Age Ain't Nothing but a Number
When Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi contested the 2002 US Open Final their combined ages amounted to 63!
Long before the tournament began, the critics and journalists had been writing about the possible impending retirement of two of the greats in the game.
Some of the headlines regarding record breaking Pete Sampras were nothing short of soul breaking. For example one US Newspaper ran an article with the headline "For Pete's Sake Stop" but had any of them bothered to listen to the great champion Pete Sampras then they would have heard the words and heeded them "I still believe I have one or maybe two great moments, otherwise I wouldn't be playing" "I want to go out on my terms, I think I've earned the right to do that!"
If it had been written about a player who was more openly sensitive to what was spoken about them then perhaps they would have agreed and retired, but not Pete Sampras a player and a living legend who has built his successful career on a foundation of mental toughness and an unwavering belief in himself and his ability to rise above and allow his natural talent and skill to carry him through to success.
Of course he had earned the right to retire on his terms, and perhaps this is being presumptuous but he most definitely deserved to be shown a little more respect by the people in the media and by his fellow players.
Many players may have felt or thought that Pete was slowing down, but many respected and admired Pete Sampras and his achievements too much to voice them openly. One player however dared to voice his opinions in a press conference following his defeat at the hands of Pete Sampras in a five set battle! That player was Greg Rusedski. Upon entering the pressroom where he proceeded to arrogantly state, "I lost that match, he didn't win it!" He then followed that statement with "He's a step and a half slower coming into the net… I can't see him winning another match, in fact I'll be very surprised if he wins against Haas in the next round!"
As usual Pete Sampras chose to ignore the bait to get involved in a media fight and let his trusty racket do the talking. Not only did he beat Tommy Haas in the following round, he did it in the style that many had forgotten Pete Sampras to play. He served well, his returns impeccably accurate. Perhaps Greg's comments re-awakened Pete's awesome talent and brought it out again to shine in the Stadium that he began his amazing Grand Slam haul at the tender age of 19 way back in 1990. Whatever the reason for Pete turning on the genius play that has earned him countless trophies and accolades in a career spanning more than a decade, he has proven why he is and should always be known as the great champion that he is.
His next round opponent was in the form of up-and-coming, future of American tennis star, Andy Roddick, it was billed as the match between the changing of guard.
What in fact the match was, was a master-class in tennis, Pete Sampras destroyed Andy Roddick in straight sets, breaking the youngster in his opening service game, perhaps even breaking the youngster's spirit, which set the tone of the match and firmly stamped Pete Sampras' authority on the match.
In the press conference after his win against Roddick, the press decided to question Pete Sampras again about Greg Rusedski's comments. Pete in his usual understated yet charming manner replied with "I don't really take much notice of what he has to say, I have better things to use my energy and time on. Besides against him I don't need to be a step and a half quicker do I?" Despite Pete's calm response, his eyes did show a burning anger, that he obviously wanted to harness and use in helping himself to win his matches and prove the doubters wrong the best way - by WINNING!
What was emerging over the course of the championships was that you should never underestimate the capabilities of a player despite the fact that he had not won a tournament since breaking the Grand Slam record with his 13th Grand Slam win at Wimbledon 2000. Had people forgotten that he had been the finalist the past 2 years at Flushing Meadows? Who could honestly predict him not making it 3 finals in a row, but coming out victorious the 3rd time around?
Sampras's semi-final match was to be against Schalken, a fast improving player. Sampras took advantage of being the first semi-final match to be played and beat Schalken convincingly in straight sets, 7-6, 7-6, 6-2. The look of satisfaction and elation on making the final was priceless; Sampras was through to the final of the US Open. Now he had to wait and see who his opponent would be. Would it be the defending champion, Leyton Hewitt or would it be his oldest rival Andre Agassi?
Agassi fought hard and beat Australia's Leyton Hewitt in four tough sets. So, the two players that the media had so quickly dismissed and written their epitaph's were to contest the 2002 US Open Final - a dream final in many a tennis fans eyes!
So what if Pete Sampras is 31, Agassi 32…. Age is nothing but number, and it is not right to disregard these two players who have achieved so much and without a doubt have had the longest standing rivalry in tennis. A rivalry that both players have admitted has brought out the best in their games.
For the first 2 sets of their final contest, Pete Sampras could have walked on water… he played near flawless tennis, his serve as accurate as ever. His returns blistering! Pete Sampras somehow managed to turn back the clock and despite his hair thinning looked like the player that won at the age of 19 by dismissing his opponents as though he was swatting flies in his back yard!
In the third set Agassi found his form and briefly looked as though he would push his rival to five sets. Despite Agassi winning the 3rd set 7 games to 5, Sampras hung in despite feeling and showing obvious fatigue in the fourth set to clinch the match and his 14th Grand Slam title 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4."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."
It was an emotional and most sweetest of wins for Pete Sampras. He ran into the crowd to celebrate and thank his biggest supporter, his beautiful wife Bridgette, who is expecting their first child at the end of the year. He later went on to say that if had not been for his wife he may have given up, but she kept his spirits up and kept on reminding him of who he is and what he has achieved. "Just shows I chose the right woman to be my wife!" Sampras proudly said.
Despite this win, people still insist on bringing up the retirement question, Pete and Andre both refuse to give a set date. As long as they feel as passionately as they do about competing then who can realistically put a time limit on them playing?
In my honest opinion, Pete Sampras can still play and compete with the best for at least 3 or perhaps 4 years. Perhaps this 14th Grand Slam win will be the start of Pete Sampras on another winning streak…. Who can say that he won't win numbers 15,16 or even 17 next years at the Grand Slams to come? No one can predict anything in sport, but one thing is for sure, no one can ever take away the fact that Pete Sampras is the Greatest Ever to Play the beautiful game of TENNIS.