Pete Sampras stunned the tennis world when he won the US Open singles title as a 19-year-old in 1990. In essence, an unknown became known and – borrowing from Frank Sinatra – reached the “top of the heap…” in New York. Twelve years later, he took full advantage of the opportunity in that same setting to bring the curtain down on his extraordinary career. At 31, he made a final entry in the record book when he won his fourteenth major championship in storybook fashion… It seemed as if it had come full circle… To once again quote Sinatra, with a slight alteration, “It brought an end to a very good career”.
(At the 2003 US Open, after having not played another tournament since the triumph, he fittingly took a final bow where it all had begun and officially retired.)
In “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”, Steve Flink paints a portrait as if he were Claude Monet, who saw the reality of the world and made it more beautiful. The acclaimed Impressionist relied on the eyes of the viewer to mix the colors he used for his captivating landscapes, many of which he painted in his Giverny garden. Flink, the 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, uses words similar to the way Monet utilized his palette to create an understanding of who Sampras is and more important, a genuine feeling for him as a player and an individual that many watched but very few really knew.
Sampras’ birthday is August 12, 1971. He joined the pro ranks at Indian Wells in 1988, five months before he turned 17. Early on, his talent had been widely recognized, but, because he was shy, he didn’t really burst on the scene. Actually, he never sought attention and he certainly wasn’t loquacious. With Rod Laver as his model and Wimbledon as his goal, he lived by the motto – I let my racquet do the talking. As a result, many tennis aficionados knew him only based on his tournament results. Otherwise, he was nearly invisible.
Flink, who has a photographic recall of points and matches played, travels through Sampras’ record setting; from New York and significant stops in between and then back to New York – from his first major to his last. The easy to read writing style weaves facts and observations smoothly, with no apparent seams in the story’s fabric. The author is so skilled that he makes the reader feel as if he/she is fortunate enough to be sitting in the room and listening to conversations between Steve and Pete as they discuss details gleaned from his Grand Slam competitive triumphs, the successes that were realized at ATP Year-End Championships and his most cherished accomplishment – finishing No. 1 in the world for six straight years – a record that may never be broken.
Every tennis “story about…” features a list of accomplishments and praise of the subject by former opponents and those who played prior to the individual’s time in the limelight. For the most part, the supporting quotes can be summarized in driving onto a dead-end street fashion – “Good player, Good guy”. Because of Flink’s relationship with current and former players, he can use a masterful variety of insights about Sampras to make the story compelling. He collects them from the likes of Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, rivals that date back to their shared junior days. Mats Wilander, Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic add to the richness of the canvas. So do the thoughts offered by Billie Jean King, Mary Carillo, Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin. Keeping with the tennis’ hierarchy parade, Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl make some revealing assessments, too. John McEnroe is quoted and naturally lives up to his being “ever-so-candid” by reputation. Todd Martin, a circuit opponent, who is now the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, is as usual, solid with his remembrances. Comments by Paul Annacone and Tom Gullikson, one a former Sampras coach and the other his Davis Cup captain, thread through a portion of the book and enhance its depth.
(I wrote the first Pete Sampras story that appeared nationally. It was in the “Inside The Junior Game” section of the June 1978 issue of World Tennis Magazine. Coincidentally, Steve Flink was the editor of the publication all those years ago. Perhaps it was fate, but he would go on to become a Senior Writer at Tennis Week, and I found a spot as a Contributor to that magazine as well.)
Having had a lengthy career as a journalist and having already written two books that are “musts” for inclusion in every tennis library – “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999 and later, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012, I asked Flink why he had decided to focus on Sampras. As one of the game’s premier historian, he could have written about anyone in tennis.
He explained, “I interviewed Pete a bunch of times over the telephone from 1992 to 1995. We met at Wimbledon in 1995. I wrote about him countless times both during and after his career. I would say I have done at least 15 or perhaps 20 features on Pete over the years.”
Flink continued, “It took about a year-and-a-half or slightly less to write the book, primarily because I knew the subject so well. As I said in my introduction, in my mind I had been writing the book since late in his career.”
There is much more to the book than an encyclopedic listing of Sampras’ wins and losses. In “Save the Best for Last” fashion, Flink explores one of the game’s universal questions – stepping from one era to another, in their prime, who would win? Though such ventures are speculation, it is always fun to wonder – Would Bill Tilden have been competitive against Jack Kramer? Would Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez have held his own against his one-time brother-in-law Andre Agassi? How might Rod Laver have dealt with John McEnroe?
Flink tantalizes the reader with a look at how Sampras could have done against Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. In a pièce de resistance, he brings the story to a close offering his Top 10 American men ever and Top 10 American men in the Open Era. I will not even hint at what he has to say, but these two chapters are standalone book-worthy in and of themselves.
“I felt it had to be done,” Flink said. “I had always wanted to do this book. Pete is too often taken for granted. His contributions to the game have been immeasurable. I felt that knowing him so well and understanding what he is about made me perhaps uniquely qualified to be the author of a retrospective examination of Pete’s impact on the game.”
A group of French artists used a complicated technique to create an optical illusion and it was called trompe l’oeil. In English, it means “deceives the eye”. In no way was there any deception or deceit to Sampras. Flink entertainingly points out that he is genuine and for that matter, purely and simply real.
“I always deeply appreciated not only his gifts as a player but also his quiet way of going about things. The bottom line is that he deserves a laudatory book done on his exploits. My goal is for many fans to be reminded of why they admired him so deeply. Hence the title: ‘Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited’.”
“Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited” will be available to purchase after September 1, 2020. (Check Amazon)
Roland Garros Daily Preview: The Second Major of 2022 Begins on Sunday
The second Major of the year is upon us, with its unique Sunday start. Roland Garros is the only Grand Slam event where first round singles play is spread across three days.
The men’s draw is headlined by 13-time champion Rafael Nadal, defending champion Novak Djokovic, 2021 runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas, and the ATP’s breakout star of the last 12 months, Carlos Alcaraz. The 19-year-old Spaniard will play his opening match on Sunday, as will top ATP names like Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev.
The women’s draw features 12 Major singles champions, five of whom have won this event: Iga Swiatek, Barbora Krejicikova, Simona Halep, Jelena Ostapenko, and Garbine Muguruza. The 28-year-old Spaniard plays perpetual draw-buster Kaia Kanepi on Sunday. The Order of Play also includes the red-hot Ons Jabeur and US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, who faces France’s Kiki Mladenovic.
Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s two most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule. Sunday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.
Ons Jabeur (6) vs. Magda Linette – 11:00am on Court Philippe Chatrier
Outside of Iga Swiatek, Jabeur is the WTA player with the most momentum heading into Paris. Before losing to Swiatek in the final of Rome, Ons was on an 11-match win streak, coming off her title run in Madrid. She’s now 17-3 on clay this season, and has reached the fourth round of this tournament the last two years. She’ll be a considerable favorite against Linette on Sunday, though Magda could easily test the sixth seed. The 30-year-old from Poland was a quarterfinalist this year at clay events in Charleston and Strasbourg, and she owns victories over some top names at Majors, including Ash Barty and Elina Svitolina. They’ve met twice before on clay, with both matches going to Jabeur. That includes a three-set encounter at this event a year ago. I expect a similar result on Sunday.
Hugo Dellien vs. Dominic Thiem (PR) – 11:00am on Court Simonne Mathieu
Thiem is a two-time French Open finalist, but he is still fighting for his first win in over a year. Since coming back from his wrist injury, he is 0-6 at all levels, with all those matches occurring on clay. Earning that elusive win in the best-of-five format may prove challenging for an out-of-form player. This will be Thiem’s first match against Dellien, a 28-year-old from Bolivia who has played 43 matches on clay this season at all levels. He’s accumulated 30 wins, and advanced to two Challenger finals. However, Hugo is yet to defeat a top 40 player this year. While Dominic is not currently a member of that group, and is not performing at that level, taking out a Major champion at a Grand Slam event remains a daunting task. At a tournament where Thiem has fond memories of success, I expect Dominic is earn his first win since last May.
Garbine Muguruza (10) vs. Kaia Kanepi – Second on Court Simonne Mathieu
Muguruza is a two-time Major champion, and won the third-biggest title of her career at November’s WTA Finals in Guadalajara. But since that title run, Muguruza has struggled mightily, with a record of 7-8 in 2022. She’s won back-to-back matches only once this season. And in the opening round, she’s drawn one of the sport’s most dangerous floaters. Kanepi has made a career out of upsetting top seeds at Majors. As per Tennis Abstract, she owns nine top 10 wins at Grand Slam events, over the likes of Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep, and most recently at January’s Australian Open, Aryna Sabalenka. Kaia is a seven-time quarterfinalist at Majors, including two times at Roland Garros. Her only previous meeting with Muguruza took place eight years ago in Melbourne, when Muguruza prevailed in three sets. But considering Garbine’s recent form, and Kaia’s history at Majors, this match is definitely deserving of an upset alert.
Carlos Alcaraz (6) vs. Juan Ignacio Londero (Q) – Fourth on Court Philippe Chatrier
Alcaraz has rapidly become one of the ATP’s players. Carlitos is 28-3 in 2022, with four titles. He is No.3 in the year-to-date rankings, and is within 200 points of the two players ahead of him (Nadal, Tsitsipas). The teenager arrives in Paris on a 10-match win streak on clay, having taken back-to-back titles in his home country. Londero is a former top 50 player who reached the fourth round of this event in 2019. But he is coming off multiple seasons with a losing record, and hasn’t played a match since early-April. Alcaraz should not have much trouble dismissing Londero on Sunday, though it is always a treat to see the Spaniard’s formidable skills on display.
Leylah Fernandez (17) vs. Kiki Mladenovic – Fourth on Court Suzanne Lenglen
Fernandez has not immediately been able to follow-up on her thrilling US Open run from last summer. Despite winning a title in Monterrey, she hasn’t reached a quarterfinal at any other event this year. But still only 19-years-of-age, Leylah undoubtedly has some big results ahead of her. Mladenovic was top 10 player in 2017, the same year she was a quarterfinalist at her home Slam. But the Frenchwoman is 2-4 in Paris since, and only 2-10 this season at all levels. While Kiki will certainly be motivated by the Parisian crowd, it would be surprising if she could upset Leylah, as the Canadian remains a dogged competitor who thrives on big stages.
Other Notable Matches on Sunday:
Sloane Stephens vs. Jule Niemeier (Q) – Stephens was the 2018 runner-up in Paris, and reached the fourth round a year ago. But she’s 0-4 on clay in 2022. Niemeier is a 22-year-old German who won an ITF-level event on clay last month.
Grigor Dimitrov (18) vs. Marcos Giron – Dimitrov is only 12-11 lifetime at Roland Garros, though he was a semifinalist in Monte Carlo this season. This is a rematch from last year’s French Open, when Giron defeated Dimitrov after Grigor retired during the fourth set.
Felix Auger-Aliassime (9) vs. Juan Pablo Varillas (Q) – Auger-Aliassime is still looking for his first main draw win at Roland Garros. He is 8-6 on clay this year. Varillas is a 26-year-old from Peru who has won 19 matches on clay this season at all levels.
Maria Sakkari (4) vs. Clara Burel – Sakkari has some scar tissue to overcome at this event, as in last year’s semifinals, she was one point away from defeating eventual champion Barbora Krejicikova. Burel is a 20-year-old from France who is a former junior No.1.
Sascha Zverev (3) vs. Sebastian Ofner (Q) – Zverev has reached the second week of this tournament four consecutive times. Ofner is a 26-year-old from Austria who prevailed at a Challenger event in Prague last month.
Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.
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Cameron Norrie’s Surprise Win at Indian Wells Could Land Him a Well-Deserved ATP Finals Berth
As Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev disappointed, the Brit (along with Basilashvili, Dimitrov and Fritz) were ready to seize the day
We have grown accustomed across the last bunch of decades to the most important tournaments in tennis being controlled by an elite cast of competitors. That has been the case not only at the Grand Slam events but also at the Masters 1000 showcase championships. While there has been a large degree of predictability associated with these prestigious gatherings of great players, that has been comforting for followers of the sport who have embraced familiarity.
And yet, every once in a while there is no harm when a big tournament produces startling results and a semifinal lineup that no one could have foreseen. That is precisely what happened this past week in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California. For the first time at a Masters 1000, not a single player ranked among the top 25 in the world made it to the penultimate round. The semifinalists were none other than Great Britain’s Cam Norrie (No. 26), Grigor Dimitrov (No. 28), Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili (No. 36), and Taylor Fritz of the United States (No. 38). Their seedings were somewhat better because some top players did not compete at Indian Wells. Norrie was seeded No. 21, Basilashvili No. 29, Dimitrov No. 23 and Fritz No. 31.
These rankings and seedings were almost unimaginable, but all of these players deserved to be in the forefront. The left-handed Norrie took apart Dimitrov 6-2, 6-4 in the opening semifinal with surgical precision and uncanny ball control, and then Basilashvili followed with an overpowering 7-6(5) 6-3 performance in eclipsing Fritz. Here were four distinctive players displaying their collective talent proudly on the hard courts in California. Outside of Roger Federer, Dimitrov may well be the most elegant player of the past twenty years with his well crafted running forehand plus his spectacular and versatile one-handed backhand. Norrie is cagey, resourceful, disciplined and versatile. His forehand carries a significant amount of topspin and can bound up high while his two-handed backhand is fundamentally flat. His serve is strategically located and reliably precise. He is a tennis player’s tennis player.
Fritz combines considerable power with remarkable feel. He serves potently and places it awfully well. He is a constantly improving craftsman with a wide arsenal of shots. And Basilashvili is the biggest hitter in tennis, pounding the ball relentlessly off both sides, unleashing forehand winners from anywhere on the court almost at will, never backing off from his goal of blasting opponents off the court.
So all four semifinalists were worthy of getting that far. Moreover, it was fitting that Norrie and Basilashvili would square off in the final. Norrie has celebrated a stellar 2021 campaign. This was his sixth final of the season and he had already amassed 46 match wins coming into the final. Norrie has made immense strides as a match player all year long, and he was poised to put himself in this position. He is a masterful percentage player cut from a similar cloth to Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. Norrie measures his shots impeccably, giving himself an incessantly healthy margin for error, refusing to miss by being reckless or narrow minded.
Basilashvili is made of different stock. He had lost in the first round in five of six Masters 1000 events this season because he misses so much with his risky shots. When he gets on a roll, Basilashvili is an exceedingly dangerous player who can make the most difficult shots look easy. But he can also beat himself and is often his own worst enemy with his obstinacy. Basilashvili lost his last nine matches of 2020. Norrie is at the opposite end of the spectrum with his consistency and methodology, understanding his limitations, always obeying the laws of percentage tennis.
The contrasting styles of the two finalists made it an intriguing confrontation. But, in the end, Norrie withstood a barrage of big hitting from Basilashvili, refused to get rattled by the explosive shotmaking of his adversary, and ultimately prevailed 3-6 6-4 6-1 to claim the most important title of his career. It was a fascinating final in many ways as Norrie opened up an early lead before Basilashvili found his range, but then the British competitor reasserted himself over the last set-and-a-half with cunning play down the stretch as the wind force increased and Basilashvili faltered flagrantly.
Norrie moved ahead 3-1 in the opening set but then the Georgian held easily and broke back for 3-3 on a double fault from the British No. 1. Basilashvili promptly held for 4-3 at love. He had won three consecutive games, and clearly the complexion of the set was changing significantly. Norrie realized he was in jeopardy but was unable to halt Basilashvili’s momentum. The British competitor was broken again in the eighth game as Basilashvili released two outright winners. On break point an angled forehand crosscourt from the Russian coaxed an error from his left-handed adversary. Serving for the set at 5-3, Basilashvili was totally composed and confident. He held at love with an ace for 40-0 and then a dazzling forehand down the line winner.
Not only had Basilashvili taken the set on a run of five consecutive games, but he had also swept 20 of 25 points in that spectacular span. When Basilashvili broke for a 2-1 second set lead, he seemed entirely capable of driving his way to victory behind an avalanche of blazing winners. But Norrie refused to lose optimism. Basilashvili suddenly lost both his range and his rhythm off the ground, particularly on his signature forehand side. Four unforced errors off that flank cost him the fourth game and allowed Norrie back on serve.
But Basilashvili was persistent, working his way through a couple of arduous service games on his way to 4-4. Nevertheless, Norrie was unswayed by his opponent’s fighting spirit. The British player held at love for 5-4 in that pivotal second set with a drop shot winner and then broke at love to seal the set with his finest tennis of the afternoon. On the first point of the tenth game, Norrie lobbed over Basilashvili into the corner and took the net away from his opponent. Although Basilashvili chased that ball down, turned and unleashed a potent backhand crosscourt pass that came over low, Norrie was ready, making a difficult forehand drop volley winner that had the California crowd gasping. On the next point, Norrie released a scintillating backhand passing shot winner down the line. Consecutive forehand mistakes from a shaken Basilashvili allowed Norrie to break at love to salvage the set 6-4 on a run of eight points in a row.
The left-hander was in command now, taking the first two games of the third set confidently. He then trailed 0-40 in the third game. But Norrie responded to this precarious moment commendably, collecting five points in a row to hold on for 3-0, demoralizing Basilashvili in the process. Basilashvili self destructed at this critical juncture of the match, giving all five points away with a cluster of errors. But Norrie was also outstanding on defense in that stretch.
The match was essentially over. Although Basilashvili fended off a break point in the fourth game of that third set, Norrie sedulously protected his lead thereafter, capturing 12 of 16 points and three consecutive games to close out the account with a flourish. From 4-4 in the second set, Norrie had won eight of the last nine games and his first Masters 1000 crown. Norrie started the year at No. 71 in the world but now stands deservedly at No. 16 following his astonishing triumph at Indian Wells. It was a job awfully well done, and he was a worthy winner in the end.
But I must add that the three top seeds at Indian Wells all failed to perform up to their expectations. Let’s start with Medvedev, the top seed in the absence of Djokovic. He confronted Dimitrov in the round of 16 and was leading 6-4, 4-1. Medvedev was up two service breaks in that second set. He seemed certain to prevail but performed abysmally thereafter. At 4-1, he opened the sixth game with a double fault and then double faulted again at 15-40. Dimitrov held easily in the seventh game and then Medvedev was broken in the eight game after missing five out of six first serves.
Now Dimitrov held at love and then Medvedev started the tenth game of the second set with another double fault. He lost his serve for the third time in a row and thus conceded the set 6-4 after dropping five consecutive games and 20 of 26 points. Medvedev missed 15 of 17 first serves at the end of that pendulum swinging set.
Dimitrov raced to 3-0 in the third, later advanced to 5-1, and eventually came through 4-6 6-4 6-3 as Medvedev imploded. To be sure, Dimitrov was magnificent in many ways, particularly with his running forehand. But Medvedev was his own worst enemy and his attitude was reminiscent of the man we witnessed in years gone by who was often mercurial. He was infuriated with himself and his situation, competing irregularly, smashing his racquet, advertising his vulnerability.
Meanwhile, No.2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas wanted to reignite his game after losing early at the US Open, but the Greek stylist struggled inordinately in every match he played before Basilashvili ousted him 6-4 2-6 6-4 in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Tsitsipas was trying to manufacture some emotions that simply were not there. He was out of sorts and off his game. At 3-3 in the final set, down break point, fighting hard but playing poorly, Tsitsipas double faulted and never really recovered. It may take him quite some time to recover his best form after a debilitating year.
And what of Sascha Zverev? Here was a man who had won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in August and then secured the Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the US Open but seemed to be ready to take the title at Indian Wells after reaching the quarterfinals. But Zverev wasted a 5-2 final set lead against Fritz.
Zverev had a match point in the eighth game on Fritz’s serve that the American saved stupendously. Zverev had sent a deep crosscourt forehand into the corner that seemed unanswerable but Fritz took it early on the half volley and flicked it down the line to rush Zverev into an error. In the following game, serving for the match at 5-3, Zverev double faulted at 30-15 but still advanced to 40-30 with a second match point at his disposal. Once more, he double faulted. In the end, after Zverev served another damaging double fault on the first point of the final set tie-break, Fritz succeeded 4-6 6-3 7-6(3).
Zverev had no reason to be embarrassed about losing to a first-rate Fritz, but nonetheless the German should have been dismayed by those crucial double faults. He said afterwards that he felt he was the clear tournament favorite after Tsitsipas had lost earlier that day, but why didn’t he play with more conviction when it counted against Fritz? Was Zverev getting ahead of himself by thinking about winning the tournament when he was still trying to succeed in his quarterfinal? I have a feeling that was the case. He is too seasoned a campaigner to allow that to happen at this stage of his career. I thought Zverev was more professional than that.
Undoubtedly the unexpected setbacks suffered by Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev opened a window for Norrie to see his way through to a career defining triumph, but that takes nothing away from his success. Cam Norrie is now at No.10 in the Race to Turin for the ATP Finals, and Rafael Nadal is out for the year. So the British lefty could well qualify for that élite season ending event which is reserved for only the top eight players in the world. After his uplifting victory at Indian Wells, only a fool would doubt that Norrie will very likely be in the field at Turin, which is no mean feat.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
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