A blast from the past

Updated: 2011-10-01 10:21

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

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Retired Pete Sampras and Marat Safin face off in exhibition in Beijing.

Two tennis legends coming out of retirement for a serious rematch? Must be some kind of crazy video game. Fourteen-time Grand Slam winner Pete Sampras lost a three-set exhibition to former world No 1 Marat Safin on Friday night 6-3, 6-4, to unveil the China Open's brand new venue - the national tennis stadium.

A blast from the past

Pete Sampras reacts after winning a point while playing against Marat Safin of Russia in an exhibition to unveil the China Open's brand new venue on Friday in Beijing. Safin won the match 6-3, 6-4. Cui Meng / China Daily 

Leading totally different lives after retirement, both said they were thrilled to reunite and put on a show in front of 15,000 boisterous fans on a Grand Slam-level center court.

"I like Marat - he is a friend of mine. It is a long trip (to come here to play). But playing with Marat is a bonus to me, because of our history and our respect for each other," said Sampras, who quit professional tennis in 2003 after winning 14 major titles, including a record seven at Wimbledon.

"I am really excited to come back here. I had wonderful memories here and it's great fun to play with Pete again," said Safin, the event's 2004 champion.

The Russian, who enjoys a solid fan base in China, experienced an emotional farewell ceremony at the China Open in 2009 before formally announcing his retirement at the Paris Masters one month later.

Although both Sampras' iconic net volley and Safin's big serve are less powerful than in their heydays, the clash recalled their classic battle at the 2000 US Open final.

In the epic final, the "czar" stunned the American favorite in straight sets to claim his first Grand Slam crown before grabbing his second and final major title at the Australian Open in 2005.

"There is nothing I could do that day, he played so well, his serve was so huge. He deserves that victory," said Sampras, who delivered five championships of his own at Flushing Meadows.

"We are glad to return to the focus. Don't forget how powerful he (Safin) truly is. We are both happy to be here," Sampras said.

Safin returned the compliment.

"I am really excited. Pete is like an old pappy now, but still competitive on the court," he said.

Remaining in good shape after leaving tennis for eight years, Sampras, who still holds a record 286-week reign as world No 1, shook off the "possible pressure" to maintain his dominance.

"I never had (an idea that I would be) on top for so long," he said.

"It just happens. It wasn't anything I planed as a kid. It takes a lot work to stay on there. You are a marked man, (so many people are) looking forward to taking you down.

"I am proud of that, I am more proud of winning so many majors through the years - I grew up with so many big names."

Sampras' rivalry with Andre Agassi headlined a golden era for tennis in the 1990.

Sampras, 40, stays busy as a full-time father to his two sons, honing his swing on the golf course and ocassionally appearing at exhibition matches.

Meanwhile, Safin serves as the vice president of the Russian Tennis Fderation and a member of the Russian Olympic Committee to promote the cultivation of the sport's youth.

"It's good for me to do something related to sports. It's a big relief for me. My life changed completely, new goals, new achievement and new stage. Tennis will be always here, but I will also try something else," said the 31-year-old.