up and smacked a second-serve ace for match point. An unhinged Corretja then double-faulted, giving Sampras a 9-7 victory in the tiebreaker, and ending the four-hour marathon. He would go on to win the Open.
But matches like these took a toll. Sampras knew he was slowing down when he lost to Marat Safin of Russia in the 2000 U.S. Open final and to Australian Lleyton Hewitt -- the new Connors -- in the '01 Open final.
"They blew me off the court," said Sampras, who could not overcome having to play on consecutive days against considerably younger opponents.
But he wasn't going to quit until he broke the tie (and put some distance) between him and Roy Emerson for Grand Slam titles. And Agassi was the perfect foil.
He is a year older than Sampras and they probably could have played each other blindfolded. Sampras won that Open final in 2002 and then spent the rest of the year contemplating his future.
"Throughout my whole career I always had a goal," he said. "It was either to stay No. 1 or to win another major. It's what kept me going through a couple of tough years.
"After that Open, it took six to eight months to see what was next. Then I realized I had nothing left to prove to myself. It was an emotional decision."
There are no regrets, Sampras said. He doesn't wish he tried to win another Wimbledon, especially now with Federer breathing down his neck. He is disappointed that he didn't win the French, but said he wouldn't trade any of his Grand Slam titles for even one at Roland Garros.
"I never relaxed and let it flow there," he said. "As the French went on, the anxiety increased. I was trying too hard to win."
Now, after rarely touching a racket in the first three years of his retirement, Sampras is back on the court, playing World Team Tennis and exhibitions. He'll play against Todd Martin on Sunday in Newport, and will play Federer three times in Asia later this year.
It keeps him in shape, he said, and it satisfies a need for competition. But while he is convinced he would still be a formidable opponent at Wimbledon, he has no illusions about a comeback on the men's tour.
He walked away a champion, in select company with Michael Jordan and John Elway.
"I always played to win," Sampras said. "I knew when it was time to move on. I didn't want a farewell tour."
Sampras by the numbers
14 Grand Slam titles (No. 1 all-time: Wimbledon 7, U.S. Open 5, Australian Open 2)
2 Davis Cup titles U.S. won with Sampras (1992, '95)
6 Years finished as No. 1 in the world ( all-time ATP best)
19 Age when he became the youngest men's winner in U.S. Open history, 1990
31 Age when he won the U.S. Open in 2002, his 14th Slam title
$43 Million in career prize money
762 Match victories (2nd all time to Agassi)
Pete Sampras vs. Roger Federer
Roger Federer has 11 Grand Slam titles, and at the age of 25 it seems just a matter of time before he passes Pete Sampras (14) for the most Slam titles in men's tennis. One view of how they would have fared on the four surfaces if they faced each other in their prime:
Grass Although Federer won in five sets in their only meeting at Wimbledon, Sampras' serve and volley game is custom-made for lawn tennis, and he'd probably win seven of every 10 matches they would play.
Clay Federer has the clear advantage because of steadier groundstrokes, more patience and growing up on clay.
Sampras led the U.S. to the Davis Cup title against Russia on clay in 1995 and reached the French Open semis in '96, but said he could never get over the hump on dirt.
Hardcourts A tossup. Sampras enjoyed beating Andre Agassi at his own game at the U.S. Open, rallying from the baseline, but he would have to force the issue and serve and volley against Federer.
Indoors Without the elements to affect his serve, and because indoor surfaces tend to be fast, the advantage goes to Sampras.
On the record
Facing John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl at the end of their careers and playing Roger Federer and Andy Roddick at the start of theirs, Pete Sampras' record speaks for itself:
Pete Sampras vs. Record
Andre Agassi 20-14
Boris Becker 12-7
Michael Chang 12-8
Jim Courier 16-4
Jimmy Connors 2-0
Stefan Edberg 8-6
Roger Federer 0-1
Goran Ivanisevic 12-6
John McEnroe 3-0
Richard Krajicek 4-6
Ivan Lendl 5-3
Patrick Rafter 12-4
Andy Roddick 1-2
Michael Stich 4-5
Pete Alfano, 817-390-7985