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Sampras soars higher than Rocket

[August 24, 2003 Charles Bricker] I do remember, however, being mesmerized by the way Laver moved around the court, as if he was gliding on ice skates — this wonderfully fluid man with the Popeye left forearm who was barred from the Grand Slams for six years because he turned professional before the Open Era.

Until Pete Sampras won his seventh Slam at the U.S. Open in 1995, there wasn’t much debate about the best player in the world. It was Laver, who won 11 majors, including all four (the real Grand Slam) in 1962 and 1969, a feat which will never be duplicated.

There were those who threw out John McEnroe’s name, and Bjorn Borg — and the odd purist who thought no one could touch Bill Tilden.

But Laver was the only clear No. 1 for a long time. He won on every surface. He had every shot. He dominated the game. And he always left you feeling as if you had just watched one of the world’s greatest athletes.

Now, however, with Sampras’ official announcement of retirement, the time has come to hammer down the “who’s No. 1” debate.

And the winner is Sampras.

There will always be difficulty in comparing Sampras to any player of another era because of the almost radical changes in competition and equipment.

Laver and Sampras were champions from distinctively different periods of the game. One played with heavy metal. One played predominantly with wood. The big money in the game drove hundreds of players internationally to become professionals in the 1990s, making the depth on the men’s tour today 10 times greater than it was in the 1960s.

Laver, on the other hand, could have pounded down a Foster’s on changeovers and still eased through the first three rounds of most of the Grand Slams he played.

The trick is to be able to project Rod into the 1990s and beyond and put a 10-ounce racket in his hands instead of the heavy racket he used to wield. But he was a magnificent athlete, and I don’t see why, if he was in his youth today, he wouldn’t be among the game’s elite.

The case against Sampras centers on his failure to win the French Open in 13 attempts. If he had won at Roland Garros just once, there would be no debate. But that’s always held up to him — that he couldn’t win a big one on clay.

Nevertheless, what is inescapable about Sampras’ history are two records that probably will never be equaled: 14 Grand Slam titles and six years in a row finishing the season at No. 1. And he did it at a time when there were far more threats to his dominance than there were to Laver’s.

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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