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His Play Time is Over

Sampras retired on top after his record 14th Slam title and has no intention of coming back — even though he can still play, as the writer learns firsthand.

By: Kurt Streeter, LA Times

July 20, 2008

The great champion — young enough to play the grandest stage again, wise enough not to try — lined up that classic forehand of his, turned his shoulders and let loose.


I sent back a meager forehand and glanced up. Sure enough, Pete Sampras, stealthy and smooth, had already intercepted my reply with one of his own: a frozen-rope backhand volley winner that nearly tore out a chunk of the asphalt court.

“Always loved that shot!” he said, grinning broadly.

In terms of tennis, we don’t exist in the same universe. Period. But Sampras was kind enough to throw me a bone. “A writer who can play?” he said, laughing as he watched me run side-to-side like a mouse being tortured by a wily cat. “Never seen that before.”

It’s good to see Pete Sampras smile and laugh.

Good to see, six years removed from leaving us after a final U.S. Open win, the Palos Verdes-bred champion emerge from the protective shell he constructed during his long years atop the tennis world.

The 36-year-old Sampras — still bushy haired and fit, living now within the gated grounds at Sherwood Country Club with his actress wife and two kids — admits to finally being comfortable with reminiscing about his past. Comfortable, more than ever, in his own skin. Thus we have an autobiography, the recently published “A Champion’s Mind: Lessons From a Life in Tennis,” which won’t win any literary prizes but does offer an inside view of the sacrifice and struggle it took to be one of the greats.

Moreover, after several years shying away from tennis, he has returned to the court — albeit in a much less stressful way. You’ll find him playing a few seniors events, that old, hangman’s look of his replaced by a lighter one. Earlier this year, he even played Roger Federer in a series of four exhibitions. These were sometimes serious, sometimes casual affairs. But when Sampras won the third match and barely lost the last one, played in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, it was quite clear he has still got some magic left.

I learned that for myself a few days ago at the Sherwood Club in Thousand Oaks. Sampras was kind enough to host me, a onetime wannabe tennis pro who never amounted to much, for a little practice and a chat.

Trust me, the dude can still play. I’m still working my body out of the pretzel it formed trying to draw a bead on his game. That’s what happens when a 14-time Grand Slam winner plays a guy who pocketed $700 for twice winning the Seattle City Open.

“I miss the competition,” he said, sitting courtside after our hit. “But even more I miss the arena.”

Especially now, during summer, when the U.S. Open and Wimbledon are played.

“You know, I can still draw on the emotion of that court,” speaking of Centre Court at Wimbledon. “The 2 o’clock final. The anticipation. The way it feels. . . . It’d be great to get on that court one more time.”

Especially after watching this year’s epic men’s final. That Sunday, Sampras actually slept in, missing the first two sets. When he woke, he was shocked to find Federer far behind. He didn’t pry himself from the TV until the last ball was struck.

I told him that I’d watched that match as so many other viewers had, screaming hapless exhortations to both players and checking my pulse to make sure I wasn’t about to keel over.

His reaction to the match had been a bit more reserved: “Well, when you’ve won Wimbledon, you don’t find yourself jumping up and down and you’re maybe not quite so emotional.”

Makes sense, particularly from a guy known for having antifreeze in the veins. But what was he thinking?

“The whole time I was thinking what I would do against Roger in this instance, or what I would do against Nadal.”

And that would be?

“Getting really aggressive. . . . That court? You need to cut up that court with a nice serve and volley,” he said. “You can’t give those guys time to just sit back and whale all day.”

As he spoke, his voice livened and his eyes tightened, signs the old juices are still there. In 2007, he’d already told me, Wimbledon had called and tried to coax the seven-time champion to return and play. I posed a question: After those Federer exhibitions, when it looked as if he was making the current No. 1 mighty uncomfortable with those darting serves and hammer volleys, was he thinking comeback, if only for the All England?

He replied: “I admit, I had a moment of curiosity. Some time when I was wondering how I might do at Wimbledon. But I’m just no longer willing to put in the work. . . . Right now life is about family, about my wife and time with our kids. I gave it all I had. That’s good enough for me.”

A sentiment with perfect timing. Remember, this was a week when we saw much hemming and hawing over Brett Favre and his comeback hopes, a week that brought back memories of Unitas, Mays, Ali and other greats who held on too long.

Leave it to Pete Sampras to be not only a great champion, but a levelheaded one. He’s still good enough to do some damage on the pro tennis tour but mature enough not to try.

Perhaps Mr. Favre should take some notes.

Click on pictures to view larger image.

Source: LA Times

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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