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Sampras calling it quits

[August 22, 2003, Howard Fendrich, AP] Pete Sampras won his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open.

He won his last one there, too.

And he’ll return to Flushing Meadows to bid a formal farewell to the sport he dominated for so many years.

Sampras hasn’t played a match since winning the 2002 U.S. Open, but he never officially announced he was retiring. That will change during a news conference Monday, when Sampras also will be feted at Arthur Ashe Stadium on the opening night of year’s last major.

In keeping with Sampras’ muted public style, the news came via an e-mailed statement from his representatives Thursday.

“We certainly look forward to having Pete back at the Open,” USTA chief executive Arlen Kantarian said. “The ceremony will be a special night for Pete, for his family and for his fans.”

“He was just one of the most graceful players of all time, one of the most quietly competitive players of all time, one of the best pressure players of all time. The bigger the match was, the better he played. And he didn’t make a big fuss about things. He just made his name by winning. Everybody goes through peaks and valleys,” Roddick said. “Pete’s the only guy I’ve ever seen win everything for six years.”

Mark Miles, chief executive of the ATP, on Thursday hailed Sampras as a model athlete.

“His passion for excellence and dedication to success make him a model athlete that will be celebrated for generations to come,” Miles said. “Sampras may be retiring from professional tennis, but his legacy will carry on.”

Sampras forever will be associated with the All England Club, where his strong serve, crisp volleys and booming forehand made him nearly unbeatable on grass.

In July 2000, Sampras won a fourth straight Wimbledon to break Roy Emerson’s career mark of 12 major titles. After beating Patrick Rafter in the final, Sampras looked into the stands for his parents, who never before had witnessed one of his Slam wins.

Reflecting on his successful pursuit of Emerson’s record, which stood since 1967, Sampras said: “Time will tell if it will be broken. I think in the modern game, it could be difficult. It’s a lot of commitment, a lot of good playing at big times.”

He wouldn’t win another tournament of any sort for more than two years. The disappointments included early losses to journeymen at the French Open _ the lone major he never won _ and Wimbledon, and Sampras carried the drought into last year’s U.S. Open.

He was seeded just 17th, barely above .500 for the season.

And he put together what, in retrospect, was a perfect parting gift to himself and tennis fans.

The man he beat in the Open’s third round, 1997 finalist Greg Rusedski, called Sampras “a step and a half slow” _ but Sampras just kept winning. He knocked off twentysomethings Tommy Haas and Roddick while playing five matches in seven days to get to a fairy tale final against lifelong rival Andre Agassi.

In what it turns out will be Sampras’ last match, he pounded 33 aces to beat Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 and, at 31, become the tournament’s oldest winner since 1970.

At the postmatch news conference, Sampras alternated between sounding as though he were ready to hang up his racket and ready to get back to work.

“I’m going to have to weigh it up in the next couple months to see where I’m at. To beat a rival like Andre, in a storybook ending, it might be nice to stop,” Sampras said at the time.

“But,” he added, “I still want to compete, you know? I still love to play.”

He has other interests, too, including fatherhood. Sampras’ wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, had their first child in November.

So Sampras exits with perfect bookends: He beat Agassi in the 1990 U.S. Open final to become, at barely 19, the tournament’s youngest champion.

“Pete Sampras’ retirement is a time for us to honor the outstanding career of a champion who inspired us to be perfectionists,” ATP chief executive Mark Miles said. “His passion for excellence and dedication to success make him a model athlete that will be celebrated for generations to come.”

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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