Tennis: Sampras masters sentiment

John Roberts finds the world No 1 in confident yet nostalgic mood as he prepares for the start of next week's US Open at Flushing Meadow
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The Independent Online
Pete Sampras had travelled little more than 50 yards across New York's Flushing Meadow, from the US Open's former centre court to the new one due to be inaugurated next Monday, and was already feeling nostalgic. "I kind of miss the old stadium," the world champion said, "that's kind of where I made my mark in 1990."

As a 19-year-old in 1990, Sampras became the tournament's youngest men's singles champion. In the process, the Californian defeated the last two men to win the title three times in a row, Ivan Lendl, in the quarter- finals, and John McEnroe, in the semi-finals, and overwhelmed Andre Agassi in the final.

Success over the coming fortnight would bring Sampras a third consecutive triumph in his home Grand Slam event - a three-Pete according to the local media - and a fourth in all. It would be the 11th Grand Slam singles title of his career, putting him level with Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver and one short of Roy Emerson's record 12. Moreover, Sampras would have acquired three of the year's four major singles titles. The last man to accomplish that was Mats Wilander in 1988. The Swede was unable to win at Wimbledon while the French championship has eluded Sampras.

Acquainting himself as much as possible with the fresh environment of the 23,000-seater Arthur Ashe Stadium, named after the late champion of the United States, Wimbledon, Australia and manifold causes relating to freedom and dignity, Sampras is practising on the new court this week.

How did it compare with the adjacent, much-criticised Louis Armstrong Stadium, the seating capacity of which is scheduled to be reduced from 20,000 to 10,000 after this year's championships?

"It's going to be a pleasure to play in the new stadium," Sampras said. "It's beautiful, very well put together. It's a great impression just walking in there and seeing the new seats. The locker-room facilities are much nicer, and it will be a lot more convenient to get around."

The concrete playing surface at the US Open makes it possible for competitors to practice on the show courts. "The speed of the new court seems pretty medium," Sampras said. "Pretty much the same as the other court in the other stadium. I'm playing in the Arthur Ashe charity match on Saturday, so I'll have a good feel of what it's going to be like with the linesmen and the ballboys."

During a break in training to participate in a media conference call organised by the ATP Tour, Sampras was questioned about the current decline of potential tennis talent in the United States.

Was there part of him that thought if Arthur Ashe was spending all that money (around pounds 234m), he would have spent it on grass-roots tennis rather than a stadium? "Probably," Sampras replied. "I didn't know Arthur well, but that was something he was much interested in.

"I think we have some good young players. I don't know if they'll have the impact of what I've done or Andre [Agassi] or Michael [Chang] or Jim [Courier]. I think it goes in cycles," Sampras said. "Spain has been a country that's stepped up, at least in the last couple of years. I still think the interest in tennis in the States is very good. Who knows, in 10 years' time we might have four or five young Americans.

"I think all the players are happy that the new stadium has been built. It brings a whole new feel to the US Open. You know, Arthur Ashe was a great name to use for the stadium, so it should be fun."

One reporter was curious to know what Sampras's reaction was to people who say that tennis can be a victim of his success, that when fit and in form he is too good for the rest. "I have no reaction," Sampras said. "Really what I want to do is just go out and try to play and win. That's the way I've always approached the game."

That, plus the ability to overcome numerous setbacks. "I've always had the confidence that I can come back or I can kind of deal with some tough stuff," Sampras said. "I felt my year was a little bit up and down till basically Wimbledon, where I really played about as well as I could. That kind of set the tone for having a good summer.

"Just when Grand Slam time comes around, the juices start going and I'm ready to go. I just have the confidence that if things aren't going well, I have the game to come back. I've never been insecure about my tennis. It's always nice to have that."

Not to mention the ability to channel his emotions on the court. "A lot of it is just my personality. I've always been kind of laid back, don't get too bothered from things. You know, bad line calls are just going to happen.

"I've always handled them the way I am off court. You know, just try to play the next point. I've always tried to be someone that doesn't lose his composure. It helps me be a better player. That was kind of the way I was raised, the way I'm sure I'll always be."