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Federer's foil?

Happily retired Sampras still has game to topple No. 1

Posted: Friday December 22, 2006 10:41AM; Updated: Friday December 22, 2006 10:49AM
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Pete Sampras officially retired in 2003, but has been playing competitively in exhibitions and World TeamTennis since April.
Pete Sampras officially retired in 2003, but has been playing competitively in exhibitions and World TeamTennis since April.
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December is the offseason for professional tennis. Exhibitions and charity events fill up the calendar as players scurry around picking up some extra holiday spending cash, all while training and preparing for the upcoming year.

In most of these types of events, the game itself is purely for entertainment value. But when you get great athletes together, competitive instincts and pride are always bubbling right underneath the surface.

During this past month, my back has healed enough that I've got on the court to practice a few times a week. (For more on the story behind my surgery, click here.)

It has been exhilarating to reconnect with the sport I love and have missed dearly, and the old adage that you don't realize how much you miss something until it's gone certainly applies. That being said, the pain and frustration of trying to rehabilitate such a severe surgery has been incredibly challenging at times.

But this column isn't about me -- it's about one of, if not the greatest, tennis players of all time. Everyone, me included, has been quick to anoint Roger Federer the new alpha male of tennis history. But after spending some time practicing with retired Pete Sampras, I think we've shortchanged Pistol Pete.

Sampras has participated in a few of the aforementioned charity/exhibition events this month, so obviously he has been practicing plenty. Since we live in such close proximity to each other in Los Angeles, working out together was a convenient fit. Our practices vary in intensity -- the main factors being how my back is feeling on that particular day and how motivated Pete is -- but the tennis Sampras is still capable of playing at 35 is astonishing.

What so-called "experts" often fail to mention (and I use that term very loosely, considering that most people who spout opinions aren't qualified to do so) is how much the evolution of rackets and string have impacted the quality of the sport. Sampras now uses a racket with a little more surface area (compared to the squash-like racket he used to employ) and his weapon of choice features the in-vogue hybrid synthetic/gut string that enables players to increase the torque of the tennis ball by staggering amounts.

With the benefits of these equipment enhancements to a shoulder that I once described as "being touched by God," the tennis that is being produced in Pete's backyard (to clarify: on only one side of the court) is beyond impressive.

I was laughed at and ridiculed in ATP Tour locker rooms a few years back when I defended John McEnroe when he was boasting about his ability to still compete at the highest levels of tennis in ideal conditions. (We were both proven right by the way, with his doubles win in San Jose earlier this year.) I will probably be mocked again when I make this statement:

Pete Sampras is currently playing at a level as high as anyone in the world except for Federer.

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