Nowadays, Pete Sampras leads his life largely out of the limelight, spending quality time with his wife and two sons, enjoying his time out on the golf greens, heading to the gym daily to stay in good physical shape. He also plays selectively whenever and just about wherever he wants in senior events and exhibitions. A year ago, Sampras returned to the site of the Australian Open for the first time since his last appearance as a competitor in 2002. He went to Melbourne and presented the trophy to mens champion Stan Wawrinka, and fulfilled some other responsibilities while he was there. How did it feel to be back in some old familiar territory? How much had it changed in the twelve years he had been away?
”It was nice being back, says Sampras. “It is a first class event and they have put a lot of money into the tournament. Everything looked nicer and more updated, and being there brought back some different emotions for me from throughout the years of playing there. Australia was always a tough place for me to win because the court was a tough one on my body, the heat was difficult, and it was the first major of the year. I did well there but I felt like I could have done a little better. When you land there and get to the hotel and look out the window, it is eerie in a way when you have been so far removed from the sport and the Australian Open. I was reminded of what it meant to me back in the day. You get on the site and walk around and you can smell the heat. All of a sudden, in a matter of ten minutes, it all comes back to you so quickly.”
One of the most powerful memories that was reawakened for Sampras was not his two victorious years in 1994 and 1997, but rather the rescue mission he made against Jim Courier in the 1995 quarterfinals, when he rallied gallantly from two sets to love down to oust his compatriot in five crackling sets. In the latter stages of that encounter, early in the final set, a fan called out to Sampras to ”win it for your coach”, referring to the ailing Tim Gullikson, who had gone home and would be diagnosed with brain tumors. When the fan screamed from the stands, Sampras was brought to tears at a changeover, and it was a tall task for him to recover his poise and get the job done.
“That was such a tough moment,” he says now. “Tim took ill and it was bizarre. That was very difficult for me. I did think about that Courier match when I was back there last year. But it was fun to be back. The players have changed and I dont recognize half the people, the coaches, the entourages. Everything seemed magnified more. A friend of mine wanted a picture with Rod Laver so I asked Rod to do it. We spent some time together. Rod is such a nice guy. I always enjoy my moments with him. I did some speaking and corporate things and was around the site a lot. Back in the day when I was competing, I never saw what it was like behind the scenes in terms of how the event is run, the corporate sponsors and where they get their money. I did some schmoozing and some press and lunches. It is a different set of shoes I am wearing these days and I enjoy that. I am not quite as uptight as I used to be when I was playing. At that time I was always on the edge. Now I am a lot more relaxed.”
Never before had Sampras observed Nadal in person, and he found the experience a revelation in some ways. Sampras was immensely impressed by Nadals court presence as he saw him stop Roger Federer in the penultimate round; Nadals insatiable competitive appetite was almost tangible as Sampras sat in the stands digesting it all. ”What I felt watching that match,” he recalls, “was just the energy that Rafa has on the court, in the way he walks and the way he grunts. He is like a pit bull. He keeps coming after you. Roger is very relaxed so their energies are different. You never feel like you have a chance to breathe against Rafa. Obviously Rafa is a great player but the constant with him is that intensity. When you are dealing with that for three hours, it is hard to keep up with for someone with Roger’s personality. I was thinking, God, the energy of this guy is incredible. You don’t sense that as much watching him on television. The sheer force of the way he carries himself really struck me.
In the final, of course, Nadal was hindered by a back injury, falling in four sets to Wawrinka, losing to the Swiss for the first time in 13 career collisions. Sampras remembers, “I thought Stan would be a little more nervous, but he was outplaying Rafa for a set and a half. Then obviously Rafas back injury got bad and I thought at one point Rafa was going to stop. He served-and-volleyed on a point and you thought if he lost that point he was going to call it a day. That sapped the energy out of the whole stadium and it was unfortunate. Dealing with a bad back can be very debilitating.”
Had Nadal been victorious, one 14 time major champion would have handed the trophy to another, which seemed fitting at the time. Instead, Sampras presented the winners trophy to the worthy Wawrinka. Before a gracious Nadal left the court, Sampras spoke briefly with him on the court. What was said? “It was a quick conversation,” recollects Sampras. “He told me he hurt his back in the warmup and he couldnt go anymore. It was an unfortunate incident and it obviously took away from a great event and a great weekend, but it is hard to take anything away from Stan. He deserved to win. He was playing against a guy who was not at his best, but history will show there is no asterisk next to his name. He played great, but the balloon popped in the middle of the match.”
After reflecting on the 2014 Australian Open, it was time now for Sampras to assess the 2015 field, and he is ready to do just that. “I look at Djokovic as being the obvious choice as the favorite, he said last week, a few days before Federer won in Brisbane, David Ferrer triumphed at Doha and Wawrinka defended his crown in Chennai. ” I like Roger, who is very eager to get back to No. 1 and have a great year. Hopefully he can withstand best of five sets over two weeks playing in some tough conditions, but I think he is ready for it. Nadal is a question mark. I feel like he is not one hundred percent physically but if he gets some matches under his belt and gets through the first week, he will be right there at the end. He is just a beast and will always be in contention. The second tier is maybe a little more confident than a couple of years ago. Cilic winning the U.S. Open and Wawrinka winning last year in Australia has given them more belief. Is Raonic or Nishikori or Berdych ready to break through? They could maybe squeak into the last weekend. But I still think if everyone is playing well Novak, Roger and Rafa are the best players. There have been a few more upsets in the last couple of years; there is no sure thing. It is time for Grigor Dimitrov to make a move. It will be interesting.”
I asked Sampras to analyze not only Dimitrov but also Nishikori and Raonic. He started with Nishikori. What were his observations on the Japanese stylists dazzling run to the U.S. Open final last September? Sampras responds, “I thought he was fantastic. He is very tough mentally, returns well, moves well. Michael Chang has done a good job in helping Nishikori believe in himself more. He is not intimidated by any of the top guys. He is coming into his own and feels like he belongs. When Nishikori comes up against one of the other top guys in the quarterfinals, he is going to have a shot in Australia. Is he the favorite? No, but he is a contender and if things work out and he is playing well and feeling well, there is no reason he cant get to the last weekend and do some very good things.”
Now Sampras returns to the subject of Dimitrov. Asked if he likes Dimitrovs game, Sampras replies, “I love his game. He looks great hitting the ball and does everything really well, but sometimes I am not sure if he knows how he wants to construct his points to win them. Does he want to come in, stay back, play like Roger or mix it up? I would not say he looks confused but he is trying to figure it out and that comes with experience. He is 23, so it is time for Grigor to make a good leap. He did that at Wimbledon when he got to the semis last year and now is the time he should really start contending for majors. He is on his way. All of us–Roger, me, and Novak–were 22 or 23 when everything came together. Grigor is right at that doorstep”
A few days after we spoke, Raonic halted Nishikori for only the second time in six career clashes at Brisbane to reach the final. He lost to Federer for the eighth time in nine meetings, but gave a good account of himself in coming from a set and a break down to push the Swiss down to the wire in a rugged 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-4 skirmish. It was career match win No. 1000 for the redoubtable Federer, who stands in third place on the Open Era mens list behind only Jimmy Connors (1,253 match victories) and Ivan Lendl (1,071). Raonic cracked at 4-5, 30-30 with a double fault that led to his demise, but still acquitted himself well overall. Is he ready to impose himself at the Australian Open?
“I think so, answers Sampras. “Milos is a focused, competitive guy. I have talked to a few guys about him and he is all about tennis. He really wants to sacrifice and do the necessary things. I like his game. But at the Australian Open where it can be hot and the conditions medium slow, I am not sure if he is consistent enough from the backcourt to hang with a Novak, a Rafa or a Roger. Milos is getting closer and he has got the monster serve, but is he consistent enough over two weeks for seven matches to put it all together? I am a fan of his and hope he can do it. To win a major you have to get your hands dirty and you have to be able to win matches on days you are not playing well. You are not going to play well every match but the great ones get through on their off days and just guts it out. Milos is close. I have seen him play some really good tennis but also some tennis that isnt that good. I saw him play Roger in the semis of Wimbledon last year and he seemed a little overwhelmed by the moment. But next time in that situation he will be more confident. Milos really wants to do well.”
How does Sampras view Wawrinka as he heads back into business at Melbourne in search of a second straight crown? “Stan hits the ball big,” he asserts. “But it is tough to defend a major, especially your first one. He will be a bit of a marked man and it will be a different set of shoes for him this year. If he can get into the second week, maybe he can put it all together. He likes the court and the conditions so he has that going for him. Defending is just a different pressure. But he will be in the mix.”
Returning to the topic of Nadal and his recent struggle to recover his confidence and swagger, Sampras says, “Rafa is one of those guys who need reassurance. Some of the things he has said in the last few months sound insecure and down, like he is not playing well and cant win matches. I get that vibe from him. But if he gets through some matches and gets back to his old self, he will be right there. It is a major, and he has got 14. He is going to break me at some point and I think great players just find a way. Rafa is a great player.”
After comprehensively dealing with many of the leading Australian Open candidates for the 2015 mens title, I wanted Sampras to give his take on the 2014 Wimbledon final round classic between Djokovic and Federer. By consensus, it was the season’s most important and best played contest. Sampras was effusive in his praise for both players. He said, ”It was the match of the year. They both played really well. Roger played great and Novak seemed to have the match when he was up two sets to one. Watching the match, I felt that if Novak had lost after being up two sets to one and a break in the fourth, it could potentially have thrown him off the rails for four or five months. But he was great. It was one of those matches that could have gone either way, but Novak’s return game is so strong and he tightened up his game in the end and broke Roger at the end of the fifth set to finish off the match.”
I mentioned to Sampras that some seasoned observers believed Federer became fatigued in that nearly four hour match, but in my view the Swiss became nervous at 4-5 in the fifth when he won only one point on his serve. A cascade of unforced errors cost him that game, and ultimately the match. How did Sampras see it?
“I thought Roger got a little tight. I didnt think he got tired. Physically he seemed fine, but in that last game [when you are serving to stay in the match], you are more tight than anything, realizing, ‘This is it.’ You know grass court tennis as well as anyone. It is just a few bad swings in a match like that and it goes pretty quick. Roger lost his serve pretty easily in that game. I think Novak probably outplayed him for the most part throughout the match and maybe that just caught up with Roger at the end. He might have felt the pressure of having to come back the way he did in the fourth set, and just got tight at the end of the fifth. As you know, it just takes thirty seconds for your life to change at Wimbledon, and that is pretty much how it all ended in that final.’
One of the most widely discussed topics of 2014 in the world of men’s tennis was the influx of former champions who went to work as coaches for todays top players. Goran Ivanisevic was instrumental in enabling Cilic to win the U.S. Open. Chang was outstanding, instilling a much larger sense of self in Nishikori. Becker in my view was not a great coach for Djokovic, but the three time Wimbledon singles champion was undoubtedly beneficial to the Serbian across the fortnight at the All England Club. Stefan Edberg joined the Federer coaching team and was plainly influential. How much of a difference did these men make for their players? Did they get too much credit for the triumphs of their charges and too much criticism when those players went down to defeat?
Sampras replies, ”This is such an unusual time for the game because the impact of Goran, Michael, Boris and Stefan has been making such news. We have never had so many great former players coaching at the same time. Maybe Nishikori and Cilic needed a couple of great players as coaches to push them through those tough moments and make them believe more in themselves. Stefan has done a good job for Roger, who looks up to Stefan so much. Ultimately, though, it is you as a player out there and there is no one else doing it for you. But I know all of these coaches made an impact in different ways. Goran’s big impact was helping Cilic improve his serve. Michael has given Nishikori more belief. Maybe the respect that these guys have for coaches that have won majors makes them listen to the coaches a little bit more.”
Meanwhile, Pete Sampras has been trying to listen more clearly to his body after an arduous 2014 season when he was injured more often than not. It was strikingly apparent to even casual fans that Sampras was not serving with anywhere near his customary freedom and velocity when he lost to Andre Agassi on World Tennis day in London last March. I wondered if it is becoming increasingly difficult to withstand the physical demands of the game and maintain his training while his body does not seem to cooperate as frequently as it once did. Is that the case?
”A hundred percent,” answers Sampras. ”I have been dealing with a bad shoulder that was bothering me when I played Andre in London, and I hurt my calf this year, too. I have had some nagging injuries. For my serve-and-volley style of tennis, it just gets more and more difficult to do it because of the sheer force of serving-and-volleying, stopping and starting, changing directions. It takes a certain timing and rhythm. I realized this past year that if I am going to continue to play I need to practice more. I cant put the racket away for three months and then pick it up for two weeks and try to play a competitive match. I need to hit once or twice a week for my shoulder and back, and just get my body used to playing tennis. I cant just wing it. This past year was frustrating.”
It was disconcerting for Sampras to take on Agassi in London and be so restricted on serve. He recollects, “I couldnt really lift my shoulder and I was dealing with tendinitis. I had been messing around with my kids and didnt really take care of my shoulder and I tried serving a little bit and didnt have any pop on it. I had developed the tendinitis and that has eventually gotten better, but honestly it was bothering me for about six months. So I pulled out of one of Jim Couriers events. I tried to play a couple of his other events but I was really struggling and couldnt practice at all. My shoulder has healed up now and I have sort of taken it easy to get it healthy. It is good now but for most of 2014 I was hurting a little bit. I am going to play some this year and I need to just get my body right and enjoy the tennis instead of stressing out about having to play well and not being a hundred percent. My shoulder is my livelihood and if I cant serve it is not fun for me or for people watching me play if I am serving at twenty percent. I am going to practice more, and do my stretching and all the preparation. It is good for me to play and I enjoy it, but this past year I was not able to be at my best.”
He was clearly not at his best when he made the long journey late in the year to join many other illustrious players in the inaugural season of the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL). IPTL was created to bring international league tennis to four different countries as the players performed in India, Singapore, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates. Sampras played for the Micromax Indian Aces along with Federer, Gael Monfils, Ana Ivanovic, Fabrice Santoro and others.
Sampras was impressed with the professionalism of the operation in IPTL, and very laudatory about the deep commitment of the organizers to make the competition not only entertaining but hard fought, authentic and meaningful. But he was not on top of his game, and was perhaps caught off guard to a degree by the preparedness of the other players and the nature of the environment. He lost in his debut against Patrick Rafter in New Delhi, and then got hurt in his next assignment against Goran Ivanisevic, which was also in New Delhi. Sampras was taken out of the team lineup for his last scheduled appearance in Dubai.
In our conversation, Sampras was not placing any blame whatsoever on IPTL for what happened; he was simply disappointed that he was not able to release his loftiest brand of tennis in that setting. ”I hadnt played a lot leading up to that,” he recollects, “and was not ready for the seriousness of the event. I was out of sorts and it was a bit stressful for me. After losing to Rafter, I played Goran and went out there playing as hard as I could. But I tweaked my hamstring in the first game with 15,000 people in the stands. I was stressing out and dealing with my hamstring, and it got worse as I kept playing. Santoro came in at the end of that set to replace me for a game, and that was that.”
He moved on to Dubai, where Santoro took his place. Sampras realized he was sub-par physically and recognized why he was being asked to step aside, but his pride was understandably slightly wounded. “I was a little taken aback, he reflects, ”but I realized that the owners of the team are paying a lot of money to get us there and making a big financial commitment. It was a big deal to them for the team to try to win and I understood that. They felt I was not helping out. They werent happy with my results or the way I was playing so they pulled me for my last match. Santoro was nice about it and I just sat on the bench. It was a little awkward but that was that. If I was going to do it again, I would get over there early and get used to the conditions, because when I played Rafter and Ivanisevic those guys had been playing for two weeks and they were more accustomed than I was to dealing with different rules like playing let cords, one point is worth two points at certain times, things like that. So lessons learned for me. If I do it again, I know what I have got to do to be ready.”
Meanwhile, Sampras did enjoy spending some time with Federer during that stretch. “It was nice,” he says. “Roger and I hit it off since our Asia exhibitions [in 2007], and have stayed in contact ever since then. We were on the same flight from New Delhi to Dubai and sat next to each other. We talked about life, our kids, family, careers and retirement, and we also hung out a bit in New Delhi and had dinner in Dubai the night before I left. He kind of let his guard down and we talked about some personal things. I think he trusts me to talk about things he normally wouldnt talk about. Our personalities just seem to click. It was good seeing him and watching him play. His tennis looks great. We had a good time catching up.”
We had covered a lot of ground in this conversation, but before hanging up the phone I asked Sampras if anything has changed much with his daily life routines in California, like going to the gym, playing golf and devoting himself to his family. He affirmed that life remains essentially the same, although his two sons are swiftly growing up. His older boy, Christian, is 12 and his younger offspring, Ryan, is 9. Sampras relishes the time he spends with them.
“My older one plays basketball, football and soccer at school. He is in the sixth grade. My younger son is in the third grade so he will start that next year. I pick the kids up and take them to school. I enjoy watching them play sports and I go to all of the games. You want them to do well and have a good time, but I am not wrapped up in it like some of these dad’s who take it to a whole new level. I am more detached. Some of these parents seem to feel they [their kids] have to win and that is great, but that is not as much of a priority for me. I want my sons to have fun, be good sports and just try their hardest. I have been to the moon and back, right? So watching my sons games, I see some of these parents who are so into it and screaming and all this stuff, and it reminds me of how it was when I was playing junior tennis. I am not putting any pressure on my sons. I just try to be supportive. They see me out there relaxed when I am watching them play games, and I think that relaxes them.”
The two Sampras sons would be hard pressed to find a better role model than their singularly revered father.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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