The champion of champions

Pete Sampras was a class act, a pure one-off among the players of his generation. He symbolised sporting excellence at its apotheosis and his place at No.1 in the top 10 list of the last 30 years is indisputable, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

THAT's it! This was the final full stop.

As the great man, riding an emotional tidal wave, wept in public and banks of photographers went into overdrive to capture a deeply historic moment, the realisation suddenly hit me.

That's it. I would never get to watch Pete Sampras play tennis again. He's done, he's gone!

Through a suspenseful year since the 2002 US Open, although the indications were clear that the great man was unlikely to play again, a simple truth _ that I would never again get to see him play _ never dawned on me.

Even when his agents announced a few days before the start of the US Open that Sampras was going to make his retirement official at a ceremony on the first Monday, the full impact of the decision did not hit home.

It was only when the champion of champions broke down at the Arthur Ashe stadium during the ceremony, with thousands of fans chanting his name all around, that finally the truth clearly dawned.

It was like a longtime music critic suddenly realising that he'd never be able to attend a live performance of Pandit Ravi Shankar or M. S. Subbalakshmi. It was like a longtime movie critic realising that Marlon Brando would never face the cameras again.

Even worse, in fact. For, the best of music and movies can be replayed to some level of satisfaction. But recorded sport is never a passable substitute for live sport. I might choose to, at some point, watch the tape of the 1999 Wimbledon final when the great man elevated tennis to levels to which Van Gogh and Michelangelo elevated art. That magic hour when Sampras, from 3-4 and 0-40 down on serve in the first set, climbed on some invisible ladder to heights no human being might have ever scaled with a tennis racket in hand, would certainly rekindle fond memories.

But being there when he is doing that, merely being there when he is doing whatever it is he is doing wherever, watching him play at whatever level.... that's entirely different. And that, sadly, will never happen again.

When Bjorn Borg (right) beat John McEnroe in an epic final that featured an unforgettable fourth-set tiebreak in 1980 to win his fifth straight Wimbledon title, many wondered if anybody would ever be able to beat Borg's record... win six titles, that is. But Pete Sampras went one better, winning seven titles. -- Pic. JAMIE McDONALD/GETTY IMAGES-

As the great man walked a lap with his son Christian in his arms, hundreds of images flashed by the mind's eye: the impish smile of a 19-year old winning his first Slam title at the US Open in 1990, a grown man breaking down on the court during a night session match against Jim Courier at the Australian Open in 1995 on hearing a fan call out ''Do it for your coach, Pete'', a grand master of grass court tennis lifting his seventh Wimbledon trophy in the gloaming in July 2000, an ageing, tired icon slumped in his chair and staring at the pock marked turf in the No.2 court at Wimbledon after being beaten in the second round by a What's-his-name?...

How many glorious chapters, how many golden memories, how many unrecapturable moments of sheer joy watching the incomparable master!

I am not quite sure if I'd want to agree with what Andre Agassi had to say in 1998 in Stuttgart when he was asked to name the five best players of all time. For Agassi needed just one name — Sampras — for all five slots. His answer was, ''Sampras. Sampras. Sampras. Sampras. Sampras.''

But this much is sure: Sampras is, by far, the greatest player I have watched, the greatest player of the last quarter of the 20th century.

Whatever we happen to do in life, there are times when we look back and realise that there were just one or two reasons why we count ourselves lucky to be doing what we are doing, why we think that we are fortunate to have walked the road that we did. In my case, as a sportswriter, the one big reason is that my career coincided with Pete Sampras'.

The man was a class act, a pure one-off among the players of his generation. He symbolised sporting excellence at its apotheosis, never strayed from the straight path — to the very summit — he had set for himself and in the end achieved the kind of immortality that only a handful of men have done in the entire history of organised sport.

Pele. Muhammad Ali. Michael Jordan. Jack Nicklaus. Ayrton Senna. Don Bradman. Welcome to the club, Pete. At 19 the great man knew where he was headed. At 32, job done, Sampras knows that his place is secure in quite the most elite club in sport.

To win 14 Grand Slam titles over 13 years and to finish No.1 six years in a row in the most competitive era in the sport.... these are achievements that are truly mind-boggling, not to speak of the record seven Wimbledon titles over eight summers on the hallowed lawns of the All England Club.

When Bjorn Borg beat John McEnroe in an epic final that featured an unforgettable fourth-set tiebreak in 1980 to win his fifth straight Wimbledon title, I wondered if anybody would ever be able to beat Borg's record... win six titles, that is.

Little did anyone know then a man called Sampras would arrive and raise the bar higher than ever before in the history of the game.

In the event, it wouldn't be out of place in this essay to begin from the beginning of the Borg era and end with the end of the Sampras era and draw up a list of the top 10 male players.

The beginning of the Open Era (post-1968) would be a point of historic divide but for one reason alone I would not want to start from there. For, the second half of the great Australian Rod Laver's career stretched into the Open Era and this writer was not fortunate enough to have watched him at his peak.

As such, although loosely termed as the Top Ten of the last quarter of the 20th century, the men who feature in the list (see box) were players of some merit at different points in time during the Open Era starting with the mid-70s and stretching a few years into the new century.

Although the Open Era began in the late 1960s, it was with the rise of Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors that open tennis really took wings. And these two men were the first great superstars of the last quarter of the 20th century.

Borg was, in many ways, very much like Sampras — he let his tennis do all the talking. Yet, strangely enough, he was the first great teen idol of the modern era, a quiet man who carried the aura of a pop star. He was mobbed by ecstatic teenaged girls wherever he went.

Yet, his attitude to the sport and his day to day existence were very much like Sampras'. Both men shunned all sorts of distractions, neither cared much for parties and late night fun and games, both preferred room service to visiting popular restaurants and, right through their careers, Borg and Sampras led an almost monkish existence.

Then again, it was this one-pointedness of focus that helped Borg and Sampras achieve what they did. The one difference was, Borg forced this lifestyle upon himself — as hindsight would establish — while it came naturally to Sampras. This is the reason why Borg lost his way once he left tennis while Sampras, I am sure, will continue to be a very contented, happy family man.

Also, in terms of their playing styles, Borg and Sampras were polar opposites. While, as athletes, these two were in the highest class, Sampras was twice as gifted a player as Borg. He may not have had Borg's patience and staying power — virtues that saw the great Swede win six French Open titles — from the back of the court but Sampras certainly had a more powerful allround game.

There is no doubt at all in my mind that Borg would rank next only to Sampras in the list. Had he been a touch luckier at the US Open, he'd perhaps have won as many Grand Slam titles as Sampras.

The third slot should go to Andre Agassi for one reason alone: the bald one who revived his career remarkably in the late 1990s is one of only five players in the entire history of the game to win all the four Grand Slam titles.

As a shotmaker, Agassi is in a league of his own and the manner in which he has stayed competitive, and right at the top, past age 30 is almost incredible. Like Connors in the Borg era, Agassi was a touch unlucky that his career coincided with that of Sampras.

Like the Connors-Borg rivalry and the Borg-McEnroe duels, the world sat up each time Agassi played Sampras but the great man dominated the rivalry, particularly in the Slams, where Agassi's only final victory over Sampras came at the 1995 Australian Open.

It is a close race for the fourth place between Connors and McEnroe but I'd give it to the latter for two reasons: McEnroe was by far the most gifted player of that generation, an artist par excellence and he was, too, a wonderfully versatile player who dominated the doubles scene as well.

Connors, who carried working class tennis to heights few men might have aspired to — let alone achieve — owns the fifth slot while Boris Becker beats Ivan Lendl for the sixth.

Becker and Lendl have played some extraordinary matches and Lendl won almost twice as many career titles as did the German. But here again, for two reasons alone Becker should stay ahead in the list: his influence on the game as a charismatic champion far exceeded Lendl's and he was the more gifted one too.

There are two Swedes in the last three slots, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg and Sweet Stefan will rank a step above his compatriot and friend with the 10th spot going to an Argentine, the Bull of Pampas, Guillermo Vilas.