A million thanks Pete... for the memories

Pete Sampras with the U.S.Open Trophy in 1990. This was his first Grand Slam title. — Pic.RICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGES-

Exactly 10 years after he won the first of his record seven Wimbledon titles in 1993, the chances of the great man returning to the hallowed lawns for a final goodbye in 2004 seem rather bleak. And it's time now to curtsy to Wimbledon's greatest living Royalty, Pete Sampras, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

"It's going to be a tough flight home. But I plan on coming back. This is not the way I am going to end it here."

— Pete Sampras, June 26, 2002

As sporting Greek tragedies go, on a scale of 1-10, this was a Perfect 10. There he was, slumped in his chair on the sidelines, staring vacantly into the turf on the No. 2 court at Wimbledon, long after his conqueror — a Swiss journeyman called George Bastl — had departed, dozens of cameras feasting on the poignancy of the moment and the tragic gloom on his sweat-stained face.

In sport, the dismantling of legends is at once an ugly and cruel business — an excruciatingly slow process where the icon is relentlessly stripped bare and pulled down from his pedestal to the level of fallible, fumbling, ordinary mortals.

And so it was on June 26, 2002, as the great Pete Sampras was beaten in five sets in the second round by a man who had made the main draw as a "lucky loser" from the qualifying event. And the great man simply sat there, striking a Rodinesque pose, unable to come to terms with the reality of the moment.

Not since Leon Spinks floored the incomparable Muhammad Ali had a sporting image so steeped in pathos managed to singe its way into your mind.

Less than an hour after that soul-shattering loss, Sampras would tell us during the post-match interview that he would certainly be coming back and this was not the way he wanted to leave Wimbledon.

Yet, on the press mini-bus back into Central London that night, I remember saying to myself: "Hope he doesn't come back. What if it gets worse for him here?"

At that point, Sampras had not won a tournament — not just a major, but any tournament — since beating Pat Rafter in the 2000 Wimbledon final and had gone over 25 events without a title. Others, including veteran tennis writers, had dismissed his chances of adding another major a lot earlier.

But, until that day — June 26, 2002 — I believed that the great man could win another big one, especially on his favourite grass or at the U.S. Open. But the three hours spent on the No. 2 court, watching Sampras go down to Bastl shattered my convictions.

It was on that day — night rather — my belief in the great master's ability to win another major was badly shaken. I said to myself that it would be a miracle if he did it again.

Sampras shows his emotion after beating Jim Courier in a marathon quarter-final in the 1995 Australian Open. This was an epic match. — GARY M.PRIOR / GETTY IMAGES-

As it turned out, one did not have to wait long for the miracle to happen — and it did in early September at a place where the Greek-American genius won his first Grand Slam title.

And now that Sampras has not played a competitive match since beating his friend and arch-rival Andre Agassi to win his 14th Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows, the question has to be asked whether the great man has already played his last Grand Slam match.

This, of course, will mean that the soul-numbing image of the remarkable champion slumped in his chair on losing to Bastl will stubbornly refuse to leave its ugly niche in our memories.

Sampras will turn 32 in a few weeks' time and by the time Wimbledon-2004 arrives, who knows if the great man would still be an active player. It is now nine months since he last played a match and he knows, more than any of us, how tough it is to come back from such a long break.

"I know what it takes to be competitive. And I am just not there right now," Sampras said recently.

Having discovered the joys of fatherhood and quiet family life with wife Bridgette and son Christian Charles, whether Sampras will ever find the motivation to whip himself into competitive shape and undertake the steep climb remains to be seen.

In the event, exactly 10 years after he won the first of his record seven Wimbledon titles, beating Jim Courier in the final during one of the warmest and driest English summers in memory, the chances of the great man returning to the hallowed lawns for a final goodbye seem rather bleak.

"I don't want to totally close the door. I have given myself to the end of the year to make a decision on whether to stop or not," Sampras said the other day. "The decision not to go to Wimbledon was immediately followed by the one not to play in 2003, because if I can't motivate myself for the tournament that I put above all others, it's not even worth thinking about the rest."

Not surprisingly, the tournament he puts above all others — Wimbledon — in turn put him above all others in the entire history of the game. If the great man had not done it actually, nobody in his right mind would have believed that it was possible for one man to win seven Wimbledon titles in an eight-year span.

Now it is almost certain that the greatest grass court champion in history will never perhaps set foot on the famous grass again, at least not to play a competitive match. For, if Sampras cannot motivate himself for Wimbledon, there is very little chance that he would want to lift a racquet again.

"I said to myself: `What do you have to prove?' And I said `stop.' I stayed at home and stopped training," said Sampras. "I didn't have any aim. I can no longer have any aim after all that I achieved in my career."

Nothing to prove, nothing to aim for... even for the greatest of champions that's a great place to be. In lesser mortals, such tranquillity and contentment comes from abandonment rather than from extraordinary achievement. But, to a handful men like Sampras, it comes after every single peak has been conquered. Why climb mountains? Because they are there. As simple as that. And Sampras climbed every mountain there is in a remarkable career and the only place where he slipped was on the dusty red clay of Roland Garros. His best chance in Paris came at his peak in 1996 when he served and volleyed his way into the semifinals with stupendous victories over clay court masters such as Sergei Bruguera and Jim Courier, both in five sets. But his legs gave up when he faced a red hot Kafelnikov in the semifinals.

"I did everything I could to win this (French Open) title, so I can forget it without having any regrets," said Sampras.

Now, and well into the future, critics will surely point to that one little hole in his record. But that's like saying Don Bradman couldn't play on rain affected pitches — in fact, the greatest batsman of all time played some superb knocks on drying damaged pitches — and Pele had a problem with water-tight defences.

"He is human, but not by much," said Todd Woodbridge after losing to the great man in the Wimbledon semifinals in 1997.

Indeed, not by much. Between 1993 and 2000, Sampras was beaten just once at the great cathedral of tennis on Church Road. And he lost to an inspired Richard Krajicek over two days in the quarterfinals in 1996.

Until Sampras arrived, Bjorn Borg's feat of five titles between 1976 and 1980 seemed like the ultimate achievement. Five titles in this ultra-competitive era in sport? Few believed the record can be bettered until Sampras went on to win seven in eight years.

And when you consider his other achievements alongside his Wimbledon record, his place in the game's history — at the very top — becomes rather clear.

* All time leader in Grand Slam singles titles (14).

* A record six consecutive years (1993-1998) as the year-end No. 1.

* Voted as the best tennis player of the 20th century by CNN/Sports Illustrated poll.

* Voted by current and past players and the media as the best male player of the past 25 years.

* Record 276 weeks as No. 1.

"I play for history," the great man loved to say. And even as we prepare to usher the Sampras Era into the pages of history, I am sure, in my mind, that I will never see another champion like Pete Sampras in my lifetime.

A million thanks Pete, for all the memories. You made my days on the famous lawns. You made my career worth its sweat and toil. And this fortnight, in leafy SW 19, it somehow won't be the same.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, the All England Lawn Tennis Club may have thought it fit this year to do away with the age-old practice of requiring players on centre court to curtsy to royalty.

But, let's do it one last time here and now... to Wimbledon's greatest racquet wielding Royalty... Pete Sampras.

A Sampras Top 10

FROM the time he won his first Grand Slam title at age 19, beating Andre Agassi in the 1990 U.S. Open final, I have watched Pete Sampras play quite a few memorable matches. In many of these, he was simply matchless, in others his heroic qualities as a great performer on a big stage were wonderfully on show.

While it is difficult — if not impossible — to pick the 10 best matches he has won in his career, when you bring a touch of subjectivity to the exercise, it becomes that much easier. So, here then are the 10 best matches I have seen the great man win over 13 years.

1. Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 7-5. Wimbledon final, 1999. From 0-40 (on serve), 3-4 in the first set, until early in the third, Sampras played a brand of tennis I have not seen anyone play in the last quarter of a century. "He walked on water," said Agassi.

2. Sampras beat Jim Courier 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. Australian Open quarterfinals, 1995. "Do it for your coach, Pete," shouted a fan from the stands as Sampras fought to stay in the match in the second set tiebreak. And the normally composed champion broke down. Then, wiping off tears, he slowly got back to business. It was an epic match in which the great man dug deeper than ever before.

3. Sampras beat Alex Corretja 7-6, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6. U.S. Open quarterfinals, 1996. The great man was so exhausted in the four-hour marathon dogfight that he stood at the back of the court vomiting early in the fifth set.

4. Sampras beat Jim Courier 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. French Open quarterfinals, 1996. This was Sampras' finest performance at Roland Garros in the only Grand Slam that has eluded him. To beat a two-time French champion from two sets down was a marvellous effort. It was also Sampras' best chance to win the French Open but he was running on empty in the semifinal against Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

5. Sampras beat Pat Rafter 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2. Wimbledon final, 2000. In the gloaming, the great man pulled off a minor miracle in front of his parents to win his 13th Slam and beat Roy Emerson's record. Rafter was up 4-2 in the second set tiebreak. It was an emotional moment for the great man.

6. Sampras beat Boris Becker 3-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4. ATP world championship final, 1996. This was a great tennis match featuring two of the finest serve and volleyers of the era.

7. Sampras beat Goran Ivanisevic 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. In his third Wimbledon final, Ivanisevic threw in everything he had, and some more, through four sets before Sampras stamped his authority in the decider.

8. Sampras beat Andre Agassi 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. U.S. Open quarterfinals, 2001. Shot for shot, point for point, this was probably the finest hard court match ever played. The tennis was of such extraordinary quality that many oldtimers in the media said it was the best match they have ever watched. Neither man lost serve in this epic.

9. Sampras beat Andre Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4. U.S. Open final, 2002. Who would have believed this? Who would have thought that after 26 months without a single title, over 33 tournaments, the great man would do it again where it all began in 1990?

10. Sampras beat Petr Korda 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 6-7, 6-4. Fourth round, Wimbledon, 1997. This was a spectacular grass court match. Korda, one of the finest shotmakers in the game, battled back in great style but the champion of champions prevailed in the end.