New York: Tributes and tears filled Arthur Ashe Stadium as Pete Sampras took an emotional final bow at the US Open on Monday.
Movie stars, politicians, past champions, Sampras’ family and friends along with thousands of ordinary tennis fans filled Centre Court to honour the man widely considered the best to swing a racket.
Bringing his career full-circle, Sampras walked on court to say goodbye on the same stage where he captured the first and last of his record 14 Grand Slam titles, with a spine-tingling win over rival and friend Andre Agassi last year.
“I think, what an unbelievable ending last year, after everyone had written him off for probably two years, he is just so tough and just proved everyone wrong,” said former US Open women’s champion Lindsay Davenport.
“I think he’s been the greatest men’s tennis player in the last, I don’t know how many years. His record’s been amazing.
For the fans in the upper reaches of the cavernous bowl, the tributes came mostly in the form of home-made, heartfelt messages scribbled on bed sheets and cardboard; “Pete thanks for the Memories”, “Pete Number One Forever”.
A prolonged standing ovation left a fidgeting Sampras, his wife and his fans in tears.
“Pete’s accomplishments speak for themselves,” said Agassi. “I can confidently say, beyond a shadow of any doubt, Pete is the best I ever played. There is no question that I ever played anyone better.”
Six-time Grand Slam winner Boris Becker, four-time winner Jim Courier, four-time US Open champion John McEnroe and others who stood across the net from Sampras offered a different perspective on the American’s dominance and contribution to the sport.
“I think his legacy will be how much he won, how many Grand Slams he won,” said fellow American Todd Martin. “As a player, I think his legacy will be his serve and his athleticism.
“I think, Pete knew when to play, when to play better, how to play better, more than anybody I’ve ever met. I think that’s a skill and a talent that was too often veiled by the accolades that he got for his physical talents.
“But you know, at four-all deuce, he knew what to do and he did it time after time after time.