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Samprasfanz » Archives 2003 to 2011 » Sampras goes missing from the action [Mar 16, 2003]

Sampras goes missing from the action [Mar 16, 2003]

States of Play
Art Spander

Marat Safin, who was about to take his leave, unrequested, had been asked why Pete Sampras wasn’t even taking his chances. How come Sampras had turned into the invisible man when everyone expected him to be turning up everywhere for a last leg of a wonderful journey?’I don’t know what’s in his brain,” said Safin about Sampras, which hardly made Marat much different from the rest of us. ‘I mean, he’s doing whatever he wants. Probably he doesn’t want to play for the moment.”

The moment? Sampras’ absence has been not momentary but monthly. He’s been seen at Los Angeles Lakers games, at the opening of a tennis camp, but not facing an opponent. Sampras has competed in no tennis tournaments in 2003 but has pulled out of four, including the Siebel Open last month at San Jose and the Pacific Life Open, which has been sweating its way through a second week in the California desert down the road from Palm Springs.

In Britain, honoured citizens have initials bestowed following their names, such as MBE, Member of the British Empire, or KG, Knight Order of the Garter. Taking this to another level, we find Pete Sampras, WD, as in withdrawal.

What Sampras chooses to do, or not to do, is certainly his own bus iness, but in effect he also made it our business when in December, after allowing time for an apparent UN inspection of his game, Pete told the Los Angeles Times exclusively he was going to play this year.

After his remarkable victory in the US Open in September, ending a stretch of 26 months in which he won not a single tournament, Major or minor, the question was what Sampras might do next. At 31, a new father, one of Pete’s possibilities was retirement, which would have been quite accepta

No better time for an athlete to depart than when he’s on top, as we’ve become aware from the multitude of athletes who wait until they’ve sunk to the bottom.

One of Pete’s longtime rivals, Michael Chang, announced this would be his final year, but it comes a year, or two years, or three years too late. Chang is now merely a foil for the top players, so has no chance to even get past the first round, as happened at San Jose and as happened on Tuesday at Indian Wells, where he lost 6-0, 6-4, to Carlos Moya of Spain, the No 5 seed.

Sampras, however, decided to take the victory lap to which, with an all-time record 14 Grand Slam victories, he was entitled. After the Open win it didn’t matter how he fared, just that he played. If he wanted to play. Which it seemed he did. But now? What’s going on? Why did he say at the end of last year, ‘I’ll start in February in San Jose, and then go right from there to tournaments in Scottsdale, Indian Wells and Miami. I’m just going to see how it goes, just kind of ride the wave and see how far it takes me.”

It’s taken him nowhere. He continues to avoid the competition he told us he wanted. He has not played a competitive match since beating Andre Agassi in the Open final. And you have to wonder if he won’t play another.

‘The talk of not playing seemed a little scary,” Sampras said about the decision to return, ‘and I’ve kept playing enough around [Los Angeles] since the Open to know that I still enjoy playing.

‘And now that I’ve decided that I’m announcing it and letting people know, it feels good. I’m relieved. And the goals are the same as they were 10 years ago, to win Majors.”

It sounded so noble, but three months later the words have come back to haunt him. The Pacific Life is, after the four Grand Slam tournaments and Miami, actually Key Biscayne, the sixth-rated event on the globe. But Pete isn’t here.

‘I don’t think he knows what he wants to do,” said Charles Pasarell, tournament director at Indian Wells and a former star player.

‘He’s unable t
o make up his mind. I’m disappointed he didn’t play here, but I’m not angry. Pete has done so much for us in this tournament and so much for tennis, he can do what he wants.”

Which, Pasarell, mused, might be delaying any competition until Wimbledon, the end of June, or roughly nine months after Sampras last faced an opponent when it meant something. ‘He still probably can beat almost anybody on grass,” said Pasarell. Or could. Sampras left Wimbledon after the second round in 2002, beaten by a wild card entry, his earliest defeat in the tournament since 1991.

And even given his history at Wimbledon, wouldn’t he require some sort of warm-up?

When he was losing matches the last two years, Sampras admitted he also lost confidence. You mean he won’t question himself if he ever gets in a tournament again?

The question the rest of us must ask is why enter a tournament if all you’re going to do is withdraw?

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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