Sampras Speaks On Hall Of Fame, Facing Federer
By Richard Pagliaro
will stage a tennis homecoming of sorts when the brings his grass-court game to a prestigious pasture. The day after Sampras takes his place among tennis' immortals in his July 14 induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, he will showcase his serve-and-volley skills on the Hall's historic Newport lawn by playing the Hall of Fame Classic, an exhibition scheduled for Sunday morning July 15.
The event will consist of three matches, including additional tennis champions to be announced. Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and Rod Laver are among the Grand Slam champions who have shared in the court in recent Hall of Fame Classic matches on the Bill Talbert Center Court Stadium. The 2007 Hall of Fame Classic will start at 10 a.m. prior to the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championship singles and doubles finals starting at 2 p.m. Tickets for the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championship finals are available, as well as tournament tickets for the Monday through Friday tennis sessions. Tickets for Saturday's semifinal matches and the Hall of Fame induction ceremony are sold out.
"It's a time of reflection, a time of appreciation, having my wife and two kids there and my family there and all my in-laws there," Sampras told ESPN when asked his feelings about his induction into the Hall of Fame. "It's definitely just a celebration and an appreciation that I don't think I really took a lot during my career. I was so focused and expected to win majors that you kind of take it for granted. Now, you kind of appreciate it more. I have two kids myself and having my folks there I think it will be emotional."
His pending return to grass, combined with his ongoing observation of today's top players, has caused Sampras to consider how his game, at its best, would match up with World No. 1 Roger Federer.
Sampras owns an Open Era record seven Wimbledon titles. Federer, who surrendered his only set of the 2006 Wimbledon fortnight to Rafael Nadal in the final to capture his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title and join Sampras and Bjorn Borg as the only men to win at least four straight Wimbledon championships in the Open Era, has won 48 straight grass-court matches — the longest grass-court winning streak in the Open Era.
In a match between two players nearly invincible on grass at their best, Sampras offered a simply summary of his strategy against the Swiss stylist: turn up the heat on serve and rush the net relentlessly in an effort to impose oppressive pressure on Federer.
"Roger feels unbeatable right now and my prime at Wimbledon, I felt unbeatable," Sampras told ESPN's Chris Fowler, Patrick McEnroe and Dick Enberg in an interview with the network on Wednesday night. "Like the way I played against Andre [Agassi] in '99 was probably the best tennis I could put together there. If I played like that against Roger, I'd have to like my chances. But he proposes different things than Andre has. He serves a little bigger. He might move a little better. His backhand might be more vulnerable than Andre's. I'd bring the heat and try to come in on his serve and really attack him and take his time away."
Speaking like a man sorry to see serve-and-volleyers as an endangered species, Sampras said his ability to hold serve and attack an opponent's serve would make him a formidable opponent against Federer, who rarely faces serve-and-volleyers today.
"We see Wimbledon today where everyone is staying back, you know I miss the serve and volley tennis," Sampras said. "And I would try to put as much pressure on Roger if I could and if he could pass and return great for three straight sets then it's too good. But I felt that I was very, very tough to break on grass when I was serving well and moving well. And the fact that Roger stays back on grass, it gives me a few chances to kind of take a crack at it and just kind of move to the net and try to put pressure on him. But I can't talk too much on how I'd do because he beat me the one time we played."
That classic Centre Court clash came in July of 2001 as the 15th-seeded Federer stunned Sampras with a dramatic 7-6 (9-7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 7-5 fourth-round triumph that was both a coming of age for Federer and the end of an era for Sampras. Federer's victory snapped Sampras' 31-match Wimbledon winning streak and came nearly three years to the day after he swept the Wimbledon singles and doubles junior titles.
Federer followed his victory over Sampras by falling to Tim Henman in a four-set quarterfinal. Henman, who was 1-6 lifetime against Sampras and is 6-7 against Federer, including a streak of six straight losses, believes the current World No. 1 is already a more complete player than the former World No. 1.
"He has a more complete game than Sampras. Sampras had a bigger first and second serve," Henman said. "In the conditions Pete was playing, it was easier to be more aggressive all the time. Now with the courts and the balls much slower, Roger is so effective because he has so many attributes to his game."
Henman's view contrasts sharply with three-time Roland Garros champion Gustavo Kuerten, who beat Federer at the French Open. Kuerten says Sampras' level of competition was more demanding than the opposition Federer faces today, and the former No. 1 flatly declared Sampras was a "much better" player.
"In Formula One, (Michael) Schumacher took advantage of (Ayrton) Senna's death to conquer the sport, just like Federer took advantage of the vacuum left by Sampras to obtain his victories," said Kuerten in an interview with the Brazilian network TV Globo. "Both are good players, but I prefer Sampras."
Staring across the net on that July day at the man who would become his successor, Sampras couldn't help but see the similarities between himself and Federer. From strong serve, the athletic, all-court attack, the one-handed backhand, the understated demeanor on court and even the same Wilson Pro Staff racquet, there was a shared style between the players as Federer ventured to net more in that match than he has in most of the matches he's won during his four-year reign as Wimbledon king.
"At the time, I wasn't sure [how good he would be]. I knew he was talented. I mean, I knew he was really, really good," Sampras said. "I actually didn't play a bad match. I just lost a tight one at the end. I didn't know how far he was going to take it and where he was going to go. I think I've seen him the last couple years just get a little better, a little better, just kind of figure it out. You just kind of figure it out on your own. He has his formula for being the best player in the world, like I had. I didn't know if he was going to dominate like he is today, but just who I see, him playing the way he's playing, I just think he's really, really good. Kind of sit back and watch him, put myself on the other side of the net, see how I would play him. You know, I think we both would have our hands full."
Federer would have his hands full attempting to hold all nine Grand Slam title trophies he's own simultaneously. He stands five major titles removed from equaling Sampras' record of 14 career Grand Slam titles and Sampras said last night Federer will "fly by me" in accumulating Grand Slam silverware and eventually challenge another grass-court great — golfer Jack Nicklaus — for most majors won.
"I'm impressed with Roger's game and the way he handles himself on and off the court," Sampras said. "I'm a fan of him. I don't believe in rooting against people. In my heart I think he will win way more than 14 majors. I think he will win 17 or 18 majors; he will fly by me and chase nicklaus."
Sampras is convinced Federer will shatter his Grand Slam record and cited four reasons for his belief: the lack of quality competition Federer faces in majors, the fact that Federer is the best all-around athlete in the sport , the vast variety in Federer's all-court arsenal and his drive to continue to improve his game.
"There's not a group of guys pushing him and he'll just continue to get better," Sampras said. "He's the best athlete out there, he can do a lot of different things, he really has a good grasp on what he's doing out there and I'm very impressed with his domination. The way he's dominating — it's unbelievable."
The sight of two-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal reaching the Wimbledon final by playing heavy topspin shots from behind the baseline last July prompted Sampras, who says he hits about three times a week using Federer's Wilson nCode racquet rather than his old Pro Staff, to consider a Wimbledon comeback.
"It [playing Wimbledon] has crossed my mind — I won't lie to you," Sampras told ESPN. "Nothing against Nadal who is a tremendous athlete, but that sort of [baseline] game, I'd be licking my chops to come in [to net] and use that grass to your advantage."
Surveying the landscape of American tennis, Sampras said his former Davis Cup teammates Andy Roddick and James Blake, have both improved, but suggested both lack
"It [American men's tennis] is a little thin after James and Andy," Sampras said. "We have Ginepri, who's a young talent. I think Andy and James have made some gains, but unfortunately they're playing against a legend in Federer who is clearly the best in the world. I still see Roger winning majors. It takes a special player [to beat Federer] and I'm not sure if Andy and James have the whole arsenal to do that."