Pistol Pete aims to stay top

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 March, 1998, 12:00am

John McEnroe and Boris Becker, at various points in their careers, have been described as the 'best player ever'.

But, in the past 12 months, both of these tennis legends have paid homage to Pete Sampras, the four-time Wimbledon champion who is aiming for his third Salem Open title at Victoria Park.

McEnroe, while commentating on a Sampras match last year for television, was gasping after one of Sampras' brilliant rallies and told his colleagues in the booth and viewers: 'I think we may be watching the greatest player ever.' Becker's comments were less impromptu but equally forthright. 'I've been fortunate to play with some of the best players: Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Edberg . . . but Pete is the best as far as I'm concerned. There is not a shot that he doesn't have.' All great players, though, are human. Sampras has shown, by his performances so far this year, that he, too, is fallible.

After ending last year as world number one for the fifth consecutive year, matching the record of countryman Jimmy Connors, Sampras goes into the Salem Open with his top-ranked status under siege for the first time since January 1997.

His early departure from this year's Australia Open, the first Grand Slam of the season, and indifferent performances in recent tournaments has seen Czech Petr Korda emerge as a major threat to Sampras' number one ranking.

In fact, if Korda had not been defeated in the quarter-finals of the recent Champions' Cup in Indian Wells, Sampras would have been usurped as the top player on the Association of Tennis Professionals computer rankings.

However, like fellow competitor Michael Chang, Sampras may look to the Salem Open to rekindle his form and strengthen his claims for a record sixth straight year as the world's number one player.

Victoria Park has, in fact, been an excellent hunting ground for Sampras and was the stage of his first tournament as world number one. His relationship with the Salem Open goes back to 1990 when the tournament was launched.

At the time, he was ranked 19th in the world and was the top seed. However, a few weeks before the event, he was forced to withdraw injured but vowed to one day fulfil his ambition to win in Hong Kong.

In 1993, he defeated his predecessor, Jim Courier, in three sets in one of the best finals Hong Kong has seen.

After two years of domination by Chang, Sampras returned in 1996, beating Chang in the final to win his second Hong Kong title.

He had hoped to make it three last year but an injury forced him to withdraw just days before the tournament.