- Joel Drucker
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Although as a player he conducted himself with exemplary single-mindedness, on a recent Sunday afternoon in his Los Angeles living room, Pete Sampras was multitasking no differently than any American with a big screen and a remote.
It was Super Bowl Sunday, and while the game was airing live, Sampras was shuttling back to a tape of the Australian Open final, which had aired in the middle of the previous night -- the match in which Roger Federer took on Rafael Nadal in hopes of tying Sampras' mark of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. As the world knows, it didn't happen. But Sampras, 37, is certain it will soon enough. Said Sampras, "He's so close to my record, he can taste it. We all know he's going to do it."
"I was very curious to see how a hard-court match between them would go," Sampras said this Monday night. He'd just completed an exhibition at the SAP Open in San Jose versus Tommy Haas and was reflecting on what had happened to Federer that evening in Melbourne. Sampras admitted he was surprised to see Federer show so much emotion following his defeat. Said Sampras, "After a loss, you keep it together. It's hurt him more than I'd have thought. He's an emotional player. It kind of caught me off guard. It shows how much he cares."
For much of Federer's reign, there was an obvious comparison to Sampras: two liquid-smooth, classy shot-makers who lived for high-stakes moments and thoroughly dedicated themselves to greatness.
Although Sampras concedes Federer "dominated the game more than I ever did," when it comes to the matter of taking down Nadal, Sampras' approach would have been far different. "If I was Roger, I'd try to come in a little bit more. I'd get into net, particularly when guys stay so far back. If you don't win these points, at least put something in his head. It's rough to see Nadal taking charge of these rallies and hitting ball after ball to Roger's backhand."
True to his word, throughout the exhibition against Haas, Sampras frequently showed off the sharp volleys and commitment to forward movement that often left opponents feeling helpless at the critical stages of matches. While Federer has earned his titles with point-to-point excellence, Sampras was supreme at a brand of gunslinger tennis -- the ability at 4-4 to play six great points and snap up the set in the blink of an eye.
Sampras also respects Nadal. "He's an incredible athlete, one of the strongest on the mental side -- he and [Bjorn] Borg. He's got the mentality of a marathon runner. He plays every point like it's the last point. But he's improving, too. And now he's got the fear factor."
Paul Annacone, Sampras' long-standing coach, once said, "I've never known anyone less likely to push the panic button than Pete Sampras." As he addressed Federer, Sampras was equally tranquil. "He knows what he's doing," Sampras said. "It's not like he's getting killed by the kid. Nadal's gotten in his head. Roger's got to figure it out."
Still, Sampras' empathy for Federer is vivid. Like Federer, he wracked up Grand Slam titles at a record clip. Like Federer, there came a point at which he found it hard to remain motivated amid the sheer grind of the tour. And like Federer, he knew that as important as it was to perform well in dozens of cities around the world, all those venues paled beside Melbourne, Paris, London and New York. Said Sampras,"You have to find that passion to drive yourself."
Asked whether he'd ever consider coaching, Sampras laughed. "Only from my BlackBerry," he said. Soon enough, he stepped into the streets of San Jose, heading toward the plane ride home and looking forward to another morning with his children.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
4hBy Jackie MacMullan