Sampras Revisits GOAT Debate, Discusses Federer’s Negative Record v. Rafa

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TUESDAY, JULY 14- Remember just after Roland Garros when four-time Slam champ Jim Courier said that the ex-players wanted to be a part of the GOAT discussion and didn’t want to entirely leave it up to the discretion of the media to anoint Roger Federer as the Greatest of All Time?

Well on Tuesday, Pete Sampras weighed in much greater depth than he did post the Swiss’ record- breaking run to his 15th Slam crown at Wimbledon.  Sampras was on a conference call to promote the upcoming Los Angeles Tennis Open, where he’ll play a Monday night exo against Marat Safin, who wasted him the 2000 US Open final.

It’s not easy being Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, or Sampras, who are widely acknowledged as being amongst the top 5 GOATS and being asked whether a fellow sportsman is, well, essentially better than they are. It’s even tougher being Sampras, who held the record at 14 and just seven short years after he achieved the feat, is essentially being asked to dismiss a portion of his remarkable career to be less than Federer’s in order to pay homage to the Swiss.

So I asked Sampras how much Federer’s 7-13 record against Rafa Nadal affects his opinion. In one sense he conceded that Federer is the man, but in another, he’s clearly a little put out by the Spaniard’s extremely positive mark against the guy that many now call king.

“Very good question and tough question to answer,” Sampras said. “I do understand the argument as far as being the best ever. You have to be the man of your generation. He has come up short against Nadal. I can see the point. It’s hard to answer that. Roger’s career isn’t done yet. He’s going to play Nadal a number of times over the next number of years, and he has to beat him. He has to beat him in the finals of majors. To be considered the greatest ever, he certainly in my book is. But he has to figure this kid out. He has to beat him. He’s lost to him a number of times. You know, you got to be the man of your generation. He certainly is the man of his generation; he just has to figure out Nadal.”

I then asked Sampras to personalize the situation a little and put himself in Federer’s position. Recall that Sampras was 20-14 against eight-time Grand Slam champ Andre Agassi, and also had good records against Courier and Michael Chang, three of his primary rivals. If Sampras had a negative type of record against Andre, including at the majors, would Sampras have been satisfied when he retired?

“It would have bothered me if I had a losing record against Andre in majors,” said Sampras, who was 6-3 against Agassi at the Slams and never lost to him at the US Open on a surface they both grew up on. “It wouldn’t have sat well with me. Did it mean I was the greatest or not the greatest? I don’t know. It’s the debate of greatest of all time. We so badly want to pin it on someone. With the numbers you have to give it to Roger. His record against Nadal, okay, you might not give it to him. I mean, if I was 7 15 against Andre and I was done, it’s hard to say I was the player of my generation just because he got the best of me. Like I said, the story’s not over yet. We have another probably three, four years of these two guys competing against each other. If anything, I think Nadal is going to be hungrier now seeing Roger getting back to No. 1. I think Roger knows he’s got to figure out this kid. It’s a tough, tough match up. Nadal is one of the few guys that believes in himself that he’s better than Roger.”

Pete Bodo, who co-wrote Sampras’ fine autobiography, then asked seven-times Wimbledon champ Sampras what he thought of Laver’s comments that he’d still take Sampras over six-time Wimby champ Federer on the green lawns.

“Well, I think one thing Roger doesn’t see on grass the last number of years is really a true serve-and- volleyer, someone that’s willing to come in and put the pressure on and make him pass, make him return these big serves,” Sampras said. “I don’t think anyone really scares him. I think my game would make Roger a little bit more uncomfortable. I would obviously come in on both serves and put the pressure on his backhand, sort of go from there. I would sort of dictate the play. But, you know, he’d be a tough guy to break, especially when he’s hitting 50 aces like he did (in the recent Wimbledon final). It would have been a great match-up.

“If I would beat him? If I felt my best on grass, I did feel unbeatable, especially in the mid ’90s. I was a tough guy to break, played well from the backcourt to have chances, and I moved well enough. It’s a flattering comment. Do I think I could have beaten Roger in my prime? Sure. I don’t think anyone could beat me in my prime on grass. I felt as Roger does now – he feels unbeatable.”

There were two other topics I found to be interesting, one which was whether his opinion of Andy Roddick had changed after watching the American come oh-so-close to upending Federer, and another where he responded to a radio reporter’s question as to why he hasn’t given back enough to the L.A. tennis community.

I was particularly interested in his take on Roddick as when I talked to him about his former Davis Cup teammate back in February, he told me that he didn’t even watch Federer and Roddick’s Aussie Open semi, because he knew what the outcome would be; essentially, that Federer would get a lot of balls back in play and then create something from the backcourt. Here’s Sampras on the new and improved Roddick:

“Watching him play, he’s moving a ton better. I think he’s lost some weight and is moving better. Roger obviously moves a little bit better. When they got into those exchanges, Roger is gonna win ’em. He’s doing that better. His backhand sort of drive is better up the line. He’s slicing a little better. His transition game has gotten better. As you saw on that set point, 6 5 (when Roddick missed a high backhand volley on the second set breaker), he’s still a little uncomfortable, but he’s getting better at it. I was sitting up there watching, just serve and volley one time on your second serve because all Roger does is chip it. Put something in his head.

“He’s improved a great deal, is serving big, moving better. I think he realized he had to start moving better to compete with Nadal and Roger. Those guys move great. So he’s on the right track. I just hope mentally this didn’t take a lot out of him. It might for a little bit. This is a great opportunity to beat Roger on that court in his prime, to get his first Wimbledon, he’s still feeling it. All he can take away is that he had it, he’s improving, and hopefully one day he’ll get his name on that trophy.”

Sampras said that he texted Roddick after the Wimbledon final, a nice gesture and an appropriate one, given that Roddick apologized to him publicly after the loss for not being able to stop Federer’s breaking the record. Now, the question for Roddick is whether he’ll be able to recover in time for the US Open, where for first time in four years, he’ll come in as the No. 2 favorite, given Nadal’s bad knees, Roddick’s win over Andy Murray at Wimbledon and Novak Djokovic’s Slam woes.

“ I think by the Open he will,” Sampras said. “I think it might be a slow start, the first event or two he’ll play this summer. The Open, he’ll be ready. If anything, he gained a lot more support from the people. He’s going to feel that there, feel the energy, feel like he can compete with anybody. At the same time, I think it’s going to take a few weeks of tennis to get it out of his system. He’ll just move ahead and hopefully not look back too much. I’m sure he’s replaying some of those points in his head. Sports is a cruel game. Unfortunately, he’s feeling it now. But by the Open he should be fine.”

Since he retired in 2002, Sampras hasn’t been incredibly visible (not everyone is comfortable in the role of international guest like Guillermo Vilas is), but in the past two years, he’s put his face out there much more, playing a number of senior events and exos. But the LA radio reporter apparently has heard some criticism that Sampras hasn’t given back to the sport and to L.A., where he grew up. Sampras was never one for criticism, so it must have taken a decent effort not to shout his questioner down.

“You have to understand when you retire from your sport, you need a few years to sort of decompress and get away from it,” Sampras said. “ I have the last couple years played and been around. I’ve done what I could do when I was playing. I’ve done what I could do since I retired. I like being home. I’ve had the chance to play in L.A. here. I played a little exhibition in Anaheim (Carson) a few years back. I’m all for helping some of these kids. I’ve talked to the USTA about doing some things. Nothing seems to have come out of that. But I’ve done what I could. Maybe as I get a little bit older, I’ll do a little bit more.

Then Sampras was asked why he hasn’t stopped by tournaments and waved to the crowd.

“I’m not into ceremonies,” he said. “That’s not for me, it never has been. I live a pretty private life. I like to play. I’ll play in front of people. But to go and do a wave, it’s just not for me. I’m a pretty shy guy. I don’t like to really do too many things. But I’ll be there this year. They’re going to honor me, so I’ll be there.”

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