Posted on: July 06th, 2006
A bit homesick, Sampras edges back into game- petepage
By Christine Brennan, USA Today
For three years, Pete Sampras didn't pick up a tennis racket. He retired cold turkey. Other than the occasional playful tap with his now-3-year-old son, he didn't hit a "serious ball" from the summer of 2003 until the spring of 2006. He considered himself done with tennis, throwing himself into retirement the way he once threw himself into the game, with all his heart.
"The first year of retirement, you really enjoy it, you have some fun," he said over the phone the other day. "The second year of retirement, you still have fun but you wonder what's next. The third year, it's like, 'OK, I'm ready to do something more than just playing poker once a week and playing golf and staying at home,' so I decided to play a little bit."
You hear the news that Pete Sampras is coming back to competitive tennis and your natural reaction in this week of all weeks, with U.S. tennis players going 0-for-Wimbledon, is to start humming the national anthem and wonder how Roger Federer will handle the sport's best-known gentleman-athlete.
But Sampras, now nearly 35, can't do anything about the current disarray in U.S. tennis, with Americans being shut out of the quarterfinals at Wimbledon for the first time since 1911. He's not coming back to save the American game. Someone else will have to do that.
No, his sport has come calling at a different, more laid-back, entertaining level - Billie Jean King's World TeamTennis - and, for this summer anyway, Sampras wants to try his hand at it, starting Monday in Newport Beach, Calif.
"Billie Jean and Ilana (Kloss, WTT commissioner and CEO) have been asking me for quite some time to play," he said. "I'm a big fan of Billie Jean's. I admire her not only for what she's done for ladies sports but for sports in general. She really, truly is an icon. My respect for her is a big reason why I decided to play a little bit, to get myself in shape and have some fun out there. This is not cutthroat tennis, but I take a lot of pride in still playing well and seeing if I have a little bit of what I used to have."
Sampras doesn't miss the limelight - he was never in tennis for that - but he does miss "the focus, the working hard," he said. "I miss Sundays at the majors, especially at Wimbledon, that nervous anxiety where you feel kind of sick before you go out there but you get through it and you win. It is tough to replace that. You miss it, you miss the structure, you miss being really good at something."
Sampras has been watching Wimbledon on television from his home in Southern California and, when Andre Agassi announced his retirement and subsequently lost, Sampras empathized with his peer and rival.
"I felt melancholy," he said. "I actually felt like it was the end of an era. This was the last one of a crew of Americans to retire. He's always been such a great player, and he brought a lot to the sport. He brought a lot to my career and to my tennis. He made me a better player. We both added to each other's legacy."
Where the men's game once belonged to Agassi or Sampras, it now clearly is dominated by Federer, who has a fan in Los Angeles.
"We have someone who is better than everyone else at the current time and I really think he will be dominant for years," Sampras said.
Every single time he watches Federer, Sampras finds himself thinking about how he would play him. "Our games would have matched up. I think I would have had my fair share of wins and he would have had his. It's funny how the generations in tennis have worked out. I just missed McEnroe; he was on his way out as I was coming up. We didn't quite hit at the right time. It's the same for Federer and me. We just missed."
What Sampras misses in his tennis life he is making up for with his family. When he was growing up, his father worked two jobs. "I never saw him much," he said.
It's different for Sampras, who with his wife, Bridgette, has two young sons. "I have the luxury of being around, taking them to the court, to the pool, having fun with them. They know their dad. Hopefully I can be some kind of hero to my kids."
He has videos of his Grand Slam triumphs to show the boys someday, but in the meantime, there's another reason to play WTT this season.
"I would have loved for my kids to see me play at Wimbledon, but it didn't quite happen," he said. "So I want them to come out and watch this summer. I want them to know their dad and know his life."
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