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Posted on: July 08th, 2006

In His Return to Tennis, Sampras Puts the Focus on Grinning

- petepage

By KAREN CROUSE, New York Times

LOS ANGELES, July 7 The tennis player who once likened himself to the reclusive Howard Hughes, who accumulated major titles the way Hughes did phobias, was practicing in plain view, wearing a smile as his disguise.

"Let's see if I can still do this," Pete Sampras said, laughing. After walking to the baseline of the Bel-Air Country Club court Wednesday morning, Sampras uncorked a serve that blew past his hitting partner, Kris Kwinta, like a Porsche in high gear. Earlier, Sampras hit a textbook running forehand that froze Kwinta, then exclaimed, "That's how I built my house!"

Sampras's playful side was the doubles alley of his personality during his 15-year professional career. He tried not to go there, willfully working around it when he was accumulating a record 14 major singles crowns and maintaining a white-knuckle grip on the world No. 1 ranking.

Four years after his last match on Tour, a four-set victory against Andre Agassi in the 2002 United States Open final, Sampras is returning to the competitive arena this month for a limited engagement with the Newport Beach Breakers of World Team Tennis. He is coming back for a handful of reasons, not the least of which is that he wants his alter ego, Smiley, to take a bow.

"It's maybe my way of giving back a little to the sport, doing a lot more interaction with the fans, with the media, with sponsors," Sampras said.

There is a tennis court in the backyard of the Beverly Hills home where he lives with his wife, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, and sons Christian, 3, and Ryan, 11 months. But Sampras wanted to get out of the house, mingle with the public after a self-exile that, in truth, began long before he announced his retirement in June 2003.

"I always felt uncomfortable on the pedestal," Sampras said. That was why he spent a lot of energy over the years trying to avoid those who might exalt him, why he was forever running around praise the way he might a ball to his backhand side.

His monastic approach won him 64 singles titles but not many casual sports fans. It became a vicious cycle: Sampras bottling his feelings in order to win and the public holding back its affection because he was not effervescent enough.

"As I got older, as I started to dominate, I think I maybe could have lightened up a little bit," Sampras said. In his defense, he added, "People talked about me being robotic and mechanical, but the majors is when most people would see me and that's when I was at my most focused."

World Team Tennis, with its team format and its panoramic focus on entertainment and excellence, is the perfect stage for the 34-year-old Sampras to let down his wall. The seed to play in the summer league was planted in Sampras's mind years ago by Billie Jean King, a W.T.T. founder and somebody close enough to Sampras to be aware of Smiley's existence.

When Sampras was a child, everybody at the Jack Kramer Club courts in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., knew Smiley. That was the nickname bestowed upon Sampras by the older kids because he wandered around the courts in a constant state of good cheer. As his game matured, he seemed to grow out of the nickname. In his late teens, after deciding that being in the top 10 in the world was not good enough, that only No. 1 would do, Sampras embraced a new stage presence. He became tennis's Buster Keaton, the Great Stone Face.

"When I was competing and out there on the court, it wasn't a time for fun and games," said Sampras, who won his first major title, at the United States Open, in 1990 at the age of 19. "I was very businesslike. That was my deal."

Between 1993 and 1998, when Sampras was stringing together his record six-year season-ending run at No. 1, King tried to recruit him every summer to join her band of merry players. She did not let his polite rejections deter her. She recognized years before Sampras did that he needed World Team Tennis perhaps even more than World Team Tennis needed him.

"He's funny as heck," King said in a recent telephone interview, "and I always thought it was a shame that the public didn't see that side of him. He's just a great guy, but you have to take time with him. You can't know him right away."

Sampras would never break character to show it he was far too disciplined in his craft but it did bother him that his recipe for excellence was so unappetizing to the general public. "I never understood it," he said.

He remembered John Newcombe once saying that Sampras needed to "lighten up" and thinking, "If I did, I'd lose my edge."

In 1999, Sampras was paired with the golf legend Arnold Palmer in a pro-am at the Bob Hope Classic in Palm Springs, Calif. As he watched the charismatic Palmer turn the gallery ropes into a receiving line that ran from the first hole to the last, Sampras grew wistful. "I wish I could do that," he remembered thinking as Palmer shook one fan's hand after another. "I wish I could smile and look people in the eye."

The warmth Palmer invested in his fans was returned with interest, which did not go unnoticed by Sampras. After years in the public eye, Sampras saw the light while in Palmer's shadow. "All fans want to do is have a connection with the athlete," he said.

All Sampras wanted in retirement was a structure to his days. He was playing golf five or six times a week and he had his weekly poker night, but Sampras, bless his blue-collar soul, believed those things should be a reward for a day fruitfully spent, not a reason to get out of bed.

King's annual invitation gave him a reason to resurrect his practice routine. He could have his structure and reach out to the fans, too.

During Wednesday's 80-minute practice, Sampras's strokes were sharp, but his face was soft.

His hitting partner, Kwinta, a former U.C.L.A. player from Poland, clearly wanted to impress Sampras, who was his idol growing up. Every time he pushed a backhand into the net, Kwinta upbraided himself. "This game," Sampras said at one point, his words landing as gently as drop shots, "say nothing negative."

Kwinta nodded earnestly. His next few strokes were winners. Later, Kwinta said it was a privilege to hit with Sampras. "I always wanted to be calm like Pete on the court," he added.

Toward the end of their hitting session, a BMW sedan pulled up to the parking lot and a gangly teenage boy emerged from the driver's seat. He had a noon lesson on the far court, and rather than walk alongside the fence on the outside to get to the waiting pro, he waited until Sampras and Kwinta were finished with a point, then loped across their court.

He seemed oblivious that he was showing poor etiquette, never mind putting himself squarely in the potential path of one of Sampras's 120-mile-an-hour serves. Perhaps he simply did not recognize the player waiting to serve, the one with the big forehand and the broad smile.

Source: New York Times

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