LONDON (Reuters) - Scraping around the fringes of professional tennis, at tournaments in unglamorous locations, without umpires and ball boys and against players not old enough to remember his golden moment, George Bastl is determined for one last hurrah.
At 38, the tennis journeyman who beat seven-times Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras in the second round in 2002 - still one of the greatest shocks of all time in grand slams - is not yet ready to bow out.
When Wimbledon starts next week, the American-born Swiss will be taking the latest steps on a comeback trail - far from the All England Club’s manicured lush green lawns, champagne and strawberries and cream - that he hopes will lead him back to a tournament that made him famous for 15 minutes.
Due to a persistent knee injury that has robbed him of full fitness for the last three years, Bastl has fallen so far off the tennis radar that he now finds himself in the game’s backwaters, where the costs of travel outweigh the prize money on offer.
The barren years have not dampened his spirit.
“Age is not an issue for me,” a now healthy Bastl, without a ranking since 2011, told Reuters in an interview.
”Everyone has his own career path. I started later stage in my life. I turned pro at 24 after I did my studies in the U.S.
“It’s important to be in good physical shape and have the passion for the game. It’s very much there and stronger than before. I don’t look at what careers other players had.”
Bastl’s “new career”, as he puts it, is proving an eye-opener for a player who reached a career-high ranking of 71 in 2000.
“The tough times and injury made me also think differently about the game so I feel like a 16-year-old starting again,” he said.
In seven Futures events, the third and lowest tier of professional tennis, this year in Turkey, Bastl has yet to win a singles match in the main draw.
“I was not expecting anything easy,” he candidly admitted. “The competition is very eager and hungry.”
For his efforts, including doubles matches, he has accrued the princely sum of $1057, small change for a player with career earnings of $1.2 million.
”It’s a great challenge and an opportunity to still be able to play,“ he said. ”Of course, I have to start from the very bottom but that doesn’t scare me at all. It’s the only way I can come back.
“My aim is to be able to play for one or two years and get back to my best ranking and I still feel I can make some results on the circuit.”
Professional sport, be it tennis, boxing, or soccer, is littered with tales of ignominious and ill-fated comebacks by athletes long past their best.
After 10 years away from tennis, Bjorn Borg, one of the all-time greats, returned in 1991 using a wooden racket and failed to win a single match.
While their stories and talents differ, Bastl is aware that the odds are stacked against him.
“The bigger the challenge the bigger the satisfaction and personal reward. I‘m aware of that and if it was something I didn’t want to go through I wouldn’t consider it,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter who is across the other side of the net, you have to find a way to win and this challenge and competitiveness that drives me is what I want to pursue.”
For Bastl, his epic five-set win over the great Sampras came “in another life”.
Only in the main Wimbledon draw as a lucky loser, few gave Bastl a sniff against Sampras on the now defunct Court Two, once the notorious graveyard of seeds.
Bastl won the first two sets 6-3 6-2 before Sampras fought back to force a decider, only for the Swiss to refocus and pull off a sensational victory.
“You have to be a tennis historian or someone who follows tennis closely to come up with that match - for me it was a long time ago,” he said.
“I won one match - I didn’t win the tournament.”
Bastl bowed out tamely to Argentine David Nalbandian in the next round and three years later became Andy Murray’s first grand slam main draw victim. The Briton, then 18, won in straight sets in the first round at Wimbledon.
That was to be Bastl’s last appearance in the main draw of the grasscourt slam but he has not given up hope of returning.
“I always enjoyed coming to London during the months of June and July. Grass is my favorite surface. I’ll do everything so I can participate next year...”
As for Murray, who won his first grand slam at the U.S. Open last year, Bastl believes Britain’s long wait for a Wimbledon men’s singles champion from these shores will soon be over.
“He’s getting closer every year,” he said. “I‘m quite positive his time will come, definitely.”
Editing by Pritha Sarkar