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Farewell Is Both Touching and Tearful

[August 26, 2003 HARVEY ARATON] It was veiled panic that Agustin Moreno believed he detected in the teenager across the net out on Court 18 of the National Tennis Center. It was fear.

It was Pete Sampras, down a break in the third set after losing the second, ready to quit, or so it seemed.

“It was weird, he started hitting everything as hard as he could but with no emotion, nothing in his eyes,” Moreno said. “Every shot, every second serve, as hard as the first. To be honest, I thought he was tanking.”

How could Moreno, a Mexican, only 22 at the time, have then known that Sampras’s poker face was nearly as impossible to read as his scorching serve? This was 1989, the first round of the United States Open, the unknown Sampras shifting gears with a guile that was easily obscured by his outrageous athletic gifts.

“He had that ability to decide he was going for it, no matter what,” Moreno said. “And he acted like he did it all the time, like it was normal.”

Back at the National Tennis Center as a coach yesterday, Moreno could look back at 1989 with a measure of historic distinction, the first United States Open opponent vanquished by the man who last night put a ceremonial period on the greatest Grand Slam career of all.

Sampras followed his victory over Moreno by beating the defending champion, Mats Wilander, and returned in 1990, at 19, to win it all. The first of a record 14 Grand Slam titles was taken in New York, as was the last, at Andre Agassi’s expense last year. Now those matches are the hard-court covers to the seminal work on the endangered art of serve-and-volley championship tennis.

“It’s a process, retirement,” Sampras said before his touching and tearful goodbye last night. Wimbledon and his 2002 second-round defeat to a qualifier, George Bastl, had gnawed at him, leading to three days of tepid training last spring that convinced him, finally, that tennis “wasn’t in my blood anymore.”

So the Open became his Jordan-in-Utah ending, no flip-flops. On this subject, he sounded more believable than so many others because, as he said, “I know in my heart it’s time.” Sampras, always grounded, hung around through two brutal years because he believed, when no one else did, that he had one more Grand Slam left in his racket, and he was right.

“My biggest challenge was last year,” he said.

Here at the Open, Sampras was seldom the sure thing he was at Wimbledon, a grand stage, where he won seven of eight during one stretch, much of the time making it easy. He was a machine, it was said. He was boring. The totality of his domination was somehow a drain on self-flagellating tennis, contrary to what Tiger Woods would achieve for golf.

It was all a blatant misread of the man, as far off the mark as Moreno had been in 1989. It wasn’t Sampras’s fault that graying American baby boomers were tiring of tennis as their recreational sport of choice. It wasn’t his responsibility to produce an opponent who might have chased him throughout the 1990’s the way Agassi finally would after his own career rebirth.

Even at 18, on Court 18 against Agustin Moreno, Sampras was no raging child, no McEnroe. He took the high road and avoided all distractions, all exits, until last summer, at the ripe old age of 31.

“It’s very difficult to maintain that level of the game, to go out week after week, one tournament to another,” Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia said. “He’s been able to do that, and it shows he was the best.”

Still, there were critics aplenty, especially near the end. It was Kafelnikov who added a player’s voice to the chorus calling for Sampras to give up the chase after he lost a Davis Cup five-setter on grass (of all surfaces) to Alex Corretja (of all opponents).

“Absolutely,” Kafelnikov said yesterday, without disavowing a word, to his credit. “I never thought he would have been able to do what he did here.”

Then again, this was New York, not London. This was where Sampras developed and defined himself as much more than the serve-and-volley metronome.

Boring? When he won in 1990, he finished up by defeating, in order, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and the emerging Agassi.

Boring? Here at the Open he struggled with his early success, questioning his own ambition after losing to another contemporary, Jim Courier in the 1991 quarters. “Do you believe that garbage?” Jimmy Connors, who had been listening nearby, said. The next year, Sampras lost the final to Stefan Edberg and last night pinpointed that match as a career threshold, the defeat that “made me obsessed with being the best.”

Boring? Sampras once dismantled Michael Chang, then in his prime as the game’s premier plugger, in three startling sets of nighttime shot-making that left the men’s locker room abuzz well into the next afternoon.

Boring? It was here in 1996, on the old Louis Armstrong Stadium court, that Sampras choreographed his most visually striking performance, staggering and vomiting his way to the quarterfinal victory in a fifth-set tie breaker over Corretja, the Spaniard, who better than anyone can understand Sampras’s complex competitive nature, his ability to play greater than the sum of his energy depleted parts.

“He’s a player who in my opinion is unmatchable,” Corretja said. “I’m happy for him because he found what he wanted at one stage and now it appears he has found what he wanted at the next stage.”

It took Sampras a year to be sure, but he returned to Arthur Ashe Stadium last night, with his wife and young son, whom he carried around the court as he took a walking farewell lap. Boris Becker came from Germany to send him off. McEnroe turned on the charm. You always got the feeling that Sampras was the close friend of few yet aloof as he seemed, he often connected to one drama or another. A coach dying. Another in jail. His body rebelling in a variety of daunting ways.

“I feel like as I started losing, I started getting more fans,” he said.

Better late than never, the tough critics in the news media applauded him last night after his news conference and before Sampras would walk onto the court and start to cry. There was no point in posing anymore. What we saw last night was what he was.

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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