Commentary

Pete Sampras' take on the big four

Updated: June 17, 2011, 8:52 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

Pete Sampras ruled Wimbledon. He won at the All England Club seven times, the most titles in more than a century, overpowering opponents with his devastating serve. Tennis, perhaps, has never seen a better second delivery.

So who better to discuss this year's tournament than Sampras, overall a 14-time Grand Slam champion and still a keen follower of the game?

In a telephone interview with ESPN.com, Sampras labeled buddy Roger Federer as the "slight" favorite at tennis' beloved grass-court major, ahead of world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Federer is "oozing with confidence" after reaching the French Open final, Sampras said.

Sampras praised Nadal, calling him a "machine" who surfaces "once every 25 years," but cautioned the Spaniard about his workload. He suggested Djokovic, owner of a recent 43-match winning streak, now has an "aura." As for Scot Andy Murray, the final member of the big four, Sampras says the type of pressure he's under at SW19 is virtually unparalleled.

The Fed Express

Federer, surprising many, ended Djokovic's winning streak in Paris. Two days later, give or take an inch, he might have upset Nadal in the finale.

Federer -- who was playing under Sampras' former coach, Paul Annacone, for the first time at Roland Garros -- showed more variety versus Nadal on dirt than ever. He returns to a more comforting surface, gunning for a seventh Wimbledon crown himself.

Sampras: "When Wimbledon comes around, you have to put Roger as the man to beat on that surface. He played extremely well in the French Open final and lost to one of the greats of all time on clay. I see him oozing with confidence.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Icon SMIRoger Federer seeks his first Slam title since the 2010 Australian Open.

"I see different things, especially in the final of the French, that Roger is trying to do -- be a little more aggressive, take the ball earlier, which is obviously tougher to do against Rafa on clay. And I like what I see. He wants to improve, and he still enjoys it. I think Paul has helped him with the mental side, just talking about strategy. Paul knows what it's like, he knows what a great player goes through, and it's really helped Roger in my mind."

The defending champion

By Nadal's own admission, it wasn't his finest French Open. Coming off four losses to Djokovic, two on clay, he lacked his usual level of confidence. However, he managed to claim a sixth title.

Nadal, as is his custom, hopped on a train and played the Aegon Championships in London, despite the fatigue, exiting in the quarterfinals. Federer and Djokovic, meanwhile, bypassed Wimbledon tuneups.

Nadal seeks a third French Open-Wimbledon double.

Sampras: "Whenever Wimbledon comes around and you look at Rafa's game, you might find him a little bit vulnerable. But year in, year out, he comes out with great results. He beats the guys he should, and before you know it, he's in the second week playing great. He saw what he had to do a couple of years back to play well at Wimbledon, and he's improved those areas.

"He's a machine. He feels he has to put in the time ahead of Wimbledon, and I respect that, but there's a part of you that has to give the mind and body a break. It might be a blessing in disguise he went down early [at Queen's], just to regroup and enjoy Paris a little bit. He's just one of those athletes that come once every 25 years. He keeps going and going. I hope that Rafa, as he gets older, is aware of his schedule and body. That's the only thing that can hold him back."

This year's phenom

The unplanned four days off Djokovic had in the second week of the French Open might have disrupted his rhythm. Emerging from the break, the 24-year-old faced a difficult task, encountering an in-form Federer.

Still, his 2011 record stands at 41-1. Djokovic, the top returner in tennis at the moment, is a different player than the one who underachieved most of the previous three seasons.

Sampras: "It's incredible what he's been able to do, be so consistent. Mentally he's figured it out, really shown great improvement. I think now he has an aura about him. He's turned into a great player.

"If you look at the history of the game, when I broke through and started to dominate, and Roger, we were about 23. Novak won that early major in 2008; it takes you a few years to figure out how you need to play, who you're playing against and to be really comfortable in your own skin, and I think Novak has turned the corner. With his game and athletic ability, I'm not surprised he's right there. When you break down his game, he doesn't have any holes."

Sampras, comparing Djokovic to Andre Agassi as a returner: "It's hard to say who has a better return because pretty much the style of play is one-dimensional today. When I was playing, you had a lot of different looks. If he was up against a Goran [Ivanisevic], [Stefan] Edberg or [Boris] Becker consistently, you could really get a sense of how well he returns.

"But he's a great returner and will continue to be. I look at his percentage of breaking, and it's something ridiculous. I think it's the best in the world."

The home hope

Many know the numbers by now, but here's a reminder: No British man has won a major since the 1930s. And if the drought was to end, most locals would want the magical occasion to transpire at Wimbledon.

Murray has been good enough to reach three Grand Slam finals, yet unable to produce his best at crunch time. A semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2009 and 2010, the often irritable (at least on court) Murray raised expectations by triumphing at Queen's this week.

Sampras: "I look at him as one of the favorites, but maybe not quite the same as the other guys. On a given day, if he plays well and gets the crowd support, he could very well have some destiny on his side.

"He's dealing with a lot more than the other guys, in terms of the pressure of the country and the media on every move and on everything he says. It's tough enough playing these guys, then you add all that. It's nothing that any other player has experienced. Maybe Becker, but he didn't have a major in Germany. Even in my generation with Tim [Henman], he talked to the press every day; it's like an ongoing thing in the back of his head. I hope Andy can shut that noise out and play his tennis.

"I do see him get agitated sometimes. Every now and again, you see him yelling at his box. He's an emotional guy, and that's what makes him tough -- he's in every point. But you'd like to see him recover a bit quicker and potentially chill, into something more positive. He's a little temperamental, which is fine. It's just that in this sport, you have to have a short memory. You play a bad point, you move on."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.