GOD OF BIG THINGS

"The higher you soar the smaller you appear to those who cannot fly." - Friedrich Nietzsche

THE man called Joker was right. Pete Sampras is history. Greg Rusedski was right. Pete Sampras is done. The Canadian-born Briton was right. Pete Sampras is slow. Rusedski was on the mark. Pete Sampras is old, a father to be soon.

AP

He was, after all, giving voice to a belief that he shared with a lot of other players on the tour, an opinion that many a critic has brought to print, has aired on television.

They were all right. As a Grand Slam champion, Pete Sampras is history.

Is this the same Pete Sampras who, last fortnight, at age 31 and in front of a passionate crowd at the National Tennis Center in New York beat one of the all-time greats of the game - Andre Agassi - in the US Open final and then climbed into the stands to share an intimate moment with his heavily pregnant wife Bridgette Wilson Sampras?

Of course, it is. Yet, Greg Rusedski and all the others who swore that such an event would never happen again in Sampras's career were all right.

They were right because they said what seemed logical from their point of view. They were right because, they judged within the ambit of their own knowledge and experience. They were right because, given their limitations, they could not have said anything different.

That the Rusedski point of view is pedestrian is besides the point. That he - and all the others who sought to write off the greatest tennis player that ever lived - knows nothing about surpassing genius is hardly relevant.

What is relevant is this: it takes a touch of greatness to peek into the soul of the sort of greatness symbolised by Sampras and see it for what it is, see it for what it is capable of, see it for its timeless quality and transcendental brilliance. Average men with average thought patterns like Rusdeski's will never enjoy that privilege.

Then again, to hell with Rusdeski and his ilk. We are not here to bury them. We are here to praise one of the greatest athletes in the history of sport, to celebrate one of the greatest moments of his remarkable career, to marvel at a revival that is nothing short of the epic.

Who would have believed this was possible? Who - other than the great man himself - would have thought that an ageing legend who had lost to George No Name (Bastl) in the second round at Wimbledon last June and then sat slumped in his chair staring at the turf for a long, long time would win a fifth U.S.Open title 12 years after his first as a 19-year-old?

During the fourth and fifth sets of that match, Sampras pulled out a note written by his wife to inspire him and read it again and again. "My husband, 7 time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras," began the note. It was a touching moment but it failed to save Sampras ignominy on that day.

Long years spent in the trenches of sportswriting provide a person with an armour of impassivity. While you readily describe an event with passion and hold a mirror to the emotions played out on a sports field, you seldom let the events shake you up. You feel, yet you don't feel. You are moved, yet you are not moved.

In my career, that afternoon at Wimbledon was an exception. I simply could not believe something like that could have happened to Sampras, that the lord and master of lawn tennis could be so humbled by a man who made the main draw as a lucky loser after being eliminated in the qualifying rounds. Later that evening, in the press mini bus that drove us back to Central London, an Italian journalist said to me: "I guess this is it. Pete will never come back here again. It's all over."

I flashed a wan smile and said to myself, "Maybe he is right." Yet, as the hauntingly poignant image of the great man sitting, shoulders slumped, on the No.2 court played itself out again and again in my mind, I was hoping against all hope that the great man would somehow author a miracle.

But, then, truth to tell, for all the elements of the unexpected contained in the dramatic events of the second week at Flushing Meadows, Grand Slam title No.14 for Pete Sampras was no miracle. It was just that the great man finally overcame the biggest slump of his career, and did so against all odds.

It would have been a miracle if a lesser man had done what Sampras did, go without a single title for more than two years and then beat players of the calibre of Tommy Haas, Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi to win the U.S.Open.

But Sampras needs no miracles to win. He just needs about 80 per cent of his game. Yes, 80 per cent. Not even 100 per cent.

Having watched him from the time he beat a resurgent John McEnroe in the semifinals and then Andre Agassi in the final to win his first Grand Slam title in New York in 1990, having watched him win seven Wimbledon titles and two Australian Open titles, one can say this much with conviction: Sampras at 80 per cent will beat Andre Agassi at 100 per cent in five sets on a fast court. And he only needs to be at 70 per cent to beat any of the other active players in the game!

And what happens when Sampras plays at 100 per cent? As Agassi, his greatest rival, said after losing the 1999 Wimbledon final in straight sets, Pete walks on water.

A majority of tennis critics and a vast majority of fans have a natural tendency to favour matches of intense drama. Five set epics stay in the mind longer. The Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe classic of 1980 at Wimbledon, the Goran Ivanisevic-Pat Rafter thriller last year... these are the kind of matches that appeal to many.

But, in my mind, there is no greater match than the one in which Sampras outclassed an inspired Agassi in the 1999 Wimbledon final. From the time he was challenged on serve (down 0-40) midway in the first set to the time that he eased on the pedal just that bit late in the third set, Sampras put on an exhibition of tennis that would have been impossible even to dream of, if it had not actually been enacted in front of our eyes.

As the great man probed the very limits of athletic and artistic excellence, you sat in awe, often pinching yourself, and still wondering if it was a dream from which you'd soon wake up.

"Can anyone really play tennis like this" asked a French tennis writer, eyes wide, in the press box.

Well, Pete Sampras can. Pete Sampras did. And it was precisely because of that it was hard to digest the events of the last two seasons when the great man huffed and puffed to defeats against mere mortals.

Looking back, for a couple of years, Sampras has had a problem. After winning a record 13 Grand Slam titles, after winning a record seven Wimbledon titles, after finishing No.1 for a record six years, there was no new peak to scale, no one to beat, nothing to prove, no challenge to meet.

What does a mountaineer do after conquering the Everest? Everything else begins to look meaningless, pedestrian, unworthy of great effort.

And what does a tennis champion do after becoming the winningest Grand Slam champion of all time, after spending more weeks at No.1 than anyone else in history, after having dominated the spiritual home of tennis - Wimbledon - like no other player?

Maybe simply ease his foot off the pedal, find the woman of his dreams to marry, chill out a bit and soak up life outside the cauldron of tennis.

Sampras did just that. But, then, not much later, he wasn't the Sampras we knew anymore on a tennis court. Tom Who, Dick What and Harry Who's That started stepping on the court believing they can beat the great man. And many of them did too as Sampras went without a title in 33 tournaments over 26 months.

In Grand Slam after Grand Slam, as he said that he still felt he had another major or two left in him - after losing to lesser men - few were willing to believe him. It looked like the great man was chasing rainbows.

But like Muhammad Ali in another era, through all the traumatic events in the twilight of his career, Sampras continued to believe in himself, sure in his mind that he can recreate the magic of the past at least one more time.

After making the quarterfinals in New York, beating Haas, Sampras was asked for his reaction to Rusedski's comments following their third round match. And the great man said, "The things which Greg says don't faze me. I know what I can do out there. I don't have to prove people wrong. That's not why I am playing. I am playing to challenge myself and see if I can do it again."

That, dear readers, is the one true sign of surpassing greatness - how successfully you can challenge yourself when all other challenges have been met and mastered.

Ernest Hemingway trying to write a book that is even better than The Old Man and the Sea, the painter Vincent Van Gogh trying to come up with a work of art that can surpass the Sunflowers... the self-surpassing process is the ultimate yardstick of greatness.

This is a business that is bloody tough for an athlete with a limited shelf life. For, by the time you have begun to challenge yourself - after having overcome every other challenge - your legs are weary, your motivation runs low and the sportsman's biggest enemy, Time, is ready to take its pound of flesh, so to say.

Then, suddenly, you are back in the trenches again, as Sampras was. In the strange business of life, just when you think you have nothing to prove, it turns out there is everything to prove, to yourself more than others.

And, at New York on that Sunday, the greatest tennis player that ever lived did prove a point - to himself. He proved that he can challenge himself and come out on top. Surely, it was his greatest victory. For, on that day, Pete Sampras beat Pete Sampras. And, to Pete Sampras now, that is the only player worth challenging, and beating !