Pete Sampras: The Grand Finale
In an exclusive article, Pete Sampras writes that competing at the season finale is an honour for every generation of players. With the competitors from the 1990s celebrated at the Nitto ATP Finals next week, one of the singles groups is named after Sampras, who won this title five times.
As a dad, you need to pick your battles with your kids. So while I wouldn't ever want to jam my story down my sons' throats, I like to give them a few examples here and there of what I accomplished as a tennis player, including how I won this tournament five times.
They're 12 and 14, and I'm teaching them how I was never just handed a trophy, and how I had to work hard, and make lots of sacrifices, to be the best in the world. I'm telling them how you can achieve anything, just so long as you want it badly enough.
My kids are proud of my career and curious, too, and occasionally they might come across a YouTube video that they'll want to share with me. That's about the only time I'll watch one of my matches back on a screen; otherwise I only replay those highlights and moments in my head. Some of the best memories of my career were made at this tournament, and there is one occasion at the event that tops them all: the time I won an epic five-setter against Boris Becker in the 1996 final, which was played in front of a pro-Boris crowd in Hanover.
I'm honoured the ATP has named one of the singles groups at next week's tournament after me; that's a real treat. When I first heard, I thought: "That's pretty cool, now I feel a stronger connection with some of the other champions." And with the other group named after Boris, it's been an opportunity to reminiscence about a match that came when we were both in the prime of our careers.
Being part of a match like that is a thrill. More than 20 years later, I still haven't forgotten about the noise from that extraordinarily loud, passionate crowd, and I can still hear myself screaming out after hitting a backhand pass beyond Boris to break his serve. There was so much energy in that place, it was electric. I also have a good recall of the exhaustion I felt - and how my lungs were burning - after I won the match on a rally or 25 or 30 strokes. Boris and I embraced at the net. Finally, we could let our guards down.
Even at that moment, and after a final of that magnitude and quality, we still had huge respect for each other. And the thousands of Germans inside the stadium, even though they had been cheering and shouting for Boris for hours, gave both of us an ovation. I took the title four other times but that match is top of my list because, as well as being an epic, playing against Boris in Germany was a big deal, as he always brought so much buzz, exposure and excitement to the event. We were two heavyweights, playing great tennis.
"I'm sure the competition in London next week is going to be fierce - only those who have had a great year, and who are playing at a high level, make the cut. From my own experiences, I know that players need to be ready from the first point. There's no chance of easing your way into this tournament. Right from your opening match, you're competing against another elite player, and there's no let-up all week. You've got to bring it in every match, and I sometimes felt as though this was the hardest title to win. Playing this tournament was always a battle and, as well as winning those five titles, I also had some tough losses.
As much as tennis is an individual sport, and every one of the singles players will be giving his all to beat his rivals and finish the year on a positive note, I imagine there will be a camaraderie among the qualifiers. The years that I qualified, I always felt a connection with the other seven. You've all achieved something as a group. At the end of a long year, the eight of you are the best of the best, and it's like you're part of a special club. Anyone who has qualified for London is going to be feeling good about himself. Every time I made it into the eight, I felt honoured to be with other great players. And when you arrive in the city, you put on a suit and tie, go to some functions and have your photograph taken at landmarks, and you're made to feel special.
This will be a great tournament, it always is. You've got the best players in the world battling for a big prize, and that's fantastic for people in London, who love their tennis. Everyone at The O2 should appreciate they're watching the best generation of tennis players in history.
Each generation of athletes gets stronger and faster, and the players are adding to their knowledge of the game, and as a result you see the level of tennis going up and up. Everyone keeps on improving - today's players are tremendous athletes and hit the ball incredibly hard. Seeing some of the great things the guys do - especially some of the shots they produce when they're on the run - is incredible.
Every year at the tournament, the elite are better than the season before. I suppose that's evolution.
The 2017 Nitto ATP Finals will be held at The O2 in London from 12-19 November