by Steve Flink
Editors note: In case you missed the match you can watch it, in it’s entirety, online. Click here to watch.
Three days had passed since Pete Sampras had confronted Roger Federer in a highly suspenseful and absorbing exhibition in New York. They had performed admirably in front of a capacity crowd of 19,690 at the renowned Madison Square Garden, with Federer edging Sampras 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6) after the 36-year-old American had seven times put himself two points away from an uplifting triumph. He had returned home to California, and had watched a Tennis Channel re-airing of the match. This was the ideal time to get his insights on the evening, to hear how he felt about his showing.
So, at the start of our interview over the telephone, I asked Sampras how disappointed he was about not being able to close out the account despite leading 5-2 in the final set and serving for the match at 5-3. He responded thoughtfully, “I kind of worked through my nerves and spotty play and got in a position to serve it out. That was something I used to do pretty handily back in the day, but my serve deserted me a little bit and Roger came up with good stuff. At break point, he hit an incredible backhand up the line. Obviously, the competitor in me felt like I had him for a moment so right after the match I was a little disappointed, but that is the way it goes. I got over it very, very quickly.”
When Sampras served for the match, he fell behind 0-30 and that deficit was hard to overcome. As he recollects, “I went out wide on the first point because I was trying to mix it up, but he hit a good return and then won the next point. I got it back to 30-30. I was down break point and got back to deuce. But at 30-30 and again at deuce, I missed my first serve. I could have maybe taken a little bit off my first serve on those points to get it in, but playing Roger I felt I really had to bring in the gas and overwhelm him with some power because if you give him a chance to get his racket on a return he is very tough. So I went for those first serves and missed. All of a sudden it was 5-4 and he hits four straight aces, and the whole complexion of the match had changed.”
And yet, despite Federer’s stirring revival from 2-5 to 5-5, Sampras battled his way gamely into the third set tie-break and took a 5-3 lead in that match-deciding sequence. On that critical point, with a chance to reach triple match point with one timely swing of the racket, he went with his trademark crackling first serve down the T, which had been working prodigiously most of the night. This one, though, lacked the pinpoint accuracy Sampras so often exhibits. Federer drove a majestic backhand return winner past the hard-charging Sampras.
Asked to comment on what happened there, Sampras replied, “I probably missed my spot, didn’t hit it well. He read that serve right and picked it off with a great return. If there was one thing I could have done that night that I remember I did back in the day when I wasn’t serving that well, it would have been to throw in a few body serves. I didn’t do that at all in this match against Roger because I felt I needed to get the ball away from him and really pick my spots. Maybe a point here or there a body serve would have worked for me, but when you are in the heat of battle you kind of go with what is comfortable.”
Both players had remarkably little time to get acclimated at the Garden since the court was not put in until earlier that afternoon. As Sampras explains, “Pretty much from the time it was announced that Roger and I were playing in New York, we knew it was a sell-out. So the last thing I want to do is have 19,000 people come out and have it be a 2 and 2 match lasting 45 minutes. I used to shine in these moments but now I try to find my game as I go. The court in the Garden was very quick and there were some bad bounces. We only got to hit on it for a little more than half an hour before we walked out for the match, which is unsettling for a player. I would need two or three days to get used to that court. Going out there for one night exhibitions is very difficult.”
Given those circumstances, Sampras was unusually apprehensive on this occasion, hoping he could do himself proud, not knowing exactly what to expect from himself. As he says, “Roger and I have so much respect for one another and we want to put on a good show, but at the same time I wanted to win and he wanted to win. In the Garden, it was kind of a crapshoot and I think that was why I was a little nervous. That was because of the buildup for the match and the insecurity I felt about my game. As much as I am still playing well, I am not put in that environment with a full gym that often. I remember talking with Jerry West about basketball pressure and he said it was different for him when it is a full gym. I feel the same way now. There were a lot of people there, a lot of friends and family, so I wanted to put on a good show for them.”
It was apparent to all learned Sampras observers that he was not entirely himself at the outset of this appointment with Federer. In the opening game of the match, he connected with only one of ten first serves and Federer took control to seize the advantage. Was Sampras trying too hard?
“Oh yes,” he answered. “There was definitely a part of that. I was trying a bit too hard and trying to do too much. It took me a little time to settle down. And losing that first service game really set me off a bit. I had a really easy forehand winner on game point and hit it right back to him. That was just nerves, and the uncertainty of my game in that environment. I was happy I was able to settle down and win the second set and when I did that I felt really good. I walked out of there that night feeling pretty good about what I was able to do. The circumstances weren’t easy for either of us. It is not an easy sort of setting to play really great tennis but under the circumstances we did pretty well and the sport itself came out great. It just tells you that tennis is still very popular and I was happy to be a part of that.”
All things considered, both players did indeed acquit themselves favorably. It was a match of fluctuating fortunes. Federer was within two points of a straight set triumph three times before escaping from the brink of defeat in the final set. Both players gave themselves every chance to win. Neither man remained ascendant for long. I watched it all, admiring the professionalism, grit, and grace of both players. As was the case when they clashed three times last November in Asian exhibitions, (Federer won the first two of those contests while Sampras captured the third) the tennis was played in the right spirit and the players went about their business honorably. They clearly had fun, yet they unmistakably were determined to succeed.
That is why I was surprised to hear from a number of observers who believed Federer was carrying Sampras in that match. Some thought Federer threw the second set; others claimed the Swiss was deliberately trying to set Sampras up for easy volleys by not going for his passing shots; a few contended that Federer was simply not trying that hard overall. I strongly disagree with those notions. There is no doubt in my mind that both players were competing with full integrity, playing all out to win. In the second set, Sampras moved past his anxiety and found his confidence, and from that juncture on the outcome of the match hung in the balance.
In any case, I asked Sampras how he felt about those who questioned the authenticity of his meeting with Federer at the Garden. He answered unequivocally, “I wasn’t holding back and Roger wasn’t holding back. He was playing as hard as he could and I was giving it everything I had just to keep up with him. I wonder what some of these people would have thought if I had won that match. Maybe they would have thought that he threw it or didn’t care, but that is not the case at all. Roger has a lot of pride and he really wanted to win. It was real tennis. I was serving hard, he was serving hard. It was serious tennis. Each point we played I was playing full board. And I have seen Roger play enough, plus I watched the tape of this match. Roger wasn’t holding back at all.”
I mentioned to Sampras that some fans have seen exhibitions with a seemingly pre-ordained pattern where one player wins the first set, the other takes the second set, and they play out the third. He said, “I have never done that. Roger and I didn’t do that in Asia and we didn’t do it in New York. We just played as hard as we could. And we got lucky and were fortunate that we got almost two-and-a-half hours of pretty good tennis and it went down to the wire. We played as hard as we could.”
Case closed. Remember that not one of the three battles in Asia between Federer and Sampras went to three sets. On top of that, recognize that Sampras is a man of fundamental decency, an honorable individual with unimpeachable integrity. He would have no interest whatsoever in testing his talent against Roger Federer in a match that was not contested uprightly on both sides of the net. That would go against the grain of everything he has stood for across his career.
Moreover, the Garden engagement between these two all-time greats could well have been another two set verdict had Sampras not served forcefully in the second set and competed so effectively. But once he got going and found his range, he very nearly realized his goal. That was a tribute to his capacity to rise to a challenge and reassemble many of the dazzling skills he once owned in his heyday. Moreover, it was evidence again that his all-out attacking style of play, his relentless brand of serve-and-volley, his chip-and charge, short point tactics, are just the right recipe to unsettle Federer.
“Roger isn’t that comfortable playing against someone that takes his time away, and he doesn’t face that very often,” Sampras told me. “I am thrilled with playing good matches against him. The first one in Seoul I was kind of like a deer in the headlights, but then in Kuala Lumpur I played pretty well and it went to two tie-breaks and in Macau I squeaked out a match on an extremely fast court. Then to take two to three months off and try to find my game against him again in New York, I was thrilled that I made it so competitive and was even in a position to win the match. I can still serve-and-volley with the best of them and still impose a bit of my will out there and be aggressive. But it is a risk for me to play these exhibitions because I don’t want to embarrass myself. That would be hard for me. I was really glad I made it compelling in New York.”
That Sampras managed to play his way into that match was impressive in many ways. He was pressing uncharacteristically across the first set and both his serve and his approach shots were not anywhere near customary standards. “I felt in that match,” he recollects, “like a pitcher that couldn’t find his rhythm in the first couple of innings and then finally settles down. That is how I felt in the first set at the Garden. And chipping and charging on a fast court like that one with some bad bounces can really make you feel like a fish out of water. In the first set I floated a few [approach shots] just out of pure desperation but by the second and third I got a little more aggressive with it and put more pressure on him. I didn’t want to get into too many long rallies with Roger.”
As was the case in Asia, Sampras had considerable respect for Federer’s serve in New York. Federer mixed up his delivery masterfully, making 73% of his first serves by throwing in well placed kickers and using the slice serve wide at crucial moments. But then he would release aces in clusters, finishing with 19 for the match, six more than Sampras. Federer was cagey about when he would go for the first serve and when he would simply spin it in and start off the point offensively.
“I noticed that in Asia,” says Sampras. “Sometimes he cracks the serve and hits a big one and other times he just spins it in. When it comes to big points in the breaker or on break points he seems to go for it. He has a hard serve to read. It is not a Goran Ivanisevic serve that will blow you off the court but he beats you with both speed and accuracy, really paints the lines. The mark of a great server is when he is down and really needs it, he comes through, and Roger did that quite a bit in New York.”
Beyond the technicalities of the play in New York, Sampras felt rewarded in a psychic sense by just being on the card. As he says, “I was thrilled and excited. I had really played at the Garden only once before. It was exhilarating for me in my life to be 36 and retired for more than five years and to go out in that arena and play. It was an incredible high for me. Just seeing the celebrities and the names there that came to the match added something to it. That was something I was oblivious to back in the day. But that night I was well aware of it and that contributed to my nerves. Like I told Roger, this is as good as it is going to get for a retired guy to play him in that arena. It wasn’t a U.S. Open or Wimbledon final but it was great. I loved it as much as I was uptight about it. And the people enjoyed it and got their money’s worth, which was important to me.”
Beyond that, he did not let the opportunity of performing for other much heralded figures pass him by. In fact, he enjoyed it immensely. When Sampras reached 5-5 in the second set after trailing 15-30 on his serve in the tenth game, he broke into a triple fist pump imitation of Tiger Woods, who was seated at courtside and acknowledged the gesture with an uninhibited smile and hearty laughter.
“That was pretty much Tiger’s trademark,” said Sampras. “I just had a little fun with him. I know him a little bit. We did an interview once for ESPN and had dinner and gambled a bit. I don’t know him as well as Roger does but I do know him reasonably well. Tiger loved it. He is a tennis nut. I hear he plays a ton and grew up watching me. He is a tennis fan so you like to see Tiger at some of these matches. That adds excitement.”
Be that as it may, does Sampras believe that his strong showings against Federer in these exhibitions— one win and two tight losses in four meetingsreaffirm for him that he would have done quite well against the current world champion if they had met frequently when both players were in their primes?
“I never really doubted that,” he responds candidly. “I do some things in my game that make Roger a little uncomfortable. I think we saw in Asia and New York a taste of what could have been if we both were in our primes. We are two really good athletes that play differently, and it could have been some of the best tennis ever. I feel like with my serve I could hold my own even today, and back in my day when I was a lot better I felt unbeatable when I was at my best. It is hard to compare and say what would have happened if he and I had played regularly against each other with both of us in our mid-twenties. It would have been compelling. I don’t think he would dominate me 8 matches to 2 or vice versa. It would have come down to a couple of points here and there and I would have been right in there. That is how I see it.”
As for Federer chasing his record of 14 Grand Slam championships, Sampras believes the Swiss stylist will tie his mark this season. “When push comes to shove,” says Sampras, “at the majors I still one hundred percent believe Roger is going to come through and win a majority of them, even though there are some guys who are pushing him and making him work harder. He still has that extra gear when he needs it. He definitely is the favorite at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and he has a chance at the French even if he is a bit more of a long-shot there. I think he can win in Paris but it is the toughest for him. So it will be hard for him to break the record this year but he definitely could tie it.”
In any event, where does Sampras go from here? He may get a few more opportunities to compete against Federer, although that remains to be seen. But he will definitely play some senior events. He will return to defend his Boston title on the Jim Courier Outback Champions Series circuit, and might play Phoenix or Dallas later in the year. And he is headed to Sao Paulo for a Black Rock senior event in May. When he is there, Sampras will take on Marcelo Rios and David Nalbandian in exhibitions.
“I decided to play Sao Paulo”, says Sampras, “and along with that I wanted to tie in a couple of these one-nighters against Rios and with Nalbandian in Argentina. Playing against these two really good players will be fun, and doing something competitive every couple of months is fun for me as well. I am looking forward to playing Nalbandian, who could potentially be a great player.”
As he heads toward the end of his thirties, is Sampras concerned that his avenues of competitive play at the highest levels may be diminishing?
“I don’t feel any urgency at all,” he responds. “If I wanted to play for the next four or five years I could, but I am not sure I want to do that. Playing against the older guys is not nearly as intense whereas against Roger I really push pretty hard. These other ones are pretty competitive but not anywhere near the same preparation, which makes it easier on the mind and the body. So I am going to continue to play every two or three months. Playing Roger is different and if it happens that we can play again I am all for it. My game will probably get a little more spotty and the window for that isn’t that big. I will be 37 this summer. But for the next couple of years at least, I feel I could be competitive against him, and that is what I would be looking for.”
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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