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Posted on: July 22nd, 2006

Sampras Has Look Of A Champion

- petepage

By: Jeff Jacobs, Hartford Courant

July 22 2006

AVON - He took a seat at Blue Fox Run Golf Course and, as a way of greeting, Pete Sampras asked, "What's on your mind?" The impulse was not to answer him. The impulse was to sit there and look at him.

Just sit and look.

The last time we had laid eyes on him in person he had beaten Andre Agassi in four sets for the 2002 U.S. Open title. He could have gotten a little ugly that day. He could have lashed out at the hard-hearted who had called him washed up and insisted his actress-wife was responsible for his game falling apart.

Sampras had done none of that. He remained the portrait of a champion.

The last time we had laid eyes on him at all was through the television lens of the 2003 U.S. Open, when he finally had decided to retire and had come to say goodbye to tennis, farewell to New York. He carried his son Christian around Arthur Ashe Stadium, holding him up like the hardware he had carried after each of his record 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Three minutes, the standing ovation lasted. For three minutes, the man who had shown such little emotion when he came to play, couldn't stop crying when it came time to play no more.

As crazy as it sounds, we thought we might have seen the last of him.

He has the carriage of DiMaggio.

He even once compared himself to Howard Hughes.

Like DiMaggio and Hughes, Sampras has a bent toward the reclusive. If he and Bridgette had holed up forever in their Hollywood Hills home or taken off to Tibet to play tennis with the Dalai Lama, well, the thought wasn't entirely fantastic.

But here he was Friday at 6 p.m. Pete Sampras, in the flesh, before his World TeamTennis match against the FoxForce. That little bald spot on the back of his head hadn't grown much in three years. He looked the same, although his 5-2 loss to Glenn Weiner demonstrated he didn't play the same.

Heck, if the man who never stopped screaming - John McEnroe - can play in the WTT ...

And if the woman who always made them scream - Anna Kournikova - can, too ...

Why can't the man who never screamed play for the Newport Beach Breakers?

"When I retired, I took that first year to sleep in, have some fun, let loose a little bit," Sampras said. "I didn't miss anything. I took that first year to decompress. I didn't talk tennis. I didn't watch tennis. I didn't read tennis. You're kind of burnt out on it, because it's been your life since 8 [years old].

"After three years of doing that, I was getting restless. The last year, I was getting a touch bored. Billie Jean King [WTT co-founder] has been a friend of mine. They have asked me for the past 10 years to play a few World TeamTennis matches. I decided to give it a go. So far it's been pretty fun."

Sampras had been playing golf five or six times a week. He got his handicap down to 4. He loved his time with Christian, now 3 and starting to hit a tennis ball, and Ryan, 11 months. But more and more he'd wake up mornings and tell his wife, "I need to start doing something."

Don't take this as Martina Hingis using the WTT to launch her comeback.

Don't take this as Michael Jordan or Sugar Ray Leonard.

As his great rival Andre Agassi is stepping into retirement Sampras is not coming back to the men's tour.

"I'm just having fun, working out, getting some focus, getting some structure in my everyday life," Sampras said. "I still want to play well. I have a lot of pride out there. But it's not any sign for me to come back and play again. My time is over."

You tend to forget about the early life cycle of tennis players. Gabriela Sabatini and Pat Rafter were inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame the other day in Newport and the first reaction to a photograph of them was, "Wow, they're so young."

Sampras played forever, has been out of the game for three years and he's 34. He is two years younger than Phil Mickelson. He's younger than Jason Giambi. Heck, he's younger than Agassi.

Sampras calls Roger Federer two or three levels above anybody else today. A few weeks ago, he ranked Federer and himself among the top five players of all time along with Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Rod Laver. He has called Agassi the greatest player he ever faced but he put Agassi in the 6-10 range with McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

"Andre retiring is the end of an era," Sampras said. "He is the last of our crew, the four [including Michael Chang and Jim Courier]. He is a tremendous player, a great personality. He put tennis on the front page of the sports [section].

"You might not ever see a group of four guys like that again in the U.S. We all hit No. 1. We combined to win more than 20 majors. Andy Roddick and James Blake, who are kind of carrying the torch, I think they're really, really good players. But the fact of the matter is we have two great players, Rafael Nadal and Federer, who are kind of lapping the field. ... It's unfair to put the pressure on [Roddick and Blake] thinking they're going to do what we did. We have to be realistic about it. But knowing the American media and the fans, we expect Wimbledon and U.S. Open winners and an American ranked No.1."

Sampras continues to watch the majors, but says he doesn't watch other tennis much. It is during the Wimbledon fortnight when he misses the game. He says he'll miss Wimbledon when he's 34, 44, 54. He'll miss it forever.

"It was my most favorite event," Sampras said. "For those two weeks I think about playing again, just in kind of a fantasy world."

Sampras told The New York Times recently that he saw how fans flocked to Arnold Palmer at the 1999 pro-am at the Bob Hope Classic and wished he could have such a personal connection. So he's using this WTT season and a few ensuing exhibitions to interact more with fans and sponsors, to have a little fun.

Instead of disappearing, Sampras even wants to appear in an exhibition against Federer.

"I heard some rumbling, some people might be trying to put something together," Sampras said. "I would welcome it. Just for the sport. I'm still hitting the ball well enough where I can at least compete against him a little bit. He'd probably tune me up pretty good. He's busy with his priorities and I don't blame him. But it could happen if we want it to happen."

Then again, Pete, maybe you'd want to challenge him to 18 holes of golf.

Copyright 2006,


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