Pete Sampras Watches on in Indian Wells as Novak Djokovic Plays on Another Planet
Sampras sat in the VIP area wearing jeans, a T-shirt and zip up hoodie looking as relaxed as if he were going out for the night to the cinema or a late night pit stop to his favorite diner for shakes. No glitz or glamour for Pete; just that down to earth vibe which endeared him to his fans back in his playing days. Just as he let his racket do the talking when he was winning in Indian Wells, he let his legend do the talking as he took his rightful place in the Indian Wells VIP seats.
Pete Sampras sat court-side on the first Saturday of Indian Wells 2019 watching on as Novak Djokovic got his bid for a record 6th trophy in the Californian Desert underway, beating American and former Roland Garros junior champ Bjorn Fratangelo in the second round 7-6, 6-2.
Pete won the Indian Wells title twice, in 94 and 95, beating Petr Korda and Andre Agassi respectively, needing five sets versus the Czech and three versus his fellow American.
Before his maiden win in the desert, Sampras had failed to get beyond the fourth round in five attempts.
After his second and final win in ’95, Sampras went QF-r3-r4-r3-QF-F-SF.
In his 15 year career, Sampras won a total of 11 ATP 1000s, then known as the Super Nine series. Sampras won Indian Wells twice, Miami three times, Rome once, Cincinnati three times, and Paris-Bercy twice.
On Saturday, he looked on as Djokovic was bidding to win his 33rd ATP 1000 in his 15th year as a pro. By Djokovic’s current stage in his career, Sampras was out of the top ten, though he would have a final swansong winning his 14th and final slam, in New York, before retiring.
Sampras and Djokovic both have similarities in their career curve. Both won slams young- Sampras won the US Open in ’90 as a 19 year old; Djokovic won Melbourne as a 20 year old in ’08. Both then took a few years to grow into their games- Sampras winning his second slam at Wimbledon ’93, ten slams later; Djokovic triumphing in Melbourne for slam No.2 in 2011, twelve slams later.
That second slam was the spring board for both men to launch into their prime. Between Wimbledon ’93 and Wimbledon ’97, a span of 17 slams, Sampras won 9 slams; between the Australian Open ’11 and Roland Garros ’16, a span of 22 slams, Djokovic won 11.
While there are loose similarities in their careers, where their careers have dramatically diverged is in longevity. In the last eight months, Djokovic has been having his second prime, a luxury that Sampras was not afforded in his era of variety in surface speeds and a quicker turnover in the generations coming up and usurping their idols- Sampras was losing to Hewitt and Safin in slam finals; Djokovic’s youthful challengers, the likes of Zverev and Kyrgios are not even making semis.
So, while Sampras must have looked on and felt a kinship with the legend on court before him, who recently moved a slam ahead of him at the Australian Open with 15 slams, he must have felt he was also watching a very different breed of champ, one not just engineered by his own hard work and sacrifices, but molded by the brand hungry governing bodies around him, by the sameness in surfaces that even Roger Federer himself has stated has added to his era’s title haul, and an income which can buy whatever the latest developments in science and technology can offer. Indian Wells is already a very different world for most of us, for Sampras watching Djokovic it must have felt like another planet.
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