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Posted on: July 21st, 2006

Sampras still impresses

- petepage


(Original publication: July 20, 2006)

MAMARONECK Pete Sampras might not have looked very interested last night before his match. In his first year playing World TeamTennis, he didn't even have a matching Newport Breakers uniform T-shirt. He even yawned just before the deciding point of the women's singles event that preceded him.

But on the court, Sampras showed the near-capacity Sportimes crowd at Harbor Island Stadium in Mamaroneck glimpses of his old self. The loopy backhand, the skill at the net and that patented Sampras serve.

The Sportimes beat the Breakers 21-10, but most in the crowd rooted for Sampras. The 34-year-old beat young Alex Bogomolov Jr. 5-1 in men's singles in 13 minutes. Sampras still has the ability to intimidate as Bogomolov uncharacteristically double-faulted on his first serve.

Sampras loosened up during mixed doubles, and played to the crowd after leaping to smash the ball ... into the net. The crowd grinned along with him.

The match almost didn't happen. Sportimes owner Claude Okin said people worked all day to clear the court of tree limbs and debris after Tuesday night's storm. But by match time it was business as usual, and Martina Hingis was in the stands to watch her team even though she wasn't scheduled to play.

Hingis will be the featured player in the last match of the season tomorrow night at 7:30.

Sampras said it felt strange to be back in New York. The last time he walked into his traditional room at the Trump International in Manhattan, he had just taken part in a moving retirement ceremony to commemorate his 14th and final Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open a year earlier.

It was 2003, and Sampras took a well-earned standing ovation on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court with his young son, Christian, facing New York as a champion for the last time. Although this year he is traveling to the East Coast alone, he couldn't help but be reminded of all the times he had been there to play.

"You just walk into the room, it brings back that nervous feeling you had before the matches," Sampras said. "It's eerie no question."

Life is very different for him now. Unlike his own father, who worked two jobs to support the family, Sampras can spend a wealth of time with his two young sons and wife Bridgette Wilson.

But after having spent his career in search of titles and rankings, Sampras found that leisure didn't fit him well. It's something Sportimes coach Chuck Adams could see from their Tuesday night basketball game in Beverly Hills, where they both live.

"For a couple of years you're glad to be in one place," said Adams, who was as high as No. 33. "And then after a few years of being in one place you want to get out again."

Early this year Sampras played an exhibition against Robby Ginepri before signing on for World TeamTennis. He was 6-10 through the first two matches, and a planned Philadelphia match was rained out Tuesday night.

"In the last year I promised myself if I had some tennis opportunities I would try to play," Sampras said. "Making the commitment to play here, it was making the commitment to get some structure in my life."

Yesterday, Sampras greeted dozens of fans in the Sportimes' VIP tent. He smiled, shook hands and listened as people tried to sum up what his years on the court meant to them.

"(WTT) is more interactive," Sampras said. "Doing photos and autographs before I play is something I would never do."

Although it was a little bit of a melee, it was appreciated by the fans. A.J. Jadhav and his wife, Pranita, had circled the date of the Sampras visit on their calendar, and, along with their 10-year-old daughter, Kris, posed for a photograph with Sampras last night.

"It was great," said Kris, who is also a ball girl for the team and lives in Mamaroneck. "A dream come true."

As for the future, Sampras said he is mulling a more complete return to tennis in some capacity, but not on the ATP Tour. He pointed to John McEnroe's involvement with television and exhibition matches, but said that he enjoys being home too much at this point and has an ahem quieter demeanor.

For many, he could be a powerful motivator for young Americans. Okin hopes to motivate young, local tennis players by bringing Sampras to Mamaroneck.

"I was at the Open the year he gave his retirement speech," Okin said, "and I teared up."

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