New York bids farewell to Sampras the self-effacing champion

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The Independent Online

From the moment his career took off at 19 as the youngest United States Open men's singles champion in 1990, Pete Sampras was destined to be something of an enigma. To some he was brilliant, an expression of all that was good in the sport. To others he was dull but efficient. The word that really sums him up is phenomenal.

Sampras came along towards the end of an era of pyrotechnics on the court, a time when a combination of tantrums and talent had turned the game into a media circus, as much about angry words and ill-tempered deeds as graceful play.

Ushered in by the Romanian Ilie Nastase, who was tantalising and irritating in equal portions, the age of the temperamental player continued apace with the arrival of the pugnacious Jimmy Connors and his fellow American sparring partner, John McEnroe.

Connors, a tremendous battler, tarnished his greatness with obscene comments and gestures towards officialdom. McEnroe, supremely gifted, was unable to control his turbulent nature and his deft touches were interspersed with daft outbursts.

First Bjorn Borg and then Ivan Lendl played splendid straight men in the vaudeville, and then came the bold precocious Boris Becker and the elegant Stefan Edberg.

Arriving in this milieu, Sampras seemed at a loss to know what to do for the best. Like Lendl, he could only be himself, devoid of artifice. He was a tennis player, pure and simple, and it took many of the game's followers a long time to realise that and to appreciate him.

Sampras, self-effacing but with solid values about his craft, considered that he was not mature enough to win the US Open in 1990, but he "just got hot for two weeks''. He was actually relieved when his defence of the championship ended in defeat, describing the sensation as "a monkey off my back''.

It is appropriate that the Californian will formally announce his retirement here at Flushing Meadows - where he won his last Grand Slam title a year ago - prior to the evening session when the tournament starts on Monday. The long journey he began in New York 13 years ago has led him to a place among the true greats of the sport.

Andy Roddick, the young American Sampras singled out as the future of the men's game in his country, summarised the 32-year-old champion's contribution perfectly when he said: "He was one of the most graceful players, one of the most quietly competitive players and one of the greatest pressure players.''

Andre Agassi, Sampras's long-time rival, continues to challenge all-comers at the age of 33, but Agassi would be the first to acknowledge that his career has lacked the intense consistency of Sampras. Agassi has had rest periods, some forced by injuries, others by lack of endeavour, whereas Sampras has meant business from the start. How else could he have won a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles (seven of them at Wimbledon) and reigned as the world No 1 for a record six consecutive years?

Leaving the stage to the likes of Roddick and Roger Federer, Switzerland's 22-year-old Wimbledon champion, Sampras is assured of his legacy and his status in the history of the sport.

Being persuaded to adopt a one-handed backhand and give free expression to his attacking style, Sampras watched videos of the "classy Aussies'' he came to admire so much, particularly Rod Laver, the diminutive left-hander who accomplished the Grand Slam as both an amateur and a professional.

Laver belongs to a gentler era, when players were admired for their skills and powers of endurance and the crowds were enthralled by sensational play between sportsmen.

Sampras has managed to restore that balance against the odds.