Yep, itâ€™s inevitable. Pete Sampras, one of the tennis worldâ€™s gifted former champions, soon will lose the handle, â€œall-time greatestâ€ to Roger Federer, an incomparable phenom whoâ€™s only two shy of Samprasâ€™ record for most Grand Slam titles (14).
So what are you going to do about it, Pete? Make a comeback at Wimbledon, maybe? Why not try to extend your record a bit to make Federer at least break a sweat before he breaks the record? Obviously, no pro currently on tour can stop Switzerlandâ€™s ball striking juggernaut. But you can. Say itâ€™s so, Pete?
I caught up with Sampras in Charlotte, N.C. Wednesday night standing at court side, just as he was about to face Mikael Pernfors The Championships at the Palisades, a 30-and-over seniors event. As I was about to fire off a quick â€˜comebackâ€™ question, he turned away, apparently sensing the intent of my query.
Except for a thinning head of hair, Sampras, 36, looked tournament tough, trim and fit. Hereâ€™s why.
â€œThroughout my daily life I try to get to the gym to get some form of exercise every day,â€™â€™ Sampras said. â€œI do the treadmill, do the bike. I try to hit three times a week. Iâ€™ll hit two days, and then take a day off to play golf. It feels good to be at a good weight.â€
Playing on a clay surface, Sampras lost only five points in the first five games, defeating Pernfors quite handily 6-0, 6-2. His trademark bushel of aces and service winners were expected, but Sampras also showed a stronger ground game, especially from the backhand side. Better technology, bigger racket, he explained.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t really matter how well I play, heâ€™s just that much better,â€ said Pernfors, 44, of Sampras. â€œHeâ€™s got so much pace on the ball. Heâ€™s just that much better of a tennis player than I am. I am just hoping to hit the ball and not look like an idiot.â€
Sampras seemed a bit concerned about the possibility that he, too, might look like an idiot when he faces Federer, 26, in a series of exhibitions, beginning Nov. 22 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They also are set to meet next spring at New Yorkâ€™s Madison Square Garden. How did the past master vs reigning master match-ups come about?
â€œ(Ivan) Lendl called me out of the blue,â€™â€™ Sampras said. â€œHe said â€˜I hear youâ€™re playing okay, how do you feel about playing Roger?â€™ I said I donâ€™t know, I feel okay, Iâ€™m playing okay. I told him I wouldnâ€™t do it unless I felt I could be competitive. It went back-and-forth, about the schedules, the money, blah, blah blah. So Lendl put it all together, they got the date (March 10, 2008) for the Garden. And here we go, S—-. Iâ€™m playing good, but heâ€™s playing great.
â€œIâ€™m curious as to how itâ€™s going to do as far as crowd participation in the Garden. Iâ€™ve played there before, Roger hasnâ€™t. I hope there will be some buzz about it and that itâ€™s good for the game. It should be fun.â€
So what happens if Sampras gets the best of Federer in the exhibitions. Would that lure him back?
â€œIâ€™m not coming back,â€ Sampras said adamantly, giving me a donâ€™t-you-understand English look. â€œItâ€™s the farthest thing from my mind. I enjoy doing what Iâ€™m doing now. Itâ€™s fun to play a little bit. I donâ€™t want to go back to that lifestyle, that every day grind. I will say that when I play Roger in Asia, I will step up my tennis, and actually start playing sets, start playing a lot of points. Thatâ€™s the hardest part, the practice. Playing is the easiest part. In my day, I did it because I had to do it. Now I donâ€™t have to do it.â€
The only thing he has to do now is change diapers. Sampras and wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, have two sons, Christian Charles, 4, and Ryan Nikolaos, 2.
â€œMy two-year-old is still in diapers, so Iâ€™ve changed quite a few,â€™â€™ Sampras said. â€œMore than my dad.â€