Tennis Magazine (June, 2000) - French Edition
Tennis Magazine: Ten years ago, you were about to win your first title of your career in Philadelphia, and you were on the point of winning your first Grand Slam, at the US Open. Do you remember precisely that period of your life?
Pete Sampras: Yes, quite clearly. I became the world no.20 and I was trying to find my way to the top. I was still learning, and I didn't expect that things would move so quickly. Winning my first title was an important step, but the idea of winning a Grand Slam so quickly never crossed my mind, in any way. When I arrived at Flushing Meadow, I had set myself a goal which seemed to me pretty high: getting to the second week. Then everything happened at once. I was in a zone. I beat Lendl in five sets, McEnroe, who was an idol, and Andre in the final. In fact, I really wasn't noticing what I was in the process of doing. The strangest thing was that I didn't feel any pressure. Against Andre, I played very relaxed, even if it was the US Open final. I felt I couldn't really miss that day. Everything seemed easy to me. The end of that year 1990 was harder, because I wasn't prepared for the impact of a victory like that. My game was still very incomplete. Technically, I was immature. On a personal level, I went through a difficult period because I wasn't ready to take on my sudden responsibilities to the press. Just the fact that I was recognised everywhere I went made me very uneasy. I'm still shy, but at that time, I was even more so. (smiles) It took time to get used to it. That period was at the same time fantastic and frightening. At 19, it really shook up my world. If that success had come later, if everything had come more gradually, I would no doubt have been better prepared for the situation.
TM: That was ten years ago, as we said. Do you think of it like yesterday, or in another lifetime?
PS: All those events are perfectly inscribed on my memory. It seems a long time ago, because lots of things have happened since then. But I'll say again: that was a very difficult moment in my life where I had the feeling of being completely swept along with the tide. So the memories are still very strong.
TM: If you had to describe the teenager that you were in 1990, what would you say?
PS: I was trying to find my way like I suppose all young people of that age are doing. I was trying to be accepted by the other players, to get used to life on Tour, and to find out the ways to win. I knew that I had talent, but I didn't know if I had the heart or the guts to be a champion. When I won the US Open, I didn't feel that I had the answer to all these questions. I remember very well the day after the final. All morning, I did all these TV shows, and I only had one wish: that it would all stop. It wasn't my life, and it was very disturbing. The tournaments which followed the US Open were also very hard. I was a bit lost.
TM: At that time, were your goals very high?
PS: Before winning the US Open, my main aim was to earn enough money to pay the bills. (smiles) I told myself that if I could get to 10 or 15 in the world, that wouldn't be bad. In fact, I never imagined that I'd find myself in the position I'm in now. Of course I dreamt of winning a Grand Slam title and becoming no.1, but I wasn't sure of anything. Today, when I look at everything that's happened to me, I'm really surprised and proud to have made it to this point. These have been ten great years.
TM: What has been the best moment of the last ten years?
PS: Without doubt, the period between Wimbledon '93 and the Australian Open '94 when I won three consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. I went to Roland Garros hoping to get beyond the quarters, but I failed in Paris like always. (smiles) At that time I really felt I could control everything, and that was a very good feeling.
TM: And the most difficult moment?
PS: Personally, it was of course Tim's death. That was very hard because I had to live with the grief not only on a personal level, but also in public, like at Roland Garros where I really played on emotion. Mentally, it was very tough. Otherwise, I've had periods of two or three months here and there where my game has let me down. In fact, from a purely tennis perspective, last year was undoubtedly the most difficult time. I didn't play the Australian, and I found it really difficult to find my form again. I didn't have any more confidence in myself and my game. I won very few matches; I wasn't in a rhythm. Roland Garros was the moment when I hit rock bottom. That evening, after I lost to Medvedev, I was really down. A real depression. Wimbledon saved me. (smiles) That's still a great source of pride: to have pulled through, even more than the satisfaction of having played so well at Wimbledon and during the two months afterwards.
TM: In terms of difficulty, the end of 1998 was also exceptional. To be no.1 for the sixth straight year, you stayed for six weeks in Europe. What are your memories of this "tour de force"?
PS: Lots of stress, lots of tiredness. This record had become an obsession of mine, and I was ready to do anything to beat it, even stay for six weeks in Europe, which I was not used to doing. I gave everything and I achieved my goal, but it wasn't a very happy time. Living like I did was not easy. Six weeks of indoor tournaments was really depressing. I had never put so much pressure on myself before. I achieved my goal - that's the main thing. It was one of the biggest achievements in my career, and I'm not sure if anyone will beat that record. But as far as I'm concerned: never again!
TM: To achieve your aim, you played the tournament in Stockholm where, unusually, you lost control of your emotions. Can you describe your state of mind at that time?
PS: I was tense. That night, I hadn't slept well. I was thinking all the
time of that record. At Stockholm, I cracked a little bit. I didn't conduct
myself very well on court. [a note says that he smashed his racket on court
for the first time in his career] When I recall all that, I think to myself:
what would I have done if, despite all
these sacrifices, I hadn't beaten the record? I was really living on a razor edge. Psycologically, it was even a bit dangerous. But it happened, so it was worth the pain.
TM: At Stockholm, we even saw you, so it seemed, smoking a cigarette. Is that true, and were things so bad as to make you react like that?
PS: (bursts out laughing) Yes, that's true! I had an evening free after the final at Bercy, and at the hotel in Stockholm, REM gave a concert. I drank two or three beers, I was relaxed, and I smoked two or three cigarettes, which I had never done before. I needed to escape, to forget about chasing the record for a while. Everyone must have said to themselves, if he's smoking, it must be doing him good. And it was, really (smiles)
TM: Do you smoke often? Coming from you, such an idea seems pretty crazy...
PS: That's the the trouble with the image you have on court or in front of the press. It doesn't necessarily correspond to who you really are in yor private life. But I smoke very rarely, I assure you. (smiles) That evening in Stockholm, I needed a bit of relaxation, and it was nice for once to get out of my hotel room and to spend an evening like anyone else, not thinking about tennis. But I didn't completely lose control. I could still stand up (laughs)
TM: On the basis of that example, one can see that your life is to some extent "under surveillance". You have always said that your fame doesn't really suit you. What have you done to handle this better?
PS: I've improved in that respect. Now, I try to look on the bright side, as I realise that in the vast majority of cases, people wish me well when they speak to me, when they ask for autographs or photos. Before, I was more wary. Being recognised made me uneasy. But I realise that I've just got to live with my fame, because it won't do any good to be unhappy just because I get recognised. That's the way it is and there's nothing I can do. Since then I've been more relaxed and it's been better.
TM: Has fame given you power and helped you in any way?
PS: It has given me privileges, not power. Thanks to being who I am, I can play on the best golf courses in the world, or get a table in any restaurant at any time. I have power in my sport in the sense that my views count, but outside tennis, I try and stay as normal and private as possible.
TM: If you could change something to improve your life as a champion, what would you do?
PS: The biggest difficulty in my position is always seeming to be in the spotlight. Once a match is finished, I sometimes like to be left alone. I know that that will never be the case. When I leave the stadium, there are for example always people there to take photos or asking me for autographs, ditto when I arrive at the hotel. It's nice, but like everyone, I have good and bad days. There are mornings when I wake up in a bad mood and I don't want to sign autographs. That's the way it is. But I don't want to complain. I love what I do. These last six months where I haven't played a lot have shown me how much I miss the game. The positive greatly outweighs the negative.
TM: Do you sometimes feel like you're living in an ivory tower?
PS: Less and less, even if it's the nature of the sport to be often confined to your hotel room waiting for the next match. I try to go out during tournaments. I go to restaurants and the cinema from time to time. But if you want to be competitive in this sport you can't allow yourself to go out until 2a.m. when you have a match the next day. You have to accept the rules of your life as a player and the solitude that goes with it. Because on Tour, you are often alone. Even if your coach is there, you're alone when you're concentrating or when you play. Now, I want to give myself the best chances for success, and I know that I have to pay some sort of price. In the future, when I'm not playing anymore, I'll have lots of time to take advantage of what I've done.
TM: Have you suffered, on any occasion, more than usual due to your fame?
PS: No. (reflects) I think that people see me as someone normal, and they act normally around me. I'm not a rock star. (smiles)
TM: Paradoxically, you have recently moved to Los Angeles, the city where there are without doubt the most celebrities to the square metre in the world. Why?
PS: Because it's the place where I grew up, because it's where all my family lives. I needed to go back to my roots. When I lived in Florida, my whole life revolved around tennis and staying no.1, and there were sacrifices to make: my family was one. I wanted to go back and I don't regret that choice because I feel happier like this. When I'm happy in my private life, I'm happy on court.
TM: At the end of last year, when the sportsmen of the century were being named, your name came among the top places in many lists. What did that make you feel?
PS: It was an unbelievable feeling. In December, in New York, Sports Illustrated brought together a whole range of champions to celebrate the century, and I almost had to pinch myself looking at who was around me. I was sitting next to Jim Brown, a great American footballer, and not far away were Mohammed Ali, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretsky... At the end of the evening, they took a photo of everyone who was there, and I was really excited to be in the middle of all these legends.
TM: Excepting one another's titles, what, according to you, did all these athletes have in common?
PS: Everyone had dominated their sport for several years. It's great to be the best, but harder to stay there. To stay at the top when the young guys are pushing up behind, when the competition is so great. From that point of view, Michael Jordan was an example for me.
TM: Who impressed you the most that evening?
PS: In fact, I would have liked to talk for a long time with all the people who were there, but apart from saying hello to certain people, I didn't really have the time. But I know Wayne Gretsky well, who lives in LA, and who has become a friend of mine. He stays humble despite the career that he's had. He inspires me a lot.
TM: You are a great champion, but there's one title missing from your collection: Roland Garros. What are your thoughts in relation to this tournament?
PS: I've thought a lot about what's happened to me in Paris over the last few years. And I've come to the conclusion that each time, I put too much pressure on myself. In fact, I should arrive at Roland Garros in the same state of mind as when I go to Wimbledon or the US Open. At the US Open and Wimbledon, I play, simple as that. I let things happen. In Paris, I have a different attitude. It's as if suddenly my whole body tenses up. I shouldn't react like that because the clay at Roland Garros is sometimes quicker than some hard courts which cause me no problem. I have to fight a little internal battle to get rid of this resistance which shouldn't be there.
TM: Would you say then that your difficulty is more mental than technical?
PS: Yes. Technically, there are some adjustments to make: movement is not the same. But it's not that complicated. To win, I have to play by freeing up my arms. In fact, the strange thing is that I got my best result the year when I expected to lose very quickly. Yes, to win Roland Garros, I only have to do one thing: play. Last year when I lost to Medvedev, I frankly wasn't playing. My perfomance was disasterous because I wasn't myself anymore, and it would have been the same at Wimbledon or the US Open if I had been in the same state of mind as in Paris. I'm like an athlete who has prepared for the Olympics but, on the day of the games, is suddenly crushed by the pressure. Up until now, I've tried everything in terms of preparation. Nothing had worked. So if I play like I play anywhere else, we'll see.
TM: On the last three occasions at Roland Garros, you have lost each time on the court Suzanne Lenglen. Is that a coincidence, or do you have particular problems when you play on that court?
PS: I've always suffered on that court and I don't know why. That court is actually a reflection of my misery at Roland Garros. (smiles) I've always preferred centre court perhaps because there is more space. The court Suzanne Lenglen is still not really in tune with my game. I hope that will come (smiles)
TM: You have mentioned that your defeat last year psycologically affected you. Tell us about that...
PS: The pain was very great as I had felt everything was on top of me. I hadn't played well for a long time and that match against Medvedev was a real catastrophe. Paul and I talked a lot afterwards. He stressed the importance of the three months to come, of Wimbledon and the US Open, the fact that I had to return to base, that I had to go to England and work. To be honest, I found it hard to listen to him as I was so disappointed. That period was a real test for my career. I really had to get going again, otherwise everything could have gone to pieces. The miracle was that I then played perhaps better than I'd ever played before. Against Andre at Wimbledon, that was perfection.
TM: Could you say: I've already had some good times at Roland Garros?
PS: Oh yes, despite everything. In 1996, I felt as if I was playing like I had to play to win Roland Garros. I didn't ask myself questions, but it was a strange situation as Tim had just died. That year, I was very solid for nearly two weeks. I beat Brugera, Martin, Courier, but in the semis, I didn't have any energy left.
TM: To play well at a tournament, some players need to like the place where they are. Do you like Roland Garros?
PS: (with energy) I love playing in Paris, I love the atmosphere of the tournament. The French spectators know tennis better than any public in the world. At Roland Garros, there is lots of passion and emotion, and you want to be part of the show. And also the tournament is a challenge for me. I need these challenges to continue playing.
TM: Some people have suggested lots of things to you with regard to this challenge, not least that Paul Annacone isn't the best person to guide you to victory at Roland Garros. And you hate this type of advice...
PS: Yes, because it's got nothing to do with the coach. They say to me that I should get the help of people like Lendl or Noah. But I know what I have to do to win Roland Garros. I have to get rid of this pressure and be myself. That's all. I know that's easier said than done, but at least I know the direction to go in. I don't feel pressure at Wimbledon; I don't feel pressure at the US Open, but it doesn't go away at Roland Garros. That's the way it is. We could talk about this problem all day, think of all the possible solutions, but I'm not sure if I'd be better off. The ideal for me would be to have enough matches in the legs, and to feel fresh at the start of the tournament, which has not always been the case up till now. Then I would perhaps have greater confidence. You know, if I never win Roland Garros, well, then it wasn't meant to be. It wouldn't be the end of the world, it wouldn't put into question all that I've achieved elsewhere.
TM: Haven't you ever wanted just to talk to the people you mentioned: Lendl, Noah?
PS: I've thought about it, and I still think about it. Just to know what they have to say. Those players know my game and what I can do on court. Yes, I'd like to sit down at a table with them and have a discussion. Once I start my clay court preparation [this interview took place in Miami], maybe I'll pick up the phone to hear the views of two or three people.
TM: Last year, you said that it was destiny that Agassi won Roland Garros. Is it your destiny to win in Paris?
PS: I strongly believe in destiny. And I think that one day I'll win in Paris. Why not? When I'm asleep, I dream sometimes that I'm playing there and I win the last point. This year, I'm really coming to play like I can play and to win. I'll undoubtedly need a bit of luck like Andre had last year. I don't feel like the favourite. But I know that it's still possible, and will be as long as I'm still playing.
TM: What were your feelings when Andre held up the trophy last year?
PS: I would have liked to have been in his shoes at that moment, that's for sure. (smiles) We grew up together, I have a lot of respect for him. In my career, I've rarely called another player to congratulate him on a win. That's what I did when Andre won in Paris last year. And I know that he'd do the same if I win Roland Garros one day. For the game, it was a great moment,
TM: Was it a source of inspiration?
PS: No, I wouldn't use that word because to play or to win a Grand Slam, as hard as it is at Roland Garros, I don't need to be inspired by something or someone. It's the same thing when I don't care who I play in a Grand Slam final. It could be Andre or my brother, the desire to win is the same. The fact that Andre won Roland Garros doesn't give me more desire to win there, as I've always wanted to win in Paris.
TM: You know Agassi well. Were you surprised by his his exceptional consistency at the top level these past few months?
PS: No, because he should have always been that consistent at the top. He has the talent for that. For him, the problem has always been linked to a lack of motivation at certain times. What he accomplished last year was sensational: victory at Paris and at the US Open, final at Wimbledon. To be honest with you, I would be surprised to see him repeat a performance like that, as what he did was was exceptionally tough. But as long as he wants to stay at the top, he'll be there.
TM: How did you react to not being no.1 at the end of 1999, contrary to the last six years?
PS: OK. He had been the best for the whole year, but I beat him four out of five times. To me, that means that despite some ups and downs, I was always the man to beat, and I still have that feeling today, even if I'm no longer no.1.
TM: This year, Andre beat you in the Australian Open semi-finals. Was that defeat difficult to get over?
PS: That was a match that was tough to lose. I missed it by two points. That time, things didn't go my way. And I was also injured in that match.
TM: If you had won that semi-final, would you have played the final?
PS: Not sure. In any case, if I had played, I wouldn't have been 100 per cent, that's for sure. Honestly, I would have struggled.
TM: Let's talk about your injuries recently, and especially the back injury which prevented you from playing the US Open in 1999. Do you play differently as a result of your fragile back?
PS: No. But my routine before matches has changed. Now, I warm up longer than in the past and I'm more careful about doing stretching excercises. I needed to discipline myself. I'll never forget the pain when I felt my back in practice at the US Open. But I don't think about it when I play. I try to be as relaxed as possible.
TM: Would you say that you work more now on the physical aspect than your game itself?
PS: Yes, all the off-court work is very important now. In fact, I don't practice on court every day. I know that I'll never lose my rhythm. After a break, a few days is enough to regain my feel with the racket. My tennis doesn't really worry me. On the other hand, in the future I'll have to pay attention to everything that happens to my body as it's getting older and a little tired.
TM: Last year, an American magazine did a cover story on you with the title "portrait of a pissed off champion". Is that how you'd describe yourself?
PS: No, and to tell you the truth, I didn't really appreciate that cover. It didn't reflect what I had said. But I imagine that title was thought up to sell copies. I think that's a shame.
TM: What does make you angry?
PS: Not a great deal, actually. Or maybe, when I play badly. Last year, I remember walking off court absolutely furious during the Masters at Hanover. I had beaten Lapentti, but my level of play made me mad. It's my perfectionist side. (smiles)
TM: Didn't you have a problem with Heinz Gunthard, the Eurosport commentator, after that match?
PS: Absolutely. He really got on my nerves. I had played badly and was old enough to know it, but he wouldn't let it rest. From my point of view, he went too far, so I left, which isn't usual for me. You see, you shouldn't bug me too much when I play badly!