Pete Sampras: Return of the master
The world's most successful tennis player became bored with retirement so he is back in London to play competitively again. Paul Newman reports
Wednesday 03 December 2008
The hair is a little thinner and the belt around the waist may have gone out half a notch, but the competitive glint still burns brightly in Pete Sampras' eye. If he was still at his peak, the 37-year-old American was asked yesterday, would he still play the serve-and-volley game that brought him seven Wimbledon titles but has become as outdated as the racket he used to wield?
"You bet I would," he replied. "I wouldn't change a thing. That was the way I was taught to play. And I can tell you right now that it would be successful in today's game." Sampras is back in Britain for the first time since his last appearance at Wimbledon six years ago, when he lost to Switzerland's George Bastl, the world No 145, in the second round. It was a defeat that hastened his retirement, even if he did have one more Grand Slam title in him at the US Open later that summer.
The former world No 1 always said that he would never play on the seniors' circuit, but this week he is competing at the BlackRock Masters at the Royal Albert Hall, with John McEnroe his first opponent. "It's nice to be back in London, even if it is still raining," he said on his arrival at a venue where he last played 19 years ago, in the world doubles championship.
So why did the man with a record 14 Grand Slam titles return to the court? "Every person who retires takes two, three or four years to decompress," Sampras said. "I didn't know what retirement was going to be like – and it's tricky. Every athlete who retires at a young age will tell you that they try to find different ways to keep themselves fulfilled. When you retire at 31, as I did, it's difficult. For three years I didn't do a thing. I put on some weight and I wasn't feeling too good about myself. I was playing golf, playing poker and other fun things, but you just wake up and think, 'What am I going to do today?' To be 31 and retired is great, but at the same time I've always been a worker, since I was a teenager. After a few years I needed something more to do."
Sampras picked up his racket again for an exhibition match in April 2006 and played World Team Tennis, a relaxed format featuring sets of singles and doubles, later that summer. However, it was not until he spent some time practising with Roger Federer in California early last year – and found that he could hold his own against the then world No 1 – that his thoughts turned to more regular appearances. He played Federer in three exhibition matches in Asia in the autumn, the Swiss winning in Seoul and Kuala Lumpur and Sampras winning in Macau. Federer won again when they played in New York earlier this year.
En route to London this week Sampras played exhibitions in Bratislava, where he beat Dominik Hrbaty, and in Prague, where he beat Radek Stepanek, the current world No27. "I can still serve and volley reasonably well," he said. "My body's holding up fine, because these are hard matches for me. I don't play at this level very often. It should be a little bit easier this week."
Married to a Hollywood actress and with two young children, Sampras has no intention of globe-trotting for weeks on end, but he is enjoying the occasional chance to show his talents again, particularly against the likes of McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Pat Cash and Greg Rusedski, who are all competing at the Royal Albert Hall.
"It's not as though I feel I have to come here and win the event," Sampras said. "I'd like to, but it's not like it used to be when I was in my mid-twenties and it was all or nothing. That being said, people want to see me and all the guys play well and we all take a great pride in our tennis. I still want to win and play great. It's not as easy as it used to be. I don't move as well, but I can still do a few things pretty well."
He added: "I enjoy my lifestyle at home. Combining it with a light schedule, staying in shape and hitting a few tennis balls makes me a better father and husband. If I'm not doing much during the day I lose patience and ask myself: 'What am I doing with my life?' I still enjoy playing tennis. I don't have to play too much. I only play every three or four months."
Federer has become a good friend and Sampras expects him to win the two titles he needs to break the American's record number of Grand Slam crowns. "I'd love the record to stand for ever, but if it is going to be broken then someone like Roger deserves it," Sampras said. "He's a credit to the game.
"We text each other quite a bit. He tells me how he's doing and asks what I'm up to. We had a week together in Asia and we clicked. Our personalities are similar. He's pretty sarcastic and pretty dry. We had a great time."
If Federer were to beat his milestone at Wimbledon next summer, Sampras said he would like to be there "out of respect to both Roger and this record". Was he tempted to make the short journey to have a look round the All England Club again this week? "I've been thinking about it. I might take a drive to check it out and walk on Centre Court one more time.
"I've missed the place, there's no doubt. I've missed Centre Court. I'd love to play there one more time. I'd maybe ask the club if they would let me play a practice set or something, though that might be tough. I miss the place and I hope to be back either this week or at some point over the next few years and take my kids there. It's an historic place and it did a lot for my career. I have a lot of great memories there. There's no place like it in the world." Sampras believes Federer can win "as many Wimbledons as he wants", despite losing his world No 1 status and his All England Club crown to Rafael Nadal. "One thing Roger has over him is that I think it takes him a lot less energy to stay on top than it does Rafa," Sampras said.
"It takes a lot of work for Rafa to win his matches. He puts so much effort into each point that eventually something is going to break. He's an absolute animal, but as strong as he is, I think the body will take its toll. There's a certain grind that he goes through, unlike Roger, who's a lot more fluid. His matches are a lot easier."
Sampras believes that Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will dominate the game in the next few years. He says that all Murray needs to win his first Grand Slam title is self-belief.
"He belongs there, but it takes time," Sampras said. "It took me time to feel I really belonged. I could sense watching the US Open final this year that he didn't really believe that he could win that match. I think if he was in that situation next year he would have a stronger belief."
King of Wimbledon: How Sampras dominated in SW19 – and beyond
* Sampras turned professional in 1988, at the age of 16, and finished the year ranked world No 97.
* In his first appearance at Wimbledon Sampras lost in the first round to Todd Woodbridge 5-7, 6-7, 7-5, 3-6.
* In April 1993, Sampras claimed his first Wimbledon title, beating former world No 1 Jim Courier in the final.
* His seven Wimbledon singles championships is a record shared with William Renshaw.
* In 2001, Sampras lost to Roger Federer, 19, in the fourth round, ending his 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon.
* Sampras won 63 of the 70 singles matches he played at Wimbledon.
* His four-set victory over Pat Rafter at Wimbledon in 2000 broke Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam men's singles titles. He went on to claim a record 14 Grand Slam titles.
* Sampras has played only one previous tournament on this year's BlackRock Tour of Champions, winning the Brazilian Grand Masters by beating Marcelo Rios in the final 6-2, 7-6.
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