End of an outstanding career

The 2003 US Open officially brought to end the career of one of the outstanding tennis players of all time, Pete Sampras.

RAMESH KRISHNAN

Pete Sampras speaks to the crowd as he makes his retirement official at the US Open tennis championships in Flushing Meadows on August 25, 2003. Present are other celebrities (left to right) John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Jim Courier. — Pic. AFP-

The 2003 US Open officially brought to end the career of one of the outstanding tennis players of all time, Pete Sampras. The key word here is officially, because Sampras has not played since he won the title there a year ago. There were those who thought he should have announced his retirement then and there. But Sampras, never to do anything on an impulse mulled over it for a whole year before coming to his decision.

On the first night of this year's US Open, there was an on-court ceremony to bid farewell to Sampras. Present were his rivals, Jim Courier, Boris Becker and John McEnroe singing his hossanas. The whole thing was quite unique. In all my years, I had never seen such a send off for a champion but then again, Sampras has been a unique champion.

Sampras belonged to what I like to call the ` class of late 80's' which also included Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. They were all born within a twenty-four month period and entered the big stage within a two-year span in the latter part of the eighties. Each has won a Grand Slam title, three of them have been World No.1s (Michael Chang made it up to No.2). It was my privilege to have played against each of them and in the history of tennis, I don't think we have seen a more awesome foursome.

Each one of them, at different times has lead the pack and it is interesting to note that the best in this group, Pete Sampras was the last to come through. The first time I played Sampras was when he was seventeen years old. Even then, he had his trademark serve working. It was very obvious that this was a big weapon that would take him places. He did have a few victories under his belt and was clearly on the move. I remember mentioning to my father to have a look at him at Wimbledon that year. Pete promptly went and lost in the first round!

In those days, he was not a natural grass court player. Sure, he had his big serve but growing up on the hard courts of California, he was not comfortable following it into the net.

Fast forward to September 1990 and Pete won his maiden Grand Slam title, the US Open in spectacular fashion defeating Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi in the last three matches. He had arrived but was he there to stay? The sceptics were out there in plenty. No one questioned his great natural ability but did he have it in him to put it all together?

Plenty has been written about Sampras's victories but I would like to touch on three of his defeats which I feel were instrumental in making him the great champion he became.

The first was in the 1991 US Open where he lost as the defending champion to Jim Courier in the quarter-final. Right after the match, he inadvertently blurted out in the press conference `I am glad to get the monkey off my back,' hinting that he was not able to handle the pressures of top level tennis. Jimmy Connors, never one to let such an opportunity go by, publicly questioned Sampras's attitude.

The next instance was at the 1992 Wimbledon Championships and the top three grass court players of the day — Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Michael Stich — all lost in the quarter-final round. The title was clearly up for grabs as Sampras faced Goran Ivanisevic in the semi-final. After splitting the first two well-contested sets, Sampras faded away and the Sceptics were at it again — does Pete have it in him?

And the last lesson came in the final of the 1992 US Open. Stefan Edberg the opponent. At a set apiece, Sampras broke through to serve for the third set. He once again faltered and Edberg came back to win in four sets. But this loss clearly made a big impact on Pete. From being relieved to lose in the quarterfinal a year ago to feeling miserable to lose in the final a year later, Pete had clearly made the transition.

And the rest as they say is history. The floodgates were open and Grand Slam titles came pouring in. Through the next eight seasons, Pete won an amazing 12 Grand Slam titles to firmly establish his position as one of the all time greats of the game.

The only black mark in an otherwise outstanding career is that he did not win the French Open. At the end of the day, one will have to call it an aberration for lesser mortals have won there. It was definitely Pete's worst surface and his troubles were compounded by the fact that he was not clear in his approach — should he play an all out attacking game or should he temper his game to suit the surface? The best he did in Paris was the semi-final finish once. All in all, his record at the French Open does no justice to his achievements and accomplishments as a player.

Where does all this put him amongst the list of all time greats? How would he fare against the Tildens, the Budges and the Lavers? I would not even want to venture into that debate but when I wrote my book `A Touch of Tennis,' we had touched on all the great players I had played against. And I listed Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras as my joint No. 1s. This was written some years ago and Pete has added a few more Slams to his credit.

Nevertheless, I would like to point out that Borg did win an amazing 11 titles and he did all this just as he reached his twenty-fifth birthday before prematurely walking away from the game. If he had played a full career, what more could he have achieved? God only knows but it is not Pete's fault that Bjorn retired early. I will conclude my argument by saying that Bjorn Borg was the only player in the last twenty five years who had a record worth comparing to Pete Sampras.

Sampras is clearly the outstanding player of this generation and as tennis history gets written and re-written, his fourteen Grand Slam titles and six years as the No. 1 player may never be matched for a long long time. It is fitting that he leaves the game undefeated — as the 2002 US Open Champion. The King has abdicated his throne. Long live the King.