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We took Sampras for granted

[May 23, 2003 Ray McNulty] It all went by too quickly, which is often the case when true greatness passes through.

Has it really been 13 summers since a scrawny, wide-eyed 19-year-old named Pete Sampras walked into the jazzy confines of Louis Armstrong Stadium and walked out as the youngest U.S. Open champion in tennis history?

Wasn’t it just yesterday that Sampras was bouncing Boris Becker at Wimbledon, out-slugging Todd Martin in Australia and running Michael Chang all over Flushing Meadows?

How can the greatest tennis player of his generation — the man who won an unprecedented 14 Grand Slam singles titles and held the No. 1 ranking for an unmatched 286 weeks — be done already?

It feels strange, knowing we’ll never again see that overpowering serve, or those stinging, seeing-eye volleys, or the most complete game since Rod Laver was beating everyone and becoming Sampras’ Australian idol.

It’s sad, really, in a selfish, nostalgic sort of way.

It’s even sadder that we took him for granted, as if he’d be there forever, showing us the way the game should be played, showing everyone there’s still a place for class, grace and sportsmanship, even in today’s look-at-me sports world.

Truth be told, it always bothered me when people complained that Sampras didn’t have enough personality to carry the game. It bothered me that people wanted him to be Andre Agassi.

Sampras wasn’t a showman who played to the crowd. He was a champion who played for the crowd . . . and history . . . and himself.

He played with skill, with purpose and with heart, giving us all he had to give, somehow finding a way to play his best when it mattered most.

He won seven times at Wimbledon, five times at the U.S. Open and twice in Australia. He lost only four of his 18 Grand Slam finals.

And now, apparently, he has nothing left to give.

Eight months after rising from the tennis dead — he went 33 tournaments without a title before putting together a memorable-but-improbable run to one last U.S. Open championship — Sampras can’t seem to find his way back to the court.

At age 31, the competitive fire that burned so bright for so long has burned out.

Sampras hasn’t formally announced his retirement, but he hasn’t played since the U.S. Open. It was especially telling that he has decided not to play next month at Wimbledon, where the fast, grass surface would give him his best chance to win.

If he doesn’t play there, he won’t play anywhere.

And he shouldn’t.

Sampras already wrote a better ending that anyone could’ve imagined last September. Not only did he come out of nowhere, taunted by the whispers that he was no longer a serious threat to win major championships, but he also beat his long-time rival on America’s
grandest tennis stage.

You couldn’t ask for a more-fitting finish: Sampras won his first and last Grand Slam titles at the U.S. Open, and both times he beat Agassi in the final.

So why risk ruining it?

Sampras seems perfectly content with being a husband and father. And, more important, he couldn’t be satisfied with being nothing more than a tough out.

No real champion could.

So there’s no good reason to come back. Except this:

We miss him, which is often the case when true greatness passes through.

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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