Proof, if More Proof Were Needed, That Pete Sampras is the Greatest Tennis
Player of Them All
Those who love and admire Pete Sampras had been through a painful and difficult period after his historic victory at Wimbledon 2000, with his failure to add to his 63 titles for more than two years. Of course it must have been even harder for Pete, but as the months went by I found myself torn between the old excited anticipation when he was going to play and the increasing dread that he might lose again. I kept telling myself that people endowed with genius don't suddenly lose it - Pete couldn't have forgotten how to play great tennis. But what had become of this formerly peerless champion? Where was the supremely beautiful game that tennis aficionados had known and loved so well? Where was the fire, the confidence, the will to win? I felt disloyal for thinking it, but the Pete Sampras of 2001 and so far in 2002 seemed an inferior replica of the superbly efficient tennis machine who had powered his way to a record 13 Grand Slams."I kept telling myself that people endowed with genius don't suddenly lose it — Pete couldn't have forgotten how to play great tennis."
As tournament followed Slam followed tournament, it was no longer a question of would Pete win the title - but would he even make it past the first round? So many painful times during this drought I watched him play with increasing disbelief and dismay. I did not want him to retire from tennis, but I could not bear the pain of his losing to player after player who was hardly fit to tie his shoe laces. It became a vicious circle: the more he lost, the less confidence he had, so he lost again. There were the odd glimmers of hope, but one or two good matches were then followed by another miserable exit.
When it came to Wimbledon 2002, I convinced myself that this was where Pete was going to re-ignite his winning fire-power and regain the title. We all know how that turned out. I was there, courtside, when Pete sat motionless on his stool after that dreadful defeat by another unknown. He stared blankly into space, as if seeking answers there as to how he had been brought so low. It could not have hurt more if Pete had been my own son and I longed to run and comfort him. But even his wife couldn't do that until the shattered legend had trudged off court to the comparative shelter of the locker room.
As the US Open came round again, so did the all-too-familiar wrestling match between my optimism and anxiety. Thankfully, however, the first match against Albert Portas was just the kind of start Pete needed. How long had it been since I had been able to watch him play a whole set without any need for nerves? Pete took it 6-1! True, his game was far from perfect yet, but I felt he had built something solid enough on which to base a credible US Open campaign. His serve had started to click and he attacked Portas aggressively at the net, taking both the 2nd and third sets at 6-4. In his second round match, I had to stop myself veering towards over-optimism, thinking that Kristian Pless wouldn't give Pete too much trouble. But he didn't! It was straights again: 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.
Pete's third round opponent, however, Greg Rusedski, presented a different proposition. When he gets his big serve going well, Rusedski can be a threat to any player. Just to make things more nail-biting, because the match was halted by rain in the first set with Rusedski leading 5-4, when play resumed next day Pete had to come out cold and hold serve. This he did easily enough, but with no break of serve the set had to be decided by the lottery of a tie-breaker. Suddenly Pete thrilled us with one of his special 'Air Sampras' overhead smashes, then went on to take the set with two aces. P-h-e-w, I breathed easily again. But not for long! The Sampras roller coaster swung us up, down and around - then into a fifth set. When it counted most though, Pete made no mistake. Breaking Rusedski again, he closed out the match 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4.
So, that wasn't bad: two fairly easy matches, and a long, testing one. Now Pete needed to see off Tommy Haas in similar fashion - or preferably better. That wasn't likely to be an easy task, but I felt Pete was gaining not only match fitness with each round but the confidence which was equally needed. Here we were in the second week, round of 16, and not only was Pete still there but looking good. ("Be calm my thumping heart - long way to go yet!") Against Haas, Pete looked very purposeful, like a workman back at the job he loves and does so well. Crafting out a gutsy 4-setter for a 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 victory, he notched up 27 aces, as well as 80 winners to the German's 36.
My hope could not be dimmed even by the fact that Pete's Quarter Final opponent was to be Andy Roddick, who had beaten him on both previous occasions they had met. But that was then - this was now! I prayed that Pete would put those losses out of his mind, come out fast and shoot Roddick down before he knew what had hit him. I saw Pete as a born-again believer in himself, who could surely beat the youngster this time. In fact he did just that, but the ease and style with which he accomplished it exceeded even my expectations. He was all over Andy from the first point, giving him no chance to settle or assert himself. The straight sets score-line was a deeply satisfying 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
My faith in Pete had increased during the tournament in line with his renewed self-assurance. The Haas match seemed to be the real turning point. There were more flashes of the old dominant Pete, but against a top ten player rather than lower lights such as Portas and Pless. Next, taking his game so brilliantly to Roddick, a player who had held a 2-0 advantage over him, surely indicated that Pete was on a roll. I began to feel that he was unstoppable now!
"This is what I play for", said an elated Sampras after beating his younger compatriot so decisively. "I mean, these are big moments, playing Andy in a night match here. You know, he's a young up-and-comer that has a great future. I'm pumped up." Yes, Pete, so was I!
Pete's Semi-Final was to be against Sjen Shalken, who I thought was likely to be considerably less dangerous than some other players it might have been. And I wasn't exactly disappointed that Andre Agassi had a date with Leyton Hewitt in his Semi."By now I was convinced that the tennis gods had finally relented and that destiny was beckoning Pete again."
The Sampras serve had been going from strength to strength. His stats against Roddick were stunning: 87% of points played off his first serve, 46 net points to Andy's pitiful 4, and only one break point against him, which Pete didn't allow Roddick to convert. As long as Pete's stamina and fitness held out (the rain delays being responsible for his having to play 5 matches in 7 days) I felt sure that Shalken would soon be on his way home. So it proved, with the Dutchman finding few answers to the problems Pete posed him, going down in three sets for 6-7, 6-7, 2-6. To complete my joy, Agassi had disposed of Hewitt, so there was the prospect of another classic Final between the greatest server and the best returner in the game.
Sunday, 8th September dawned brightly in the UK. As soon as I woke, my thoughts flew across the ocean to New York, where I hoped Pete was enjoying a deep, rejuvenating sleep. I had been so anxious at the beginning of the Open, but by now I was convinced that the tennis gods had finally relented and that destiny was beckoning Pete again. Fortune had smiled so favourably on him at Wimbledon 2000, when he achieved the amazing feat of winning there for the seventh time, despite suffering from tendonitis and being unable to practise. I don't believe he deserved to pay for this by being condemned to wander in tennis wilderness for two years, but who can fathom the workings of fate?
The day couldn't pass quickly enough for me. I spent it feverishly fussing around, repeatedly checking the weather forecast for the States and the start time of the match. I even dusted the furniture and arranged fresh flowers, although no visitors were expected. (Let unexpected ones dare, on a day like this!) But I wanted everything to look nice in honour of Pete - as if he could see into the room from the television set!
Eventually it was time to don the 'lucky' clothes I had worn to watch all of Pete's matches, including the special King of Swing T-shirt. One of my prize possessions, the candle holder I had made from a water bottle Pete had drunk from, with a blue candle in it (his favourite colour) was ready to be lit as soon as His Gorgeousness appeared on court, and I had a stash of nibbles and cold drinks on hand to keep my strength up. Perhaps I did feel a tiny bit nervous, but most of all I was s-o-o-o excited. I was almost certain that Pete would win and put an end to our mutual misery!
You don't need me to take you through that historic match in detail, as it has already been eulogised by innumerable sports writers. But I should like to share with you the unforgettable feelings that it left with me.
I sat spellbound during the first set and a half, savouring every minute of Pete's scintillating performance. As he was to say afterwards, he was 'in the zone', that special corner of tennis heaven, from where Pete had been absent far too long. No human being could keep up that level of perfection indefinitely, and as Pete started to tire, fear struck my heart like violent indigestion. ("Oh Pete, how shall we bear it if you're denied for the third year running!) But, being the great champion he is, the mighty Sampras dug deep, found that extra ounce of resolve, and suddenly, from being a break down he was serving for the match. And winning it - his first slam - first title - for 26 months! Pete, you deserved it so much!
At last our warrior was restored to us! All the hard times were forgotten as we happy voyeurs shared in the joy and pride that radiated from Bridgette Sampras, while her beaming husband sought her out in the crowd to hold her close and whisper in her ear. Was ever a sporting victory more poignant - a drama fit even for Shakespeare's interpretation. With apologies to the latter, I can imagine it now: A valiant king, tested by cruel adversity, fights and loses numerous hard battles in his own and foreign lands. Yet he refuses to yield his sovereignty. Despite years of suffering, he returns at last with his faithful queen to his own land, winning his most glorious victory and restoring his fortunes.
Pete Sampras is not a man to stoop to trading insults with lesser mortals. He speaks most eloquently with his racket, with the athletic poetry of his movement, and above all, with the fighting heart that all conquerors must possess. How proud and joyful I am to have followed his unique career, through tears and triumphs, and now to delight in his greatest reward so far. As Pete said, with characteristic under-statement, "I guess I'm back." And thousands of tennis fans world-wide are so very glad he is.