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Posted on: September 19th, 2007

One-handed backhand helped make Sampras

- petepage

By James Beck
Charleston Post and Courier

September 16, 2007 - Imagine Pete Sampras as just another baseliner, hitting two-handed backhands of all things.

That's a really fuzzy picture of tennis' Grand Slam record-holder. Yet, it's a picture that came very close to being taken.

If it had, Roger Federer might already be co-holder with Roy Emerson of tennis' most revered record. Sampras might never have surpassed Emerson's 12 Grand Slam titles.

"That's a good question. Why did I change (to a one-handed backhand)?" Sampras said Thursday from his Southern California home during a lengthy interview.

Sampras said he was 14 years old when he made the decision to ditch his two-handed backhand. His dream was to one day win Wimbledon, and as improbable as the possibility seemed at the time, it would have been much more remote without a drastic change in his game.

Although Bjorn Borg won the event five straight times, Wimbledon's grass was grown for one-handed backhands. Only a select number of men swinging their backhands with two hands other than Borg have won tennis' most cherished title.

"I felt my two-handed backhand wasn't improving. I changed and developed a serve-and-volley game," Sampras said.

"It was a risky decision at the time, but I was

making it for the long run. The only way (to one day win Wimbledon) was to change to a one-hander. If I had waited until 16 or 17 it wouldn't have worked as well ... 18 or 19 would have been too late. I was 14 ... the time was pretty perfect."

The change was even more significant because it came at a time when the two-handed backhand was threatening to dominate the pro tour following Borg's success and that of Jimmy Connors.

Five years later, Sampras became the youngest-ever U.S. Open champion. Three years after that, he won the first of seven Wimbledon titles on his way to 14 Grand Slam titles. Serve-and-volley tennis, featuring pinpoint one-handed backhand volleys, anchored his game.

What are the pros and cons of the one-handed backhand? "You lose a little on the return of serve on the high backhand, but you have more reach, and you can slice it and come in. You have more consistency with the two-hander, especially on the return of serve," he said.

Fans should get a look at Sampras' famed backhand volley next Sunday (Sept. 23) when he opposes four-time Grand Slam winner Jim Courier at 3 p.m. in a "Legends of Tennis" exhibition at the North Charleston Coliseum.

Sampras still plays well enough to dominate the Champions Cup tour, which is made up of former pro stars. He is unbeaten on the circuit since joining it in 2007. He is even scheduled to play Federer in two exhibitions, one Nov. 22 in Malaysia and another at New York's Madison Square Garden in March.

While Sampras points out proudly that he still hits his serve well and that because of the new technology and strings his groundstrokes are maybe even better than when he played the ATP Tour, it's his serve-and-volley game that usually takes the most fine-tuning before playing in events.

Of course, serve-and-volley tennis is built around speed, movement and timing. Those are the things that are impacted most by age.

"I hit the ball probably better today than in my prime because of the new technology," Sampras said. "But I don't move quite as well. The serve is still one of the things I do really well, but my serve-and-volley is not quite as sharp. If you don't do it often (play serve-and-volley), you can look a little silly. I have to serve-and-volley a lot if I want to play at a high level.

"If I play two or three days in a row, it helps. (Sam) Querrey and Roger (Federer) came through L.A., and we played some tiebreakers. I was holding serve and he (Federer) was holding serve."

Sampras, now 36, and his actress wife, Bridgette Wilson, live in Beverly Hills with their two young sons, "about 40 minutes" from his parents' home in Palos Verdes.

After spending next weekend in Charleston (he arrives Saturday), Sampras will head for Charlotte to compete the following week in the Championships at The Palisades.


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