Wimbledon 99: Sampras out to eclipse Borg

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"AS A nine-year-old kid," Pete Sampras recalls, "I was getting up at six in the morning with the whole family to watch Wimbledon live on TV, Borg v McEnroe. Borg winning five titles was one thing I never thought would be touched. It's overwhelming to think I've done that."

The difference is that Borg's five were consecutive (1976-80). Sampras won three in a row from 1993 and was then rudely interrupted by the Dutchman Richard Krajicek in 1996 before adding two more to his collection. Another point of contrast is that while Sampras has been unable to win the French Open title on the slow clay courts of Paris, Borg triumphed six times at the French, and three of those titles were achieved back-to-back with Wimbledon without playing a grass-court tournament during the fortnight in between. Both players boast 11 Grand Slam singles titles.

"Both guys are giants of the game," says John McEnroe, who ended Borg's Wimbledon run in 1981, and who, like Sampras, failed to win the French. "I place Laver at the top. He was my idol, he won two Slams. After that, you most probably have to put Pete and Bjorn, with that run that he had at Wimbledon, and the fact that Pete's been able to take advantage of the era that he's been in to win so many Grand Slams.

"Style-wise they're totally different, and certainly they're completely different people. But at the same time they showed, particularly when you hear them talk, that they're one thousand per cent into trying to accomplish as much as possible as soon as possible. And it will be interesting to see how long Pete goes on, because Bjorn, the moment that he felt he couldn't win any more, stopped."

"I think I made the right decision," Borg, 43, says of his retirement in 1983 at the age of 26, "and even today I do not have any regrets." His reputation survived an abortive comeback in 1991. "And on the other hand, too, I am part of the Senior Tour. I have been playing on the Seniors since 1993, when they had three events, compared to this year, when they will probably have 20 events."

"I won't play this game just to play," the 27-year-old Sampras says. "I see myself playing as long as I'm in contention for the majors, and when the day comes that I feel like I can't contend, or can't physically do it, that day will be the day that I'll stop. I hope that at that point I'll be realistic. I'm never going to have a regular life as long as I'm playing. Seeing Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway retire from team sports in the space of three or four months makes me think. Those guys are 37, 38. I'm reasonably young. Look at Connors. I won't play when I'm 38, but I can be competitive until I'm at least 30."

Just as Borg's Five symbolise Wimbledon in the 1970s, when the Swedish prodigy was mobbed by teenage girls, Sampras' Six (the Californian's record number of consecutive years as the world No 1) is the benchmark of the 1990s.

The effort almost pushed his career over the edge towards the end of last year. "I was very irritable," he recalls. "All my energy and focus went into the rankings race. It was consuming me. I just felt if I didn't achieve the record, how was I going to recover? The number of weeks I was over in Europe I was miserable. I wasn't eating well, I wasn't sleeping well. I felt like I was fighting for my life in a way. But I got what I wanted, and I'm thankful that I got it."

Many of those who remember Borg in his pomp, with the wooden Donnay racket and pinstripe Fila shirt, yearn for the time when his topspin and tranquillity and McEnroe's touch and turbulence ("We were fire and ice," McEnroe says) were as pertinent as power has become today. "It's the way of science that players play the way they do today," Borg says. "The switch with the rackets with the new technology makes the game very fast. It is a very powerful game today played on pretty fast surfaces, except for clay.

"I prefer to see a match between two different styles. Four or five years ago you had rivalry between Sampras and Agassi. Everybody got excited, because they both play great tennis; two different styles and two different personalities."

In common with Andre Agassi, Borg now wields a titanium Head racket. "I play tennis because I enjoy it and I am around with my generation and my friends, and we have a lot of fun together, but still everybody is competitive. We still want to win, but if you should lose, it is not the end of the world."

It is still difficult to fathom how Borg was able to dominate the French Open (he lost only two of 51 matches, both to the Italian Andriano Panatta) and then skip from the clay to the grass, pausing only to change his shoes: pimpled soles, twinkle toes. "Well, first of all, as you know, I grew up on the clay in Sweden. On the other hand, too, because of the seasons and the climate we have, six months we played indoors, on different kinds of indoor surfaces. So I was used to playing on all kinds of indoor surfaces, even if clay was my favourite surface.

"When I first played Wimbledon, in 1973, it was the year of the [ATP] boycott, and not all the best players were there. But I reached the quarter- finals. When I first started, I didn't really know how to play my game on grass. You have to get used to the surface. You have to know exactly what to do, when to play in the back court and when to come to the net.

"I never played a tournament before Wimbledon after the French. I used to go straight from Paris to London and practised on the grass for seven hours every day, to get used to the speed, the bounce, how to run, how to mix up my serve. It took me two weeks to find out. That's why I struggled in the first two rounds. If I survived the first couple of rounds, I felt more comfortable and confident. But I never had the idea that I could not play on grass. I knew that I could play. Players should be able to handle all kinds of surfaces, whether slow or fast."

Sampras, for all his success, still regards Wimbledon with childhood wonder. "As a kid I even watched the ladies final once. I watched Chrissie [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova] - just the echo of the ball in that stadium, the way it can come across on TV, made me feel this was it, this was the base of what we have in the game. As an American, I like the US Open, but, as a kid, Wimbledon was always the one that I thought was the coolest."

Borg emphasises: "It's everybody's dream to play at Wimbledon, and I will always remember my first win and the last one. It's always something special when you win for the first time, and at first I didn't believe it. It was one week before I realised what I had done. And then, I am sure, the match me and McEnroe had in 1980, that tie-breaker and the long five sets, had pretty much everything. Mentally I was destroyed at the beginning of the fifth set. Even today, me and John talk about it." Does McEnroe say the ball was out on some of those points? Borg laughs. "No, he never did."

Appropriately, Borg, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, three of the biggest sporting names of the century, are due to end the year by competing in the Honda Challenge ATP Senior Tour event at the Royal Albert Hall (1 to 5 December).

"I think a lot of people still get very excited when I play Connors or McEnroe, or when Connors and McEnroe play," Borg says. "They still remember all the old great matches. I think Connors and McEnroe are a little bit calmer than they used to be, but once in a while you can see the temper on the court. But it is not as bad as it used to be."

Is Sampras about to reach out for the Wimbledon trophy for a sixth time? "I think Pete has a good chance to win again. He's the favourite, even though he has not played too many matches this year. He's going to be the one to beat."

And the Brits? "Even Tim or Greg could go all the way; Greg with his big serve, if he's on for two weeks; and Tim played very well last year. It's very exciting for the English people to have contenders."

The Borg Years

1976

Borg defeated Ilie Nastase, 6-4, 6-2, 9-7 in the final

Borg's straight-sets victory against Nastase was the culmination of two weeks' domination of Wimbledon's grass courts, which were supposed to be too fast for the young Swede.

1977

Borg defeated Jimmy Connors, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4

If the final confirmed Borg's status as a Wimbledon champion, the semi- final against Vitas Gerulaitis was a classic, packed with spectacular shots and containing comparatively few errors.

1978

Borg defeated Jimmy Connors in the final, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3

Connors once vowed to trail Borg to the ends of the earth, so strong was his determination to beat the Swede. The American came close in 1977, but was further away than ever in 1978.

1979

Borg defeated Roscoe Tanner in the final, 6-7, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Borg survived two crisis points in the fifth set against Tanner, a big- serving American left-hander. The Swede's body language gave no hint of concern and he continued to go for his shots.

1980

Borg bt John McEnroe in final 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6.

The fourth set tie-break is celebrated as one of the most exciting passages in the history of the sport. Borg subsequently lost the opening points of the fifth set before winning all but one of his remaining service points to secure his last Wimbledon title.

The Sampras Years

1993

Sampras defeated Jim Courier in the final, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3.

Sampras, the No 1 seed, fulfilled Fred Perry's prediction that he would become champion. A tiring Sampras, who had already seen off Agassi and Becker, stifled a revival by Courier in the fourth set.

1994

Sampras defeated Goran Ivanisevic in the final, 7-6, 7-6, 6-0.

Home went Michael Chang and Tood Martin as Sampras charged to the final. Goran Ivanisevic made a contest it for two sets, but capitulated in the third.

1995

Sampras defeated Boris Becker in the final, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.

Sampras, seeded No 2, defeated two Britons in straight sets, Tim Henman in the second round, and Greg Rusedski in the fourth. Becker was tamed after winning a tie-break in the final.

1997

Sampras defeated Cedric Pioline in the final, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.

Petr Korda, seeded No 16, came closest to unsettling Sampras, the No 1 seed, in the fourth round, the American winning in the fifth set, 6- 4. The final was an anti- climax, at least for Pioline.

1998

Sampras defeated Goran Ivanisevic, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.

Sampras lost only one set on his way to the final, and that was to Tim Henman, the first British player to advance as far as the semi-finals since Roger Taylor in 1973. In the final, a gutsy Ivanisevic levelled at two sets all, but Sampras was the stronger at the finish.

Comments