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Posted on: July 19th, 2006

Sampras happy to be back in the swing

- petepage

By Bernard Fernandez, Philadelphia Daily News

July 19, 2006

There is a scene in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" where the charismatic outlaws attempt to reform. The lifestyle change doesn't take.

"Well, we've gone straight," Butch tells Sundance. "What'll we do now?"

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Pete Sampras played the role of tennis' Butch Cassidy to Andre Agassi's Sundance Kid. Pete was the smart, steady one; Agassi the flamboyant gunslinger. Their rivalry, as was the case with Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in the 1970s, was a contrast of fire and ice.

Sampras retired from competitive tennis after winning his men's record 14th Grand Slam championship at the 2002 U.S. Open. Agassi has announced that he, too, will put away his racket after this year's U.S. Open.

The two old rivals haven't conversed in years, but if Sampras could speak to Agassi now, to pass along some of the wisdom he has accrued during his time away from the tour, he might tell him that the end doesn't come in a climactic shootout in Bolivia. It comes in places like Cabrini College in Radnor, where antsy competitors emerge to get their fix of what once was.

"Andre will play more golf than he's used to playing," Sampras, in his first season as a member of World Team Tennis' Newport Beach Breakers, said before last night's rain-delayed match against the Freedoms. "He'll try to find something, like we all try to find something when we retire.

"When you're 34 or 35, you still need to get up in the morning and have something to shoot for."

WTT commissioner Ilana Kloss said the match will resume tomorrow night at 7, and that Sampras would play. All tickets from last night's rainout will be honored.

Life on the worldwide tennis circuit - particularly for the top players - is like being on a luxurious chain gang. Guys like Sampras and Agassi travel from city to city, from continent to continent, enjoying the perks of their success but sometimes buckling under the stress of their gypsy existence and the need to constantly excel.

When Sampras defeated Agassi in four sets of that 2002 U.S. Open, the son of Greek immigrants was widely hailed as the greatest player of all time. He was only 31, a relative kid in most professions, but a creaky anachronism in his. More than anything, he was anxious to be granted his freedom from suitcases and computer ratings and the crushing weight of everyone else's expectations.

"The first year [of retirement], you enjoy it," he said. "You get to do the things you never got a chance to do. You have some fun, you play some golf.

"The second year, you wonder what's next. The third year, you get a little bored, a little restless.

"In this last year, I told myself that if I had some tennis opportunities, that I would play again. Ilana and Billie [Jean King, WTT co-founder] are friends of mine. I have a lot of respect for Billie and what she's done for the game."

Besides, one of the greatest players in tennis history - the always modest Sampras won't proclaim himself the best of all time - learned that his domination on the court didn't transfer so easily into domination on the golf course. Tiger Woods will probably get the same rude awakening if he takes up tennis upon his retirement.

"Retirement is fun, but you need something in your life that's fulfilling and challenging," Sampras said. "You need some focus and some structure in your life. Getting up and playing golf every day gets a little bit old after a while.

"You want to hit some [tennis] balls and get sore. I just decided to do something I was good at."

Not that Sampras, who turns 35 on Aug. 12, ever is likely to be quite as good as he was when he was ranked No. 1 for 6 consecutive years. He has won just six of 16 games in WTT play as he tries to scrape some of the rust off from his years away from tennis.

"I want to win. I want to win for my teammates," Sampras said. "I've gotten off to a bit of a rusty start, but I'm starting to get the hang of it again."

And with each cleanly hit winner that flies off his racket, Sampras - a classic American serve-and-volleyer who developed an imposing all-court game - is rediscovering how much fun tennis can be.

"My son, Christian, who's 3 , saw me play in Newport [Calif.]," Sampras said. "He lost interest after about 20 minutes.

"When I walked off he said, 'Daddy, you wouldn't talk to me.' I said, 'Well, son, I kind of had my hands full.'

"He's starting to get an idea of what's going on. But I do regret that he never got a chance to see me play Wimbledon or the U.S. Open."

Source: Philadelphia Daily News

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