By Paul McElhinney
Arriving in late-autumnal London and making my way up Church Road to the gates of Wimbledon, pleasant memories of past Wimbledons came flooding back. Instead of the milling crowds and the buzz of excitement surrounding The Championships’ fortnight of mid-summer, this was a more sedate and relaxed time, a time perhaps more suited to a reflective discussion on the great event that is Wimbledon and the All England Club itself.
What is often forgotten amidst all the enthusiasm of the annual Championships fortnight is the fact that the location, the All England Club, is very much a living and thriving club with all the challenges faced daily (albeit on a larger scale) of any other tennis club. To tennis fans worldwide, Wimbledon is the veritable Mecca. Whatever is said of the ‘parity of esteem’ among all four of the Grand Slam locations (Melbourne, Roland Garros and Flushing Meadow), most would acknowledge in their heart of heats that Wimbledon is ‘primus inter pares’.
Its history, tradition, authority and influence are unrivaled and the world tennis public looks to Wimbledon for leadership on the developing issues in the world game. Furthermore, its ability to combine respect for tradition and support for and encouragement of modernizing trends, means it remains at the hub of the world game: a comforting paternal presence and a dynamic influence combined.
It was in this context that I had the opportunity to meet Martin Guntrip, Club Secretary of the All England Club to discuss issues concerning the Championships and the Club itself. Arriving at the Club, I walked up the steps to the entrance area in front of Centre Court to see Kipling’s famous ‘If’ inscribed above the lintel – the set of ‘guiding principles’ of The Championships. Ushered into Martin’s office by his charming assistant, Kelly Revill (who put so much effort into scheduling the meeting), I was also introduced to Johnny Perkins, the Club’s PR executive and to Martin himself.
Wrapping my hands around a welcome cup of coffee, I ran my eyes around Martin’s crisp and efficient office, notable for its tennis memorabilia (old wooden tennis racquet on a pedestal, assorted photos and the Rolex clock on the wall, a testament to their role as Official Timekeeper of The Championships.
Martin, open, affable and media-savvy, opened with some reminiscences on his previous career in professional tennis which included winning the Men’s Doubles in 1984 at the Irish Open in Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, Dublin (incidentally, the author’s home club). Having reached No.9 in Great Britain in his prime, some tour event wins under his belt, a long-time active member of the All England Club and an impressive background in the corporate world, he holds the ideal track-record for the role of Club Secretary.
Our discussion then followed a traditional interview format as follows:
PM Martin, Wimbledon manages to combine both respect for tradition and an accommodation to modernizing trends – how do you see the Championships evolving over the next decade or more?
MG The Club is currently engaged in working on a new framework ‘Wimbledon 2020’, which will form the vision for the next 15-20 years. Much has already been achieved under the old long term plan, which was completed in 2011 including major elements such as the Centre Court retractable roof; construction of new Nos 2 and 3 Courts; work on surrounding areas to the courts to improve spectator comfort and access; Club office development; and an all-new Museum. The next stage of improvements under the Wimbledon 2020 banner has involved the engagement of master planners with a brief to look at all aspects of the Club in a holistic way with no untouchable ‘sacred cows’ (with the exception of the iconic Centre Court and Courts 1-3). The plan will also be mindful of the interests of all our key stakeholders: spectators; members; debenture holders; broadcasters; sponsors, suppliers. Very much at the heart of future developments will be a ‘green’ sustainability element with the concept of ‘Tennis in an English Garden’ as a centrepiece.
PM With the wave of enthusiasm for sport generally generated by the 2012 London Olympics (to which tennis made a signal contribution), how do you see tennis now being positioned beside other sports in the market to attract a finite sport-playing and sport-viewing public?
MG The men’s game has never been better placed with such strong competition at the top of the game now (Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Murray). In Britain, the recent success of Andy Murray has given a boost to the game nationally. Similarly, the success of Jonny Marray in this year’s Championship Men’s Doubles has helped lift the game here. The Ladies’ game is also in very good shape, particularly in Britain which hasn’t witnessed the kinds of successes of Laura Robson and Heather Watson in a long time.
The Olympics were clearly a major boost to tennis in Britain with a major post-Olympics ‘bounce’ evident here. The LTA would be more directly responsible for the development side of the British game, but the All England also plays its part. Prior to the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) visited the Wimbledon site and gave its seal of approval to the location and facilities which ultimately, proved a great success. We were pleased to have played a part in that success.
PM For many years, the BBC and Wimbledon have maintained a mutually productive relationship to the benefit of the tennis-viewing public. Is that ‘ring-fenced’ relationship set to continue for the foreseeable future and what might be the role of competing media in Wimbledon coverage into the future?
MG Yes, that relationship continues to be a mutually productive one. Our existing contract with the BBC is set to conclude in 2017 which is also the year in which the BBC’s license fee is up for renewal. An example of the popular and media appeal of The Championships is the telling statistic this year of 16.9 million viewers for the Men’s Singles final between Murray and Federer. Our long-standing relationship with the BBC has inevitably led to a natural ‘closeness’, not least due to the fact that many of the commentators are also Club members themselves. In relation to coverage of The Championships, we have ongoing discussions with the BBC as the issues arise.
PM In terms of media coverage of the Championship and links with the media, how significant has been the role of the new social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc? Have you noticed any ‘digital divide’ between older and younger people’s facility with these new media?
MG Yes, we are very much engaged in the use and promotion of the new social media as part of our work. Indicative of this has been the appointment of a full-time, dedicated Digital Editorial Content Manager. We are very conscious of the importance of attracting younger audiences. For example, indicators of the success of our social media efforts have been the recent statistic of 1.5 million I-Phone Wimbledon app downloads so far and almost 1 million Facebook friends on our account.
PM There is much use nowadays of the marketing term ‘the brand.’ Wimbledon itself is a distinctive ‘brand.’ What efforts does the club go to promote and protect that brand?
MG Yes, we are very conscious of Wimbledon’s strong brand and seek to protect and promote that brand. By way of illustration, top businessman, Sir Martin Sorell, Chairman of WPP has been quoted as saying that after the Olympics and the football World Cup, Wimbledon has the third strongest sports brand in the world (few would argue with that- PM). With such a strong brand, clearly comes the responsibility of promoting it wisely.
PM Could you talk a little about the AELTC’s ‘outreach’ activities in relation for example to: interaction with other clubs (UK and international), development of the game in the UK (chiefly the youth game), dealings with sponsors and other stakeholders in the Championships?
MG Among the outreach activities of the All England Club is the promotion of a Schools Initiative We work closely with schools in the nearby London Boroughs of Merton and Wimbledon to develop interest and skills among schoolchildren. The most promising schoolchildren are invited to play at the Club and to partake in squads, an initiative designed to give young people a focus and help build character. We have also worked closely with your own club, Paul, Fitzwilliam, by participating in an annual event involving young players travelling outside their home base to play against and interact with youngsters of different backgrounds. Indeed, our Head Coach, Dan Bloxham recently returned from such an event in Dublin which received very positive feedback from participants.
We also organize an HSBC ‘Road to Wimbledon’ National 14 and Under Challenge tournament, open to clubs and schools, which has proven very popular and has produced some excellent talent in the past. Not part of the Championships itself, it is funded by the Club members.
We also have strong links with the game in China with many young Chinese players coming over to the Club. We are also considering developing relations with the game at youth level in India. We also help in the development of literacy and numeracy skills through the Education Department by organizing school visits, all as part of our outreach activities.
PM – Regarding the demographic base of the AELTC’s membership, roughly what proportions of the membership are: London/Home Counties v Rest of UK and Rest of the World; male/female; senior/full/junior members?
MG We have three broad categories of membership: Full Members; Honorary Members and Temporary Members. Given our geographical location, many of our members live within a reasonable radius, but obviously, with a lot of ex-Champions as Honorary Members, many also live abroad. Ex-Champions who are selected for Honorary Membership do not pay a fee and may attend (but not vote) at Club meetings. Singles Champions do not receive Honorary Membership as a matter of course, but have to be invited. In practice, this is usually just a formality. Our Temporary Members tend to be young, most of whom eventually become full Members. Also, in order to avoid any confusion about our status as a club, we see ourselves as very much an ordinary tennis club based on talent and merit.
PM Wimbledon stands out as one of very few tournaments still played on grass as most clubs have transferred to more all-weather surfaces. Is the All England Club involved in any initiatives to maintain and promote the grass game nationally and internationally? How strong is the grass game in the UK at a club level currently?
MG Yes, we take the development of the grass game very seriously. In that connection, we were very pleased at the decision that in future, there will be a 3-week break between Roland Garros and Wimbledon to allow for pre-Wimbledon grass tournament play. We are pleased to see a recent renaissance of grass and note the continued support for grass internationally (in parts of the US, for example).
We also spend a lot of money on research and development into grass quality and seed technology. Over 2-3 years, under our Sports Turf Research programme we looked at the whole issue. This resulted in us being able to laying down a pre-germinated grass surface between Wimbledon and the Olympics this year, which proved very successful in restoring the presentation of the courts in only 20 days..
PM In terms of Club facilities, could you confirm the total number of courts (grass and hard); no. of squash courts; no. of ground staff and other facilities?
MG The Club has 41 grass courts, 8 HarTru courts, 2 hard and 5 indoor courts, We have 20 ground staff, a total that is supplemented in and around the time of the Championships. Our Head Groundsman is Mr. Neil Stubley.
PM Is it simply a myth or does a women’s doubles play a match on the Centre Court immediately before the Championships to ‘break in’ the Court?
MG In fact, we carry on that tradition not just on Centre Court but also Nos 1, 2 and 3 Courts each year. We use it as an opportunity for a dress rehearsal for the Chair and Line Umpires, ballboys/girls and to do a test run for the Hawkeye and scoreboard technology.
PM Chair and Line Umpires – are these nominated by respective tennis federations?
MG These are nominated by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
PM Ballboys/girls – are these still recruited from local schools and can you describe the training they undertake?
MG Yes, a number of schools from surrounding areas send pupils to participate as ballboys/ballgirls at The Championships. Selection is rigorous and the training intense, commencing as early as the previous February (fuller information set out in 2012 press release).
PM Regarding the retractable roof on Centre Court, is there a potential technical engineering solution to speed up the process to minimize further delays in matches resuming play?
MG In fact, the closing of the roof itself only takes 8 minutes. Setting the correct temperature/humidity levels for the court is what takes more time, anything between 10-25 minutes. The other factor that can add to the timings is trying to assemble players back to court who may have wandered ‘away from base’.
PM Are there any plans for a similar roof for No.1 Court?
MG` It is on the agenda, but because of the different dynamics of No.1 Court, we have to look at the feasibility.
PM Late night tennis has become a feature of the international game (Wimbledon included – notably, The Championships 2012 highlighting this). Recognizing the imperatives of local authority regulations and the concerns of local communities, what are the future prospects for applying reasonable, flexible guidelines so that late night play (where necessary) can proceed without disruptions?
MG Like any public event, we are subject to local authority regulations and by-laws. Probably the biggest concerns over night play from the Club’s perspective are the effect on our neighbours and the danger of over-use of the grass surface ,which would cause damage over time. The right balance would obviously be one of maximum use and minimum damage. We certainly do not envisage playing matches well after 11.00pm, which is the agreed cut-off time. Another concern is ensuring spectators get home at a decent hour. We have a form of roof protocol and, at the moment it is ultimately a decision for The Championships’ referee at what time to stop play.
PM It is a long way off, but are there any long term plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Championships in 2027?
MG We will probably have some special event in 2027.
PM The membership of the Centenary Tennis Clubs is conspicuous by the absence of the All England Club. Are there any plans for the All England Club to join?
MG No, we don’t have any plans to join the CTC, although we do have regular contacts and associations with many clubs around the world. .
PM Martin, during your professional tennis career, you were a winner, inter alia, of the Men’s Doubles at the Irish Open and you have been a strong supporter of the annual Sterry Cup encounters between Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Club and the All England Club. How popular is this fixture from the AELTC’s membership’s perspective and how do you see it developing in the future?
MG Yes, I have many pleasant memories of my times in Dublin, in particular the hospitality. Winning the Men’s Doubles at the Irish Open in 1984 was a special memory, in particular as one of my opponents was a then World Top-40 player, Matt Doyle. Over the years, I have also participated in the annual Sterry Cup matches between the All England Club and Fitzwilliam and through which I have managed to forge many fruitful, long-standing contacts. These annual encounters are always very popular and closely-contested. Long may they continue.
In relation to Grand Slam events, Martin mentioned further that each event organizes its own Championships, but also referred to the Grand Slam Committee which seeks to coordinate on issues of mutual interest. There is a Grand Slam Development Fund which seeks to support and develop players of talent across the world.
Having thoroughly exhausted Martin with my interminable questions, it was at this point I took my leave for a tour of the Centre Court and the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum. The Centre Court out of season takes on a different aspect and looks more compact than on TV, although with its 15,000 capacity is still awe-inspiring. Outside The Championships, the roof remains open all the time to allow nature take its course by exposing the court to the necessary sun and rain nutrients.
The Museum is very well worth a visit, very manageable and including a film: a great visit for all tennis aficionados out there. Of special note is an exhibit including former Wimbledon ‘enfant terrible’ John McEnroe, who appears as a virtual hologram in a white linen suit delivering comments in his usual trenchant way. His prominent inclusion in the Museum, I felt, was a strong testament to British tolerance and sense of fair play!
Visiting the Club, you realize the mammoth challenge involved in managing not only the annual Championships but also a club of this scale from day-to-day. With an excellent pedigree in the game himself, a clear love of the game and as part of an excellent team, Martin Guntrip is well-placed to continue to help the All England Club to face and overcome the many challenges in the coming years.
Some random thoughts from a fascinating Roland Garros and the first look forward to the grass…
Roger Federer’s performance in the Roland Garros final against Rafael Nadal was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s fight against Larry Holmes. A mismatch from the start, Ali pulled out his tricks but had no answers for the younger, stronger Holmes, and was battered mercilessly. Like Sunday’s final, this was simply a bad match-up, and- to use the age-old explanation- styles make fights. Nadal moves better, defends better, and can control points off the ground (on clay, anyway) better than Federer. Like seeing The Greatest get punched around the ring, it was still surprising to witness Federer looking so vulnerable.
Rafael Nadal did not hit a single ace in the semis or final. He hit only seven aces during the entire two weeks. This serving approach will change on the grass. He will need some free points at crucial moments.
Darren Cahill brought up an interesting point on ESPN about Nadal’s Wimbledon preparation. Instead of rushing across the channel to play the Artois Championships, he should rest for a few days and skip the Queens Club event. Recall that he was spent by the end of Wimbledon last summer, although admittedly he was forced to play five (rain-delayed) matches in the last seven days of The Championships. Had Nadal been fresher, then he would have likely taken the fifth set of last year’s final.
Of course the cynic can offer about one million reasons why Nadal will compete at Queens Club again this year. It is hard to pass up that kind of appearance fee loot no matter how wealthy he has become. To paraphrase Bob Dylan (from “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry”), don’t say I never warned you if Nadal loses early this week.
It was great to see Bjorn Borg attending matches during the final weekend of Roland Garros. In an interesting on-court interview with his great rival John McEnroe, Borg agreed to play with Mighty Mac in the over-45 doubles next year.
Borg also told McEnroe that this was the first time he had returned to Roland Garros since winning the event in 1981 (beating Ivan Lendl in a five-set final). Evidently Borg forgot that he did television work for NBC Sports in 1983 (interviewing Yannick Noah and Mats Wilandner after their final) and presented the Coupe De Mosquetaires on-court to Gustavo Kuerten in 1997. Guga famously bowed to the great Borg, as though the Swede was royalty. Let’s just presume that Borg’s passing shots were better than his memory!
Ai Sugiyama is preparing to break the all-time record at the All England Club by competing in her 56th consecutive major tournament. She currently shares this record with Wayne Ferreira, who played 56 straight from 1991 to 2004. This is a remarkable strength of will and consistency.
In the For What It’s Worth category… After last year’s epic Wimbledon final, Roger Federer did an interview with a standout former player. Afterwards, this player, off-camera, of course, told his colleague that the Swiss would never win another Wimbledon title. He saw cracks in the armor last summer.
Fingers are crossed that Slazenger has produced livelier balls for this year’s grass court season. It has been disappointing to see men’s professional grass court tennis look like… hard court tennis. If that’s what people really want to see, then the grass should be paved for a more “fair” hard court surface. I would prefer that it retain the traditional allure for attacking players and reward players for net-rushing tactics.
In 1984, there were 64 American men in the singles main draw of Wimbledon. That will never be matched again. I do, however, expect to see several Yanks doing some damage at SW19.
Serena Williams would have been really annoyed with her result at Roland Garros. She will keep the Venus Rosewater Dish in the Williams family’s possession this year.
Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas and Peruvian Luis Horna completed a storybook run to the French men’s doubles title. In the quarterfinals they took out former champions and the top-ranked team in the world, Bob and Mike Bryan. This match received a lot of attention because afterwards the Bryans refused to shake hands with Cuevas, as they were offended by his show of exuberance in the third set tiebreak. As the South American pair raced to a 5-1 lead, Cuevas leaped the net to switch sides- instead of walking around the net post. While it might have been a bit much, hopping the net certainly appeared to be an act of spontaneity on Cuevas’ part. The Bryans have perfected the leaping chest bump, so their reaction seemed a bit harsh.
To offer some context, the Bryan brothers have saved men’s professional doubles. Without them, it might not even exist these days. They carry the weight and responsibility of, literally, preserving this form of the professional sport. Furthermore, they have each distinguished themselves as fierce competitors and gentlemen throughout their storied career. They get it. Therefore, the Bryans deserve some slack. I’ll bet that they wish they had not reacted so strongly during the heat of the moment. I’ll also bet that they are hoping for a rematch against Cuevas and Horna at the Big W.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have much to gain these next months, and Federer much to defend. Pete Sampras finished as the world’s top-ranked player for a remarkable six straight years (1993-98), and Federer’s assault on that record is looking bleaker. Roger will need a “turn back the clock” effort for the remainder of 2008 to avoid relegation to No. 3 in the year-end rankings.
Less than half of the world’s top-ten players will compete in the Beijing Olympics. Keep reading the agate type in your sports sections for listings of injuries, because most of the top players will find them before hopping on a plane for Asia in August. This is as sure as the sun rising in the East.
I always write about making a pilgrimage to beautiful Newport, RI for the Hall of Fame Championships each July. For any fan living or traveling in Europe, please visit Eastbourne. This is a charming coastal town in the south of England, and a wonderful warm-up tournament for The Championships. The honor roll of former champions stands as a “who’s-who” list of Hall of Famers. The grass courts are typically as good as any in the world, and the players love the relaxed environment. In fact, the accessibility to the players is virtually unprecedented in this day and age.
Imagine that the tennis world was focused not on Indian Wells and Key Biscayne but on the Australian Open at this time of year. Is this a novel concept? Not really. This was the case during this time frame in 1971 when the Australian Open was played at White City in Sydney, Australia. As documented in the upcoming book On This Day In Tennis History, it was on March 15, 1971 when Ken Rosewall and Margaret Court both won Australian Open singles titles during this uniquely scheduled major. Many people would love to have the tennis schedule altered so the players have more of an off season – and a February/March staging of the Australian Open would be a great way for that to happen – but Tennis Australia officials are too wed to the Australia Day holiday season and the end of the Australian summer season to move the tournament dates to later in the year. It could be worse, however, as the Australian Open used to be held during the Christmas holidays.
During a recent visit to London, I stopped by the All England Club and saw the place in full preparation for the 2008 Championships. Cranes stand next to Centre Court as the retractable roof continues to be installed and ready for the 2009 tournament. It appears a small stadium/bleacher section will be constructed on court No. 13 – in place of the rows of bleachers under the awning. At the Wimbledon Museum, I watched the highlights of the 1973 “strike year” men’s final when Czech Jan Kodes beat the Soviet Union’s Alex Metreveli. In lieu of allegations and controversy of betting in tennis and the allegations of involvement of the Russian mob, it was amusing to hear the commentator’s voice on the highlight tape, in previewing the final, say that “the betting is on Kodes.”
It’s a tough situation for The Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas to go head-to-head with Dubai Tennis Championships on the ATP calendar. No doubt that the appearance fees were aplenty in the Middle Eastern oil and finance capital as most of the top 10 played in the event, while The Tennis Channel Open got the leftovers. Why not make Dubai a larger co-ed event (as it is now, the women play the week before in Dubai) and then move The Tennis Channel Open to a different date? The tennis calendar could have three back-to-back-to-back “mega co-ed” events in Dubai, Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. The Tennis Channel Open could then move to later in the year (and warmer weather in Vegas or another location). The United States sure could use another clay court event (how about another event before or after the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships?).
Speaking of The Tennis Channel Open, how can you not love Sam Querrey? The 20-year-old American won his first ATP singles title in Vegas and seemed as laid back and relaxed as any player I have ever seen. He told The Tennis Channel’s Corina Morariu that he planned to prepare for his semifinal against Guillermo Canas by going “indoor skydiving” but he lost in place in line and the wait would have been too long….Fernando Gonzalez, Julien Benneteau and Lleyton Hewitt all had some great racquet smashing episodes at The Tennis Channel Open. TC commentator Jimmy Arias had a funny line during Hewitt’s smash of his Yonex frame; “You have to give Yonex a little credit there…it took two tries to break the racquet.”
Best investment for tennis fans – the $69.95 for a year subscription to the ATP Masters Series TV broadband coverage on ATPTennis.com. Why channel surf for Fox Sports Net during Indian Wells/Key Biscayne or stress whether you are going to get The Tennis Channel Open for most of the other offered events like Monte Carlo, Rome, Hamburg, etc.? The service offers near wall-to-wall coverage of all the top matches and if your computer has a high quality screen, it’s just like TV. Speaking of the Masters Series TV coverage, Jason Goodall, one of their fine commentary team members, spoke of talking to Igor Andreev in Dubai and asking him whether he would rather be No. 1 in the world or win a Grand Slam. Goodall reported that the Russian responded, “Neither…an Olympic Gold Medal.”
When Pete Sampras defeated Andre Agassi in the finals of the 2002 US Open, the retirement debate began almost immediately. Was Pete going to go out on top or would he continue to try to add to the record-breaking legacy he had created? While that decision took a year to officially sort out, I’ve always wondered if Pete did the right thing. Sure, he had been struggling that last year on tour. His motivation did not seem to be as high. Getting knocked out at Wimbledon in the second round was a major shock to the tennis world. And yet his run during those two weeks at Flushing Meadows certainly showed he still had what it took to continue at a high level. During that time he knocked off his young heir apparent Andy Roddick, and perhaps his greatest rival of all time in Agassi.
But Sampras opted to go out a champion, and nobody could fault him for that. He had a young family to spend time with. His 32 year old body was taking a beating after so many years on the tour, and after tasting success at almost every possible major venue, he felt it was time to call it a career. Many wondered if Sampras would be content in retirement. At the time, I would not have been surprised if a year or two later he decided to come back while he was still young enough to compete at a high level. Maybe he could have put away another Wimbledon or two before Roger Federer truly hit his peak. Instead, no one heard a whisper from Sampras. He kept to himself while spending time with his family and practicing his game on the golf course, not the tennis court.
Almost four years would pass before the world would see Pistol Pete on a tennis court again. It started very simply, with an exhibition match against young American Robby Ginepri on April 6, 2006. Sampras could have decided to take on a fellow retiree such as Jim Courier or John McEnroe. Instead, he chose to test himself against a current professional. An interesting choice no doubt. While Ginepri would take the exhibition 6-3, 7-6, Sampras must have been content with his showing after such a long layoff and against a much younger opponent.
Talk turned quite quickly to the prospect of a Sampras/Federer clash of the ages. While that would not materialize for some time, Sampras did try his hand at World Team Tennis and some events on the Outback Champions Series, a senior level tour. Many remarked that Sampras still had some serious skills on the court; John McEnroe even stated he felt Sampras could be a top five threat on the lawns of Wimbledon.
Fast forward to the fall of 2007. Talk of a Sampras/Federer exhibition matchup came to fruition with a three match tour of Asia. Sampras had been practicing quite heavily leading up to the encounters, and although Federer was coming off the Tennis Masters Cup and a long season of tennis on top of that, he was still the clear overwhelming favourite. Federer also does not strike me as the type of competitor who simply goes through the motions just to entertain the crowd. I have no doubt that he was eager to show his was able to defeat Sampras, whose Grand Slam titles record he is trying to catch.
All three matches were quite close. Federer took the opening encounter 6-4, 6-3 in Seoul, Korea. Two days later the score was even closer; Federer again won in staight sets 7-6, 7-6. The last match of the series was the most remarkable, with Sampras actually winning in two straight sets, 7-6, 6-4. Clearly his serve and volley game was something that gave Federer somewhat of a challenge. The fact that a 36 year old Pete Sampras was even able to make these matches close against the 26 year old Roger Federer was incredible. Sampras must have left the Orient feeling pretty happy with his accomplishments. Might he also have been wondering about how he would fare against some of the other top ATP players of today? Part of him had to have, at least for a fleeting moment, considered how he might hold up against today’s players in a real tournament scenario.
Here we are now at the start of the 2008 season. Instead of taking a break from his recent exhibition revival, Sampras is scheduled to play Tommy Haas (who replaces an injured Marat Safin) at next week’s SAP Open in San Jose. Again testing himself against a current player, I must wonder what Sampras hopes to achieve with this or future matches against today’s players. Is he trying to see if he can defeat another one of today’s big names? Trying to see whether his encounter with Federer at the end of a long season was just a fluke?
Another exhibition match against Federer looms in March at Madision Square Gardens in New York City. This is good opportunity for Sampras to take on the current number one on his home soil. But then where does he go from there? Why is he continuing to play against today’s players and not his contemporaries who still dabble in the sport on the senior tour?
The only realistic and reasonable answer in my opnion is that Sampras is systematically gearing himself up for a return to the ATP tour. Not a full return, and perhaps not even a limited schedule, but certainly he is trying to gauge his response to today’s challengers. The thought has to have been planted in his head, and further nourished by his recent success against Federer. Despite his repeated denials, I would not be the least bit surprised if Sampras asked for, and was granted, a wild card at the Queen’s Club tournament in June in order to prepare for his ultimate goal, a return to the All-England club at Wimbledon. While he may be in too deep against a Federer or Djokovic, he could still give just about anyone else a good run for their money on his favourite surface. Keeping his age and fitness level in mind, he would have to try to limit his matches to three or four sets and avoid a long, drawn out five-setter. But with his booming serve still in order and his net game tuned up, I’m sure he would still be able to make it to the last sixteen.
Something more than just a desire to stay fit and have fun with today’s crop of players is at work here. While Sampras has given no official word that would indicate this is what he has in mind, don’t be surprised if we see Pistol Pete one more time on Centre Court at Wimbledon this summer. Tennis fans of all ages and backgrounds would certainly be in for a treat if this were to happen.