During his record-breaking career he was known as Pistol Pete. Last night the Royal Albert Hall was introduced to Prankster Pete, the latest recruit to the veterans’ circuit.
Pete Sampras displayed many qualities on his way to 14 Grand Slam titles, but a sense of humour was not generally among them. However, in beating John McEnroe 6-3, 6-4 in his first match at the BlackRock Masters, the 37-year-old American achieved the remarkable feat of upstaging his opponent, who is usually the undisputed champion when it comes to playing to the crowd.
As early as the first game McEnroe was arguing with the umpire and line judges over line calls. Sampras immediately strode forward and, to the amusement of the packed crowd, called out to a line judge who had upset McEnroe with his “in” verdict on an ace: “Don’t be intimidated!”
When another ace was called in as Sampras served for the first set, McEnroe asked the umpire whether he had seen it. “I saw it,” Sampras piped up, before bringing the house down with his impersonation of a Hawk-Eye video replay. Holding the ball aloft to retrace its flight, he clambered slowly over the net before leaving it on the centre line where he reckoned it had landed. McEnroe was speechless, though his facial expression suggested that he thought Sampras could not be serious.
This was Sampras’ first appearance in Britain since his last match at Wimbledon six years ago. He played his final match on the main tour in the same year, winning the US Open, and did not pick up his racket again until he started playing occasional exhibition matches two years ago.
McEnroe, 49, is 12 years older than his fellow American (pictured together, below), though their careers briefly overlapped. Sampras won all three of their matches. In their only meeting at a Grand Slam tournament, 19-year-old Sampras won in four sets on his way to his first major title at the 1990 US Open. This time Sampras appeared to play well within himself. McEnroe himself still plays a mean game and served and sliced to good effect, but when Sampras found a rhythm on his serve and his volleys the gap between the two men was evident.
McEnroe held on until Sampras broke serve to take a 5-3 lead in the first set, converting break point with a crashing forehand cross-court pass that almost scythed his opponent in half. Two aces helped him serve out to love to take the set.
The second set followed a similar pattern. At 4-4 McEnroe misjudged a forehand return and the ball bounced on the baseline to give Sampras his break. Victory was secured minutes later with a thumping service winner down the middle of the court.
“I really enjoyed it,” Sampras said afterwards. “To be retired for six years and still be able to play in front of a crowd like that is an honour.”
McEnroe said last year that he would seed Sampras in the top five if he played Wimbledon again. He said nothing had changed his views since then. “That serve is just scary,” he said. “I don’t think any of the guys outside the current top four would want to play him.”
Sampras is the clear favourite to win his round-robin group and looks likely to play Greg Rusedski in Sunday’s final. The former British No 1 won his second match in a row yesterday when he beat Stefan Edberg 7-6, 5-7, 10-6.
Rusedski served with such venom that Edberg offered his racket to a ballgirl as protection after she twice failed to get out of the way of his thunderbolts. Edberg had his chances, however, and was made to regret his patchy form in the first set.Reuse content