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Sampras to play on over-30 tour

January 29, 2007

Pete Sampras will play tournament tennis for the first time since 2002, competing on a tour for players over 30, The Associated Press has learned.

Sampras’ Outback Champions Series debut, which will come May 2-6 at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, is to be announced formally Tuesday. The 35-year-old Sampras will appear in at least one other event on the tour in 2007.

“This is kind of my first dive into the waters, so to speak, to see how I feel and play a match I really want to win,” Sampras, owner of a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, said in a telephone interview with the AP.

“I still love the sport — I practice two, three times a week — but I don’t miss the grind. This is a time to catch up with old competitors, old friends, and see if I still have a few things left in the bag,” he said.

It’s the latest step in a gradual return to a sport Sampras dominated for the better part of a decade, then pretty much disappeared from after winning his last match, against Andre Agassi in the U.S. Open final in September 2002.

He didn’t announce his retirement until a year later, then never really re-emerged until playing exhibitions and World Team Tennis in 2006. But those didn’t get his competitive juices flowing the way he expects the senior events will.

“The stakes are a little bit higher playing in a tournament and against some former greats,” Sampras said. “There’s a sense of satisfaction in that. Not like it used to be, but you want to win and play well.”

John McEnroe and series co-founder Jim Courier also will be in the eight-man field in Boston, where there will be $142,000 in prize money. Michael Chang, Goran Ivanisevic and Mats Wilander are other major champions who have participated in the Outback Champions Series, which is entering its second full season. To qualify, a player must have reached a Grand Slam singles final, been ranked in the top five, or played singles on a Davis Cup championship team.

Landing Sampras is a coup for Courier, who began discussing the series with his former Davis Cup teammate more than a year ago.

“Pete’s got a great connection with tennis fans in this country. People will enjoy seeing Pete really lace it up and go for it with his ‘A’ game,” Courier said. “Exhibitions are all fine and well and they definitely have their place. Tournament tennis is different. The competitive aspect will make it exciting for everybody, including Pete.”

Sampras fleetingly considered making a comeback to elite tennis, perhaps for a final appearance at Wimbledon (his last match there, a second-round loss to 145th-ranked George Bastl in 2002, was “as low as I’ve been on a tennis court,” Sampras said).

He made it clear, though, that won’t happen.

“It’s crossed my mind when I watch Wimbledon. I miss it. I kind of wonder what I would do today there, especially with the game changing and everyone staying back on the grass there. I kind of lick my chops,” Sampras said. “But I won’t play for one tournament, and I won’t play, period. It was something that just crossed my mind — that’s the competitive guy in me. But it’s not realistic for me to do it again.”

He also sees no reason to add to a legacy that includes seven titles at Wimbledon, five at the U.S. Open and two at the Australian Open, plus a record 286 weeks ranked No. 1. He’ll be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July.

“I just played to win. I didn’t play for the limelight. It always was about the titles. Some (come out of retirement) because they want the limelight or they want the attention or they’re bored or they have something left to prove to themselves,” Sampras said. “I don’t have anything left to prove to myself.”

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