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REGIONS MORGAN KEEGAN CHAMPIONSHIPS MEDIA CONFERENCE
January 15, 2009
THE MODERATOR: I'd like to welcome everybody for today's call with Pete. Pete returns to the 2009 Regions Morgan Keegan Championship to play an exhibition match against former world No. 1, Lleyton Hewitt on Monday, February 16 at 6:30.
Pete and Lleyton have played nine times over the course of their career, including the 2001 US Open Championship. In his career, Pete played at the Regions Morgan Keegan six times. Won the title in 1996. Of course, he's a six-time, year end ATP No. 1, and 14-time Grand Slam Titles champion. Before we start the call, I'd like to turn it over to Peter and Bill.
BILL RAPP: I want to thank you for being on the call today. We're very excited to welcome you back to Memphis. A two-part question to kick it off. If you could talk briefly about the title you won over Todd Martin in 1996 at the Racquet Club in Memphis, and also give us your thoughts about playing Lleyton Hewitt on February 16.
PETE SAMPRAS: Sure, winning in the '90s against Todd, we were both in the Top 10, so it was a good win for me. And I've always enjoyed playing for Memphis. I love the court, the speed of the court was somewhat medium. You could stay back or come in. The crowd was fantastic. It was intimate. Felt the energy in the club.
I've always enjoyed playing there. Too bad I won once, but I always look forward to playing in Memphis. Looking forward to coming back.
Q. And the barbecue, of course, right, Pete?
PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah, the barbecue, the food, the hospitality, you know, I've got to kind of get in touch with the members because you're in the locker room with the guys. It's a thrill for them to see myself and Andre sort of going out to play.
In answer to your other question, Bill, playing Lleyton, I'm excited about that. He's obviously one of the best players in the world, and very difficult for me to beat, especially at this point in my life.
He was tough for me to play in my prime, so I hope to play well and make it competitive. If I can pull off a set here or there, I'll be ecstatic.
I'm looking forward to just getting back to the club and seeing some people and playing some good tennis. You know, just having a good time there.
Q. How often do you participate in exhibitions like the one you play against Lleyton during the course of the year?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, not many. I probably play against guys, like this year I played James Blake about a month ago. You know, three or four times I played some current guys. I'm going to play late in Memphis, and James Blake in San Jose. So I don't do a ton of them.
But they're tough. I don't play at this level very often. These guys play every day. I still enjoy the challenge for me to go out and sort of hold my own against these guys.
So I'm looking forward to it. We'll see what happens Monday night. And just walking on that court, I've always loved just the intimacy of that club and it wasn't too big of a stadium, so you really felt the people. So that's really exciting for me.
Q. So Memphis kind of fit your personality?
PETE SAMPRAS: What do you mean?
Q. You described the atmosphere there?
PETE SAMPRAS: I loved it. You'd rather play a 3,000 or 4,000 packed house, versus a 20,000-seat stadium that's half full. It was better energy, and you really felt the people, I've always enjoyed that. I know the players commented in my playing days that they liked playing in Memphis. And the speed of the court has never changed, it's a nice true hard court. There are advantages from the baseline and you can do different things out there.
So it's a combination of all of those things, and I think that's why you see I played, and Andre played a few times and you see a lot of the top guys playing.
Q. Everyone's talking about Federer and Nadal, and that kind of thing in the state of men's tennis. Do you think that in America does men's tennis need American stars to step up to get the game back to prominence? Or will Americans follow Federer and Nadal the way they did you and Agassi?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, I think on -- well, you see what happened at Wimbledon last year. I think the American fans really got behind tennis. Throughout the matches, the ratings were high. I hope that's not just a one-shot deal.
But it would help to have an American presence to at least be in the mix of the Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray. You know, Andy and James are very, very good players. They're not quite to that level. So I think it would make it easier to really give a huge shot to the arm of the sport if you had an American in the Top 3 winning a major, getting to the final of a major.
Federer and Nadal have done a great job with their rivalry, but I'm not sure if it's going to transcend for years to come in this country. We need if it's Andy or James or someone coming up, that can challenge these guys and be part of the rivalries. But it will be a few years before that might happen, but we're in good shape, we're just not quite at the top yet.
Q. Has the time passed for guys like Andy and James? Can they get to the level that you talk about with Federer and Nadal, Djokovic, those guys? Or will it be the next generation of guys that are going to have to take that mantle up?
PETE SAMPRAS: Well, I wouldn't count out James or Andy right now. I still think they're in contention. They're sort of dark horses at the majors. Consistently, I don't know if they're quite good enough to be the top two in the world for a long period of time. But I think they he can threaten a major here or there.
But to get to the upper echelon, and the number one winning a couple of majors a year, it might be a few years before we see that. I think Roger's going to dominate for a few more years, and Nadal is probably going to carry the torch even longer.
So we'll see the American press and fans have been pretty spoiled over the years with what happened in the '90s with myself, and Andre and Jim. It's hard to duplicate it. So it's sort of a tricky time.
Q. With that heyday during the '90s of American tennis, you had so many great American players in the top of the rankings winning so many major tournaments. That followed what I feel is a revolution in racquet technology, what they're doing with graphite and strings and how they're able to balance the weight throughout the racquet. Couldn't it be said that a part of the reason why there are so many great American players at that time is that the American players had the access to that technology, and the rest of the world has caught up and there is much more of a level playing field. And to get more American players back to the top in a quicker way, we'd need to see another revolution in racquet or tennis technology overall?
PETE SAMPRAS: Good question. I think the technology has hit the limit with the Babolat racquet, and the strings and, the Luxilon. You can't do anything more to a racquet to have the lightness, the power, and the control with the strings. It's a great combination. Look at Nadal's racquet. It's like a weapon, that thing.
But I think if anything, I think the Europeans and South Americans are sort of the ones that discovered this string and racquet combination of the Luxilon. The Americans, I used old gut with the 85 square head racquet, and that's like a wood racquet today. So I don't think it had any effect on American tennis at all.
You know, I think Querrey was the first guy to bring that Luxilon string in. I wish I would have tried it a little bit in my day.
So I don't think -- great players are great players. I don't care what technology you're looking at, I think the cream always rises to the top. Someone like Roddick who has all the technology uses that Babolat racquet with that string, and it's helped him sort of get this far. Obviously he needs to find a little bit more in his game to sort of get to the top of the game like Roger and Nadal.
Q. Does the technology, perhaps, was it a detriment to the game? I don't know when a 120 mile an hour serve used to be a big deal. Now you're looking at 140. Just the points are over so quickly that there's not much of a match to see anymore when you're watching it on television, other than wow, how fast he hit it. But after 30, 40 times of watching that to the average viewer, you kind of lose the luster a little bit?
PETE SAMPRAS: A little bit. At the same time, everyone's staying back, there's not a lot of serve and volleying. Even those guys that are cracking it hard, you look at Wimbledon these days, everyone's staying back. So you're getting your rallies.
Back in my day, technology wasn't all that sophisticated, but everyone served and volleyed, so you didn't have the rallies. It's a tricky one. I think we've taken technology to the point where you can't really do much more. I still think you see rallies, because no one's really serve and volleying.
Q. When you talk about the Americans, are there any on the horizon that maybe we don't know about? Maybe guys that are on the way up?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, I don't know of many. I've hit with a few juniors, sort of young pros in L.A. There is a young kid that's going to Stanford, Ryan -- big lefty kid. I don't know his last name. But I think he's got potential if he wants to take it to the next level.
I've seen Donald Young, he's good, he's talented. I'm not sure he has enough fire power to get into the top 30, 20 in the world. You know, it's a little slim. You know, at the same time when I was coming up, people didn't know much about it, it's hard to tell who is going to do well.
But I don't see a crew of guys like we had in the '90s. Four guys in the Top 10 competing for number one and winning majors. It might be many years until that happens again. I don't know. I can't name names of who is going to carry the torch.
Q. The tour itself underwent some restructuring after last year and they broke down into different levels. How do you assess what's been done? What are your thoughts about the tour?
PETE SAMPRAS: I'm not up to date. I don't follow the game and the politics. There were always problems even when I was playing. Guys thought they were playing too much, et cetera, et cetera. But I honestly can't answer the question. I don't know much of what's going on.
Q. For you, I guess as far as playing on the Champions Tour and getting involved in that, what kind of got you back out? What's made it fun?
PETE SAMPRAS: It's fun. I retired and took two or three years off and didn't do much in the sport. I felt I wanted to do a little bit more with my day and hit a few balls and get in better shape. And that just sort of opened myself up to maybe playing a few here and there.
I played a handful in the past cup of years. Played a couple of European ones, played a couple on Jim's Outback Tour. And it had been fun. It is what it is. It's tennis, it's serious, but it's not cut throat tennis.
What's really fun for me is playing the current guys, to play Lleyton in Memphis, to play James Blake in San Jose. It's exciting for me. My matches with Roger were fun, and the one at the Garden. Those kind of things get my juices going.
The other ones are fun, too. It's competitive tennis. It's fun, there's nothing too serious, but it's nice to get out and be productive in your life.
Q. I'm just curious if part of the appeal of Memphis and maybe coming back -- I know that you lost your coach to a brain tumor in that same year that you won the Memphis event in 96. And you still have the foundation, the Tim and Tom Gullikson, and you do a lot of work not just with cancer charities but other charities and St. Jude's involvement with cancer for children. I would imagine for you that would have to have a pretty strong appeal for this city and this tournament?
PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah, it is a big deal when you go to Memphis and the St. Jude's facility. It's a big charity week for the City of Memphis. Every time I played there it was always you feel that people are giving back. So it's always nice to give back and to play in Memphis again. It's exciting to help out the charity and help out the tournament. I'm excited about it.
Q. Has it been a revelation for you? You've had a chance now several years to sit back and kind of look and see how things have progressed and what your career was like. Does it still amaze you the attention, and the fact that so many people still follow you and care about what you're doing? Does that blow your mind at this point?
PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah, well, it's flattering. And my everyday life with two kids running around this house, you know, you kind of -- I don't think much about my career. You kind of get couped up in everyday life here. And that's when I went to London to play the senior event. It was really the first time I thought about my Wimbledon, thought about my career. You spend time alone, and you kind of reminisce a little bit about the past.
But when I go out and play and get an explanation in the crowds, it feels great. And people have seen me play. I felt that over the past couple of years, so it's great. I feel like I had a great career and I did everything I could do. And people are sort of giving me my props over the past couple of years.
Q. What is the best match that you ever participated in? What is your favorite?
PETE SAMPRAS: I think the highest level that I played was when I beat Andre for my sixth Wimbledon. I think it was 2000 or '99. I think that was probably -- probably it's harder to get in the zone in a major just because of nerves. But that one from 3-All, Love-40 in the first, to the rest of the match. I was in the zone. It's hard to do in that situation, but everything clicked at the right time.
You know, he was playing probably the best tennis of his career, and I just sort of steam rolled him. I can do that sometimes in practice, but on the final of Wimbledon, it's not easy to do. I think that one from the level-wise, was probably the highest level just as far as purely I felt untouchable that day.
Q. One thing in particular people are remembering how you played was that slam dunk overhead, you would leap up and the ball was actually in front of you coming off the serve and volley. How did that shot develop? As a player with a moderate amount of success as a junior, they sure didn't teach me how to do that. But I tried to emulate it as best I could. How did that shot develop? That was truly, I mean, you were the only person I've ever initially gone out there and made a play like that.
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, Yannick Noah, who I saw play a little when I was younger, used to hit that shot and come in and do the scissor kick. And I just sort of saw him do it. And I played a little bit of basketball as a kid around the club. I could always jump pretty good.
And for whatever reason, you know, I first did it in '90 at the US Open, and I played McEnroe and hit serves and it was sort of sitting up there, and I just did it. There wasn't any thought to it. Wasn't like I practiced it. It was just up there. I think later in my career I looked for it a little bit. Because I knew it sort of sent a message to my opponent. The crowd loved it, which was great.
It's something that just takes timing and a little bit of athletic ability. It's just something that I had. So I developed it, and perfected it. And people found it pretty exciting.
Q. Well, it's sending a message to your opponent. Was it ever a deal where you make a play like that with the slam dunk and immediately just turn and adjust your strings and walk away. It was very little fist pumping after that. How much of that is keeping your composure in that way? How much of that was gamesmanship and personality?
PETE SAMPRAS: It was part of my personality. It wasn't hitting that shot and rubbing it in. And doing a victory dance, it was more I loved it. The crowd loved it. It wasn't anything more I needed to do. It was a fun shot to hit. If it was the right time and place and it was there, I was going to do it. If not, that's okay, too.
It was just letting my opponent know that I was ready. I'm fresh, and I'm jumping, and I feel like I'm on my game. I felt it was a fun shot to hit. It wasn't anything I needed to do afterwards to pump up the crowd. Enough was said when I did it.
Q. You were composed on the court but off the court as well. In tennis so much depends on the mental preparation. Everybody's a great athlete at that level. And it's just the people who can do it over a consistent basis and go out there every day and it makes the difference. How much would you say the distraction of celebrity is involved with that? I used to joke with my friends that every time I saw Andre come out with a new Canon camera commercial, he was about to drop 20 spots in the rankings. How much of that played into it with all the distraction that's going on as a top-level tennis player?
PETE SAMPRAS: It's very tricky to do both. In tennis you're the only guy out there. When you don't play well, you lose. It's hard in your life to be a celebrity and to do -- you know, talk shows and kind of create this sort of image and have the energy to be the best tennis player in the world. I felt that was very difficult to do.
I just sort of focused on winning my tennis matches. I wasn't that focused on promoting myself. Maybe I could have done a little bit more. But I was comfortable with where my image was, and what I was doing with my career. It's hard to do both. You can do it, but I feel like something would give.
For me, it was my insecurity of if I start focusing on my P.R., I would lose my edge. So that's why I kept it pretty quiet. Just worried about being the best player in the world.
Q. Is it true, I read somewhere, I don't remember where, but I read that after the US Open where you had vomited on the court during the match a, that John Calipari, who is now the coach here in Memphis for the Tigers, brought you in to talk to his team?
PETE SAMPRAS: Oh, Geez. He was rooting for the Nets. He was coaching the Nets?
Q. Yeah, that's right.
PETE SAMPRAS: I was there watching, and the practice and somewhere around Tampa. Here I am a little bit, not a kid, but I was 6' 1", and he wanted me to come out in the middle of the court in a land of Giants. And he asked me a few questions about what happened in that moment and how I felt.
I think he was trying to show his team like this guy was sick and he had the heart and will and inspirational thing. It was a little bit overwhelming. I got to know John a little bit. We had a mutual friend in Tampa. It was great motivational practices. Very upbeat, and he got a lot out of his players and sort of used me in that moment to come out and talk about that situation.
Q. Did that become a thing where you served? Is that sort of an inspirational point? That was something that you couldn't help as a viewer but be riveted by the fact that you went through that. I would imagine he might not be the only guy that would use that as a point of emphasis?
PETE SAMPRAS: Some coaches and some other acts of life have used it, great. I haven't really felt it from many people, but I think it might be an example for some athletes. Some teaching as far as mental, and how strong you are and your will. That was a moment where I was pretty depleted and I just didn't quit, and that's maybe a lesson right there.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks for joining in this morning, and we look forward to working with you throughout the week in Memphis. Pete, thanks for your time, and everybody have a good day.
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