When Pete Sampras called it quits after winning his 14th Grand Slam singles title, he was certain that record would stand for quite some time.
Enter, Roger Federer.
"I really thought that 14 would be a number that would be very tough to tie and break," Sampras said Friday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, "but Roger just came along and dominated the game much more than I ever did."
Indeed, Sampras thinks Federer could wind up with as many as 18 or 19 major championships.
Federer owns 13 as of now, and he can equal Sampras' career total by beating nemesis Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final Sunday. Sampras gives Federer a slight edge in what he called "a pick-'em match" - "60-40 for Roger," Sampras said, "but Nadal's an animal. This guy, he won't quit."
As he has in the past, Sampras noted that if anyone was going to match or surpass him, it might as well be Federer, someone he considers a friend.
Still, Sampras does not plan to watch the whole final on TV.
He is, after all, at home in Los Angeles with his family, which includes two children, ages 3 and 6. Because of the time difference, play will begin at nearly 1 a.m. his time.
Too late for Dad to stay up to find out who wins.
"It's tricky. Maybe I'll try to catch the first set or so," Sampras said. "But with two kids waking up pretty early, I need to sort of get a little rest."
Perhaps that approach also is shaped by what Sampras considers
an inevitability to Federer's march toward the milestone. It was
sometime in 2006, as Federer's count reached eight Grand Slam titles, that Sampras began to realize he was going to be No. 2 on the list someday.
And he was OK with that.
"I don't sit and watch and hope he loses," Sampras said. "I just don't believe in rooting against people - I never did, even when I played. I believe it's bad karma."
He sent a text message after Federer won his semifinal in Australia this week and plans to make a congratulatory phone call if the Swiss star gets No. 14. But Pistol Pete isn't sure whether he would make the trek to his old stomping grounds at Wimbledon if Federer heads to the All England Club this summer with a chance to break the record.
Their lone head-to-head match on tour came at Wimbledon in 2001,
when Federer upset Sampras on Centre Court. Like many a fan,
Sampras wishes their careers could have overlapped more: "My game
would have matched up pretty well against Roger's," he said.
At age 27 - about 4½ years younger than Sampras was when he
collected his final Slam trophy at the 2002 U.S. Open - Federer could have several more Slam titles in him, Sampras said. While Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam titles stood for 32 years before
Sampras tied it in 1999, Sampras expects his time alone at the top to come to an end after less than a decade.
Sampras figures Federer could hold onto the record for longer, maybe forever, for two principal reasons: Federer will wind up with so many titles, and his talent, dedication and consistency are rare.
"Tennis is his No. 1 priority and he probably - like I did in my prime - lives, breathes tennis. That's the way you've got to be, and I think a lot of players aren't willing to sacrifice all that it takes to win multiple, multiple majors," Sampras said. "Roger is one who has the game and also is willing to prioritize his life to be the best player in the world and win 15, 17, 19 majors - whatever it's going to be. So it's incredible. I know what it takes. And there's not many of us around."
Ask Federer to rank who the best players in history are and he won't take the bait, saying something like what he said in Australia this week: "Probably never quite know who was the greatest of all-time in tennis, and I think that's quite intriguing as well."
Sampras, in contrast, was willing to take up the topic.
He tabs four men as the greatest, in no particular order: Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Federer and Sampras.
"Four guys that dominated their generations more than anyone else," said the 37-year-old Sampras, who will be playing Outback Champions Series matches in Boston next month and in Mexico in March.
That tour helps him keep in shape these days, and he insists has no regrets about not sticking around on the real tour longer than he did.
"Would I love for my record to stand? Absolutely," Sampras said. "But there's nothing I can do it about it today. Just sit back and watch(Federer) do it."
Or go to sleep at a reasonable hour, get up when the kids do, and wait for the afternoon replay on TV.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)