It’s not easy to discuss just who is the greatest of all time, especially when your own name is in the mix. Just ask Pete Sampras.By Dan Imhoff | Friday, 24 January, 2014
It’s the kind of debate that springs up around the barbecue, with those in the know and those who will throw in their two cents’ worth anyway after a few beers of knowledge – who would you say is the greatest player of all time?
Cases for and against can flow well after the steaks are seared and the smoke’s subsided, but four names always feature prominently in discussion.
With Rod Laver and Pete Sampras courtside for Roger Federer’s 33rd clash against Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of Australian Open 2014 on Friday night, it is a rare gathering of tennis royalty in one place.
These four own an astonishing 55 Grand Slam titles between them.
Since retiring from the game with the last of his 14 majors at the US Open in 2002, American great Sampras has shunned the tennis limelight, preferring to step away almost completely from the sport.
A more relaxed-looking Sampras, hair thinning since his last trip Down Under 12 years ago, is making a rare foray back into the Grand Slam fold, this time as a spectator in Melbourne to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first of his two Australian Open crowns.
While not long off his 18-hour flight, the American was willing to throw in his two cents’ worth on the greatest of all time debate.
It’s not the easiest of tasks when your own name is in the mix.
“I believe when you look at the history of the game, each decade has their player,” Sampras said.
“Obviously Rod (Laver) was the best in his time. I certainly had my moments in the '90s. Rafa (Nadal) and Roger (Federer) are having their moments now. Is there one greatest player of all time? I don't know. I think if you look at the numbers, you have to look at Roger, what he's been able to do: 17 majors, been No.1. He's had a tough record against Rafa.
“You can talk about it for 20 minutes on the different comparisons, what Rod did back in the '60s. Five years he didn't play any majors when he was in his prime, so he could have had over 20 majors.
“Certainly Roger has been the best player for the last 10 years. Rafa is up there with him. (Novak) Djokovic is pushing. So it's really hard to say. I mean, there's not one greatest player. When you look at the numbers, Roger has been so dominant. He's won on all surfaces. He's a phenomenal player.”
As far as the great rivalries the men’s game has seen, Sampras grimaced at talk Federer vs Nadal is the greatest; tough to say when the Spaniard has won more than twice the number of matches as his Swiss counterpart.
“(It’s) one of them,” he said. “You have (Bjorn) Borg and (John) McEnroe, myself and Andre (Agassi). You have Rafa and Roger. You have (Jimmy) Connors and (Ivan) Lendl. There's a lot of good rivalries.”
In contrast to Federer and Nadal sharing a genuine friendship off-court, Sampras and his great American nemesis Agassi have at times endured a testy relationship, even in life away from competition.
He hinted they were now on better terms as they prepared to contest an exhibition match in London.
“We battled many years. We're certainly very different in every way. You know, I respect Andre. He was my toughest opponent,” he said.
“Our relationship's fine. It's not like there's any bad blood. We've had a few awkward moments here and there, but it is what it is.”
Happy to reminisce but content with his decision to call time on a decorated career at age 32, the reclusive Sampras is one of the guys less inclined to get too nostalgic about the good old days on tour.
The grind of training, travel and huge expectations eventually sapped him of the drive necessary to keep beating the best.
“I miss the moment, I miss the last weekend of a major, I miss the excitement,” Sampras said.
“I don't miss the stress. I don't miss the pressure, the expectations I put on myself … It's a tough sport. I feel like I walked away at the right time.”
His admiration for the all-achieving Federer still possessing the hunger for further glory into his 30s is apparent.
“I felt as I hit 30, 31, that the grind of the tour, the travel, the international jetlag, all that just wore on me. It tired me. It affected my motivation. That's why I've been so impressed with Roger, that he keeps going,” Sampras said.
“Seems like he wants to play for another four or five years – I don't know how he does it.”
Sampras concedes he barely flicks on the television to watch a match since stepping away.
Don’t assume, though, he’s not in the loop.
The great man will always be at liberty to voice his opinion.