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Pete's still got pop

Was Sampras' solid showing against Federer a sign?

Posted: Wednesday March 12, 2008 11:07AM; Updated: Wednesday March 12, 2008 11:07AM
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Retired Pete Sampras looked spry and skilled in his thrilling loss to world No. 1 Roger Federer in Monday night's exhibition match.
Retired Pete Sampras looked spry and skilled in his thrilling loss to world No. 1 Roger Federer in Monday night's exhibition match.
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Wanted to see what I could do, if anything, to lighten your workload:

Q. Will Pete Sampras play Wimbledon this year?

A. No Wimbledon for Pete. I think he's smart enough to know he could do serious damage in the draw, but also smart enough to know that he could flame out in the first round. Remember, a retired seven-time champ comes in unranked and could face Ivo Karlovic, Andy Roddick, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or any number of others in round one and really sully a reputation burnished by that incredible 2002 U.S. Open win.
-- Nick De Toustain, Montclair, N.J.

Thanks, Nick. Not only for the outsourcing but for the set-up. It was an unexpectedly busy -- and buzz-y -- week for tennis, what with Roddick splitting with Jimmy Connors and then beating Nadal and Djokovic to win Dubai, Serena Williams winning in Bangalore, India, Sam Querrey taking the Vegas title, Federer losing again and Indian Wells kicking off. (Consider that Venus and Serena played a match that ended 7-6 on the third set and it barely warranted a blip on the tennis-dar.) But the coup de grace was the Sampras-Federer match Monday night.

Those administering last rites to tennis should have been there. Then again, they would have had to pay scalpers' prices. (Aside: When was last time you heard the refrain: "Tennis! Tennis! Who needs two for tennis!")

Thanks to a weird convergence of factors this was just a -- dare we say it? -- magical night for a struggling sport. The joint was packed. The Tennis Channel showed its typical pluck and hustle and put together a great broadcast. The stars came out. (Even Donald Trump couldn't get courtside.) There was the added drama/plotline of Federer's recent woes.

The quality of the match was uneven but generally better than anyone had a reasonable right to expect. Federer's genius and charm was appreciated by the American masses. Tennis mattered, damn it. For those of us rooting for the sport, you had to leave with a smile.

For all the (true, if trite) talk about how "tennis was the winner," I left thinking the real winner was ... Sampras. Sure, Federer won the match. But the outcome revived, not euthanized, the Greatest Ever debate. Sure, Federer was likable and composed, conceding points after bad calls and saying all the right things and sprinting back onto the court ten minutes after the awards ceremonies to sign autographs. But we knew that already. Sure, he hit some sick winners. But what else would you expect from the guy who's won 11 of the last 17 majors?

Sampras, on the other hand, revealed much more of himself. For a 36-year-old man with two kids at home, he's in remarkable shape. Even before he had the match on his racket, it was clear that his serve-and-volley game -- kids, ask your parents about this term -- had the potential to rattle Federer.

The "personality" he was too often accused of lacking in his heyday? He played to the crowd and imitated Tiger Woods and emoted and smiled. He was funny and sharp -- even sneaking in a stiff jab at Djokovic early in the day. He found a perfect balance between respecting Federer -- "He's my kind of guy" -- without completing conceding his place atop the mountain.

Everything about Sampras' comportment seemed to scream, "Damn, this is fun and I'm not afraid to show it!" And I thought it was coupled with this poignant sense of some regret. His admission for instance, that when he was in his prime he would not have likely participated in a similar exhibition against John McEnroe, showed some real self-awareness. Sampras' failure to serve out the match notwithstanding, he could scarcely have scripted the night better.

To Nick's inevitable question, I think his answer is right. Tantalizing as the prospect might be, Sampras isn't likely to come back. In a vacuum, he is still a top-five player on grass. But tennis ain't played in a vacuum. Apart from facing a Karlovic, he also risks playing, some marginally talented young stud with whom Sampras is totally unfamiliar. But we can dream.

Perhaps equally whimsical but here's a thought that came to me the other night: If Federer doesn't need a full-time coach, he could probably benefit from a periodic advisor, much the way he utilized Tony Roche.

There's a curly-haired Californian who: a) has time on his hands b) clearly enjoys Federer's company and vice versa c) can give Federer a competitive workout on the practice court d) knows all about competing against history. Weird as it might be to help another player to topple the record you established, it sure would speak volumes about tennis' inherent gentility. Just throwing it out there.

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