Secure in his place in sporting history, Pete Sampras remains in awe of the achievements of others, not least Bjorn Borg, whose Wimbledon matches he saw on television as a boy. Having surpassed Bjorg's overall record on the lawns, Sampras is going for his eighth singles title and the fifth in a row, which would equal the Swede's phenomenal run in the late 1970s.
What Sampras admires most about Bjorg is that for three years consecutively he won the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back, switching from slow clay to slick grass as if the game's most extreme court surfaces were two imposters to be treated just the same. "I can't fathom that at all," Sampras says, his own success rate at the French Open having stalled at nil. "It's one of the ultimate achievements in tennis to be able to dominate Paris, and to adjust in two weeks time and go out and win Wimbledon. Sure everyone is in the same boat and has to adjust, but he did it three straight years, a feat that you will probably never see in the future.
"Winning the French, I assume, takes a lot out of you. You look at [Gustavo] Kuerten, who is not playing Wimbledon. Borg was such a great athlete, in such great shape, that he was able to rebound and adjust his game and win Wimbledon. That's pretty amazing stuff." Sampras's accomplishments are amazing, too: a record 13 Grand Slam singles titles (seven at Wimbledon, four at the United States Open, two at the Australian Open) and another record as the year-end world No 1 for six consecutive seasons.
He has lost only one of his last 54 matches at Wimbledon, to the Dutchman Richard Krajicek, 7-5, 7-6, 6-4, in the 1996 quarter-finals. "Yeah, he was on fire," Sampras recalls. "He dominated me from every aspect. He returned better, he served huge, and he went on to win there. That can happen – it could happen this year. Someone could get hot at the right time and serve his way to the title. It could be any number of guys."
It will not be Krajicek, who is injured and unable to compete, but if someone else strikes a golden seam, Roger Federer, for instance, or – dare we even think it? – Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski, how would Sampras cope with defeat? "You've just got to remind yourself nothing is so great it's going to last forever," he says. "But I don't think of that when I play. When I'm playing this person it's still a one-on-one sport and it's his ability against my ability. Sure I have the pressure, but I think I also have the game to get through some tough matches.
"Those are moments when I'm fortunate to have won what I have won at Wimbledon and a number of those years I've gotten breaks that could have gone against me. That's the way I look at it: you have to be realistic but also optimistic.
"I feel just a touch more relaxed about Wimbledon this year, even though I am the man to beat, I think. I just look at it as an opportunity to do it again. You wonder if this is the year if I'm going to get unlucky. All you can do is work hard, and the harder you work off the court, you could get those breaks. Probably five of my Wimbledons that I've won I've gotten through some tough matches. I've gotten through a couple of tie-breakers, and [Mark] Philippoussis getting hurt [in 1999] when I was down a set, so things have definitely fallen into place for me here."
Were he to lift the trophy for an eighth time a week next Sunday, would he be tempted to make a farewell speech? "When you fantasise about, say, [Michael] Jordan making the last-second shot to win the sixth NBA championships, that's great to go out on such a high. But, for me, I always thought I can play for many years.
"Even when I'm done playing I feel like I can get off my couch and possibly do it. So, a lot easier said than done, but 29 is still pretty young. I feel like I can do well at Wimbledon for the next four or five years."
So where does he rate in a list of great champions? "I think I'm too humble ever to think I'm in that category. With the achievements that I have had in my career, in my sport, I've made my mark. And Tiger Woods is making his mark and is on his way to breaking the golf record of Jack Nicklaus [18 major championships]. It's flattering to be thought of in the company of a Michael Jordan, a Wayne Gretzky or a Tiger Woods.
"You have to put Tiger in. He's transcended the sport much more than anyone. Golf's huge in the US and around the world. He's a class guy on a course. He's a very intense player. He reminds me a lot of me because he just gets the job done. He's very efficient. He goes out, he compliments his opponent. I've met him a couple of times at the ESPN awards, didn't talk too much.
"I'd like to pick his brains on what he does, his focus. I'm sure it's similar to a lot of great players in their sports. It seems like he does a lot of of training off the course, he does a lot of lifting and biking. Golf very much is a focus, and not only does he have that passion, he has the talent, and when you have the two combined, it's pretty overwhelming for his opponents. I'm sure at some stages in my tennis I had that; maybe not today, but certainly when I was No 1 for those years."
Perceptions of Sampras differ, particularly when he is competing at Wimbledon. To some observers he epitomises the ultimate grass-court stylist, while others consider him to be undeniably gifted but dull, too good for his own good and lacking the charisma of his compatriot Andre Agassi.
As darkness closed in on last year's men's singles final and Sampras freed himself from the danger of losing his title to the popular Australian Pat Rafter, a fresh image of the perennial champion emerged. Emotion took control as he made his way to the stand and embraced his parents, Sam and Georgia, who were making their first visit to Wimbledon.
"At the time it was like a blur," Sampras says. "It all happened so quickly. It was getting dark and it was kind of a very surreal time. I was sitting there, I knew my parents were watching. It's unlike me to do something out of the ordinary, but I decided to go up and share it with them. They appreciated the acknowledgment, and it was a great moment.
"I've relived it, I've seen the tape a couple of times, it's emotional to see my parents there. They've never been around much and it was a fitting end to breaking the [Grand Slam] record on the very court that I've done so well on, and to have my parents there and Bridgette, my future wife. It was as good as it gets."Reuse content