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Sunday, November 25, 2007
Updated: November 26, 12:33 PM ET
Sampras still has something left


Many of you noticed that Pete Sampras beat Roger Federer in the last of their three-city Asian exhibition swing (7-6 [8], 6-4) to finish 1-2, and you can hear the chant rising in some throats already: Comeback! Comeback! Comeback!

Let's face it, what tennis has lacked in this period of Federer's domination are big, strong, rangy players capable of dominating and controlling an opponent with stinging serves backed with solid stroking skills. Two of Federer's rivals almost fit that mold: Marat Safin and Andy Roddick. But Safin proved insufficiently dedicated and, as it turned out, he wasn't physically durable. Roddick fights with admirable faith, but he doesn't move well enough to capitalize on his serve or execute a potential successful game plan.

The way Sampras has performed in these exhibitions makes you wish Federer would have had to strut his stuff against three other dominant Grand Slam champs of Pete's era: Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl. And just to underscore what I mean, I don't think John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors or Mats Wilander would have had much luck against Roger.

Edberg, Becker and Lendl brought something to the court that is lacking today: the intent -- and ability -- to smother a guy with a power game in which the serve figured large. The only guy to tag Federer lately has been David Nalbandian, and it was less because of his style or strategy than the fact that he happened to take a trip to The Zone at an opportune time. I don't believe that the "I know, Go to The Zone!" strategy works real well most of the time.

The scores in these exhibitions tell us something. Pete lost the first encounter, four-and-three. Put it down to nerves and lack of seasoning. But after that, the scores were vintage Sampras. Nobody won more 7-6, 6-4 matches than Sampras. He trusted his serve, and often went into a form of cruise control, holding easily (thereby putting his opponents under ever-mounting pressure) until he had the opportunity to strike with a break. It looks like the old familiar Pete, virtually unbreakable on fast indoor carpet, is alive and well. In fact, the eight or 10 extra pounds Pete has been carrying since he retired probably has made his serve a little heavier.

I wouldn't read too much into this recent exhibition series; these two guys are having fun, staging a demonstration rather than a battle. Federer had nothing to gain in this, except further respect as a good guy with a healthy respect for -- and interest in -- the game he plays. And the win notched up by Pete will certainly help the two Grand Slam icons promote their planned one-night exo in Madison Square Garden early next year. That will be a great moment for tennis, guaranteed.

Still, Pete made a statement in these matches. A serve and attacking game plan, at least on fast indoor carpet, can still take you places most of today's pros just cannot go.