Tennis: Emerson's warning for Sampras on his tail

Tennis: `If the Grand Slam record is important to Pete, then he has to win one this year' says the great Australian
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The Independent Online
THAT PETE SAMPRAS is missing from the Australian Open provided every other top player with an improved chance of securing one of the world's major tournaments. What may not have been considered quite as much is that the American's absence gives Sampras one fewer opportunity to equal the record of Grand Slam singles titles.

This, still, is held by Roy Emerson, the big, burly Australian with the ferocious backhand and fiercely competitive spirit. He believes that time is running out for the 27-year-old Sampras. "If the Grand Slam record is important to Pete, then he has to win one this year," he believes. "It's getting harder and harder for him and, although you have to still fancy him at Wimbledon, he can't afford to lose out at too many more Grand Slam tournaments."

In a career that spanned the circuit for 14 years, beginning in 1954, Emerson won 12 Grand Slam singles titles. He was no mean doubles player either, picking up a further 16 titles in Grand Slam tournaments. He cannot see his collective record ever being broken. "I think my 28 titles will be there for kingdom come," he says. "But, if my singles record is there to be matched, Pete [who is one behind] has got to get a move on."

Emerson, now 62, is keeping a close watch on proceedings from one of his three homes in Newport Beach, California, Gstaad, in Switzerland, and Aventura, Florida, where he is the director of tennis at Williams Island. He still plays and, indeed, featured in the recent St Lucia Tennis Legends Tournament at the Odyssey International. "I'd like to hold the singles record forever," he is more than happy to admit. "But if I am to share it, or lose it to someone, I'd be happy if it was Sampras."

Why? "I just think he's been a terrific ambassador for the sport," Emerson explains. "He conducts himself in the right way both on and off the court, and I like his graceful style. At least compared to others today."

This is a veiled criticism, of course, of the thumping show of strength on the courts today, especially from the men. "I think the new racquets have definitely improved the women's game, but they have also taken away far too much finesse from the men's game," he says. "It has become too repetitious, and the men just don't have to work so hard for their points anymore. Tennis is not the exciting spectacle it once was."

Like, perhaps, in Emerson's day? Most would argue that the great players of the 1950s, 60s and even the 70s would struggle to keep up with today's stars. They would simply be overpowered by the strength and speed of the champions of the 1990s. The six times former winner of the Australian Open, and twice winner of Wimbledon, the US and French Opens, disagrees.

"There's no question in my mind that the likes of myself, Laver, Sedgeman, Hoad, Rosewall, Santana and so on would, if we played the stars today, have lived with them, maybe even beaten them. We might have been asked to stay back more on the baseline than we did, and develop top-spin more, but we would have coped with that, no problem. I don't believe they are any fitter today. Don't forget, we never had any tie-breaks, and every game was played to the best of five sets.

"What I will say is that the players today are asked to perform on all kinds of surfaces that beat up your body more. I wouldn't have enjoyed that. Also, the variety of surfaces poses more questions.

"When I was at my height three of the four Grand Slam tournaments were played on grass. Only the French Open was on clay. It took me a long time to get to grips with a clay court. I was pitiful to begin with. In the end, I probably preferred it to grass. These days the players have to adapt to grass, clay, rubber and hard-court. You probably have to be more of a complete player.

"I will also concede that the competition is stiffer. In my day the top 20 was dominated by Australian and American players. Now the Europeans and South Americans are also strong."

Which is why Emerson feels that the domination Sampras has enjoyed for so much of the 1990s has come to an end. "I think he has to win a Grand Slam this year, or not at all," he says. "Now that the Australian's gone, I think Wimbledon will be his best, possibly his last, chance to equal my record. It's getting to the stage where I can't see him beating it, although it is up to him.

"Pete's made a lot of good money, and achieved everything there is to in the game. The question is, is he prepared to endure the daily grind required to be a defending champion who has already climbed the mountain?

"Others are catching him up, or have already caught him. A lot of the boys think they can beat him now. Whenever they play Pete they feel they have nothing to lose and raise their game. Losing to Pete is not a disaster, so everyone plays well against him. It's a terrific effort to be the world No 1 for six, consecutive years, but the bottom line is that he doesn't intimidate players anymore."

Emerson played in a time recognised to be one of the great periods of world tennis. Of all the great players he faced and beat, he still, not surprisingly, rates his countryman, Rod Laver, to be the best.

"I tried to emulate Frank Sedgeman in the way I played," he admits. "But, for me, Laver was the best. He possessed more skills and strokes than the others, but what really made him stand out was his mental strength. Laver was never beaten until the final point had been lost. He became even tougher once he turned professional. I would have loved to have seen him take on the likes of Sampras. Then again, I'd like to be playing the game today as well. Maybe Laver and I could have added a little finesse."

Maybe it's still not too late? Emerson laughs. "My forehand these days is pathetic," he says. "But I'll tell you something. I still never miss a backhand."