To the die-hard Pete Sampras fans who are mourning the loss of his greatest record – stuck down by Roger Federer at Wimbledon this year – you have reason to cheer! Pete Sampras, at age 37, is still a great champion: humble, thoughtful and just a touch melancholic. Oh, and Sampras can still S&V with the best of them.
Looking tanned and fit, Pete Sampras gave a jovial press conference on Monday, before playing Marat Safin in an exhibition match kicking off this week’s LA Tennis Open. (Safin is also in the main draw of the tournament.) No surprise, almost every single question involved Roger Federer.
An example: “Pete, if you’d known he’d have been in the position to win 15 and maybe a few more, would you have looked at things a little differently? Do you think you would have chased the Grand Slams a bit longer? ”
Pete Sampras: “Me in the nineties? Not knowing the future, I was happy with when I stopped – at 14. It wasn’t a number for me. I wanted Emerson’s record (of 12 Majors). I got it. I wanted to win one more – after two years of not winning a tournament – and then I won the U.S. Open and I was cooked. It wasn’t like, ‘Now I’m at 14, I’m content.’ Emotionally I was spent. I didn’t have much left in the tank.
And when I was done, I felt like I put up some numbers that nobody would touch. Little did I know Roger was going to come along and surpass me in 8 years. He saw 14 as his goal and he’s got 15 and he’s going to go on and win some more. Records are made to be broken. I believe in that. And there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t pick up my racquet and try to win another major. My days are over. I’m content with the 14 that I have. And I’m amazed with what Roger’s been able to do here. It’s incredible.”
When asked how he would match up against Roger Federer (as opposed to Agassi):
“I think when you have two great players, I think I’d have my fair share of wins and Roger would have had his share. Like me and Andre. I didn’t beat Andre every time. He beat me, just not in the big matches.” (This was followed by awkward silence and then a big grin from Sampras) “Hey have a sense of humor here!”
But come on Pete, how do you really feel about playing Federer?
“Do I think I could beat Roger at my best? There is no reason why I couldn’t. That’s not being cocky. It’s just how I feel.”
And of course Sampras was asked about the Federer twins, Charlene and Myla:
“He’ll be on the road as soon as he can. 40 weeks a year.” (Laughs) “I’m sure they’ll have help. . .I don’t see Roger changing diapers at four in the morning in New York. I really don’t think it will affect his career. It won’t. I mean, it’s a life-changer, but he’s focused on his tennis and he’s got the help of his wife and his parents and whoever else.”
Sampras says his own sons are his favorite “project” now that he’s retired. Otherwise, he’s still looking for stuff to do:
“6 and 3 year old kids. It’s a lot of work there. I’m working on my golf came. (My handicap is) 4. I’m trying to keep busy. Playing a little bit is good for me. Keeps me in shape. Keeps me focused preparing for something – which I need. It’s a work in progress. I’m looking for things to do. Any tennis pro goes through it. McEnroe’s still playing when he’s 50. It’s a nice place to be, but at the same time I think a man works. And I’ve worked my whole life. And now I’m retired. I’m kind of settling into it.”
Settling into retirement, huh? Really? Because about an hour later Sampras was pushing Marat to the brink of a smashed racquet. From his first service game, Pete was hitting serves in the high 120s. On one early point, he blasted a 130 m.p.h. serve, dashed in and sent Marat scrambling with a ripping forehand deep into the corner of the court.
These guys had come to play – not hit and giggle. Just check out Pete’s guns in his Rafa-style sleeveless top!
(Before the match, Safin popped into Pete’s press conference. Pete asked for mercy, “I need to hit a few.” Safin answered: “You will, you will, don’t worry.”)
And hit they did.
In his press conference, Sampras outlined his strategy against Roger Federer: “I would bring in the gas. Bring all the power I had and mix it up. Go to his backhand, just figure it out. Chip and charge, come in, put pressure on him.” That’s what he did against Safin – substitute forehand for backhand – and it almost worked. And this is a guy who claims to pick up a racquet every three months or so.
After losing the first set 4-6, Sampras broke Safin’s first service game of the second set with a series of aggressive net approaches and the kinds of textbook perfect volleys I didn’t think still existed. He then consolidated the break with a 129 m.p.h. serve to go up 3-0. He won the second set 3-6, but Safin found another gear in the “match-deciding tiebreak,” taking it 10-6 and winning the match.
Afterwards, Marat was his usual gracious self, thanking Sampras for not playing his best in the 2000 U.S. Open final: “Thanks to him, I had a great career. Now I’m retiring and will be chilling like him.”
(Random note: Could Safin be planning that Hollywood career we’ve all been hoping for? He told the crowd after the match: “Maybe L.A. will become a second home someday.” YES!)
Safin left court quickly, he had to play main draw doubles later. (He and Igor Kunitsyn went on to beat the team of Baghdatis/Sela.)
Pete Sampras stayed to be honored with a montage video and a letter from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (read aloud by a deputy.) Speaking to the crowd, Sampras was about as sentimental as a no-nonsense dude like him could be.
“I miss being really good at something,” he said, when asked about adjusting to retirement.
But looking to the family that surrounded him on court – his parents, his siblings, his wife and two sons – he tried to reassure his fans:
“I have a good life,” he said.
The crowd cheered.
(GTT will be reporting from the LA Tennis Open all tis week. Click here to visit the tournament website. Safin vs. Ginepri tomorrow!)