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Sampras backs Li

Grand Slam champion, Pete Sampras, encourages the Chinese to train at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy
Grand Slam champion, Pete Sampras, encourages the Chinese to train at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy

The 'king of swing' has no doubt Li Na can recapture her Grand Slam winning form. Despite a half-year slump after her epic French Open victory, China's first Slam champion, Li, still can peak again, said 14-time major winner Pete Sampras, who visited Li's hometown of Wuhan to play in the "Li Na and Friends" exhibition tournament over the weekend.

"For Li, it's a big deal to do it for her country. It takes time to settle down, to concentrate again on your game. It's crucial to figure out what you need and how to keep things simple. Li Na still plays very well in my opinion. And I am confident she will have more success soon," Sampras told China Daily in the players' lounge on Sunday.

The tennis great knows what he's talking about as he's been there and done that.

Two decades ago, at the packed Louis Armstrong Stadium, Flushing Meadow, 19-year-old Sampras became a household name after claiming his first Grand Slam title and becoming the US Open's youngest winner.

However, the sudden fame proved too much for the shy and somewhat immature teenager, whose career stalled for a while after that final win over life-long rival Andre Agassi as he struggled for motivation and with a new life in the spotlight.

"It's always a tough situation after you win your first major. It's quite different. The pressure from the media is huge. Everybody will face a valley after that," said Sampras. "I was 19 when it happened. I wasn't quite ready to deal with it at that time. But over the next couple of years I sort of figured it out. And so will Li, I believe."

Sampras emerged from his slump two years later, at Wimbledon in 1993, and went on to a record 286-week reign as the world No 1. He also claimed another six titles on the hallowed grass at the All England Club to become the "King of Wimbledon".

He attributes his success to his mentors, Tim Gullikson and Paul Annacone, and said a healthy relationship with the coach was the key to consistency. He believes Li's cooperation with her coach/husband, Jiang Shan, will work out.

"Having a coach being too close can be good or not good as well. But you have to make sure there is honesty," Sampras said. "Being a tennis player, it's great to have a coach like a friend. She (Li Na) seems very happy with her husband coaching her. She's doing quite well, there's probably no need for another (coach)."

At the grassroots level, exposure to advanced coaching plays a bigger role than at the top, Sampras stressed.

"I think you need good coaching and technique as well. Have kids that love the sport and have passion. But it's also important to have good coaches to really share the game and make it fun for the kids. By doing this, there may be another champion coming from China.

"The importing of western coaches is a smart move, as well as to send the kids to foreign academies. Get the young players together and compete with each other," said Sampras, who built up solid fundamentals at the renowned Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Looking at the current tennis landscape, Sampras said the game had turned into an extremely physically demanding sport. That has triggered complaints about an overloaded ATP schedule from stars like of Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal,

"Yeah, it's been like that. In my time, it was taxing already, let alone now. The Davis Cup, the ATP finals, those make for a longer year. When I got older I stopped playing some events to keep fresh for the majors. And I am sure that's what most of the top players are doing," said the 40-year-old father of two.

Meanwhile, the master of the classic serve-volley game admits today's tennis is being dominated by baseliners.

"There is not anyone there who can serve and volley as well as we did back in the day. The style of play has changed," said Sampras, who still displayed strong serves, smart footwork and decent volleys during the exhibition tournament.

Retiring in 2002 after his fifth US Open triumph, Sampras is enjoying family life, changing diapers and ferrying his children between home and school. He also works out for fun on basketball courts and golf courses.

"When you are the best player in the world you have to sacrifice a lot family stuff and personal relationships. To be the best at something, you have to give up something. So now, I spend most of my time with family and taking care of the kids. I am happy to be quite busy with that," said Sampras.

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