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Posted on: February 17th, 2009

His game is sore spot

- petepage

For Sampras, the body and mind now say 'no way'

MEMPHIS - Six hours before he played Lleyton Hewitt on Monday night, Pete Sampras sported what appeared to be a three-day-old beard and talked almost as much about his sore back and arm as he did about the current state of his game.

"I'm 37. Sometimes I feel like a senior," said Sampras, only a few days removed from an appearance on the 30-and-older Champions circuit.

"But I can still serve OK."

As if the 14-time Grand Slam winner needed to prove it, he went out and drilled 10 of his first 11 first serves in the exhibition match before a thrilled sold-out stadium court crowd at The Racquet Club.

"I pride myself on my return of serve, but some of those I couldn't touch," Hewitt said later. "He still serves big."

On this night, however, Hewitt - who is in the main draw this week at the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships - actually served better, if not bigger. Routinely hitting 125 mph on the radar gun, Hewitt also managed to break Sampras at 5-all in the first set and in the first game of the second set on his way to a 7-5, 6-4 victory in a rematch of the 2001 U.S. Open final (won by the Aussie).

Sampras, who gave no quarter during a 14-year career, simply ran into an opponent who has shown no give-up throughout his own illustrious career. Let's just say if Wile E. Coyote had been modeled after Hewitt, that Road Runner character would have been one-and-done.

"I thought it would be a little lighter atmosphere," said Sampras, "but he came out ready to play."

Asked when he knew yukking it up wouldn't be on Hewitt's agenda, Sampras smiled and said, "during warmup."

The former world No. 1 is just five months removed from hip surgery that has helped send his ATP ranking spiraling to No. 103 in the world. While stepping onto the court with Sampras certainly appealed to his sense of history, getting to play before a big crowd appealed to Hewitt's sense of the here and now.

"I haven't played enough matches lately (and) I want to win some more tournaments," said Hewitt, who will face No. 3 seed James Blake in a first-round match Wednesday night. "This was great match practice. There was a buzz in the crowd."

Sampras famously stepped away from the public eye after his epic win over longtime rival Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final. He resurfaced three-plus years later to play in his first exhibition and has since played sporadically - and sometimes spectacularly, pushing and even beating Roger Federer - in events that count a little and others that do not.

But Sampras is fast approaching 40. By his own admission, he doesn't get on the court often, playing as much Wii tennis with his two sons as he does real tennis with his practice partners.

"I think I've figured it out," Sampras said of the video game. "My kids love it, maybe a little bit too much."

To eyeball his serve, though - and during an up-close-and-on-court chance Monday afternoon practice session, that's just what we did - it's clear Sampras hasn't lost any zip. It's the zest that's the problem.

"I could be competitive (on tour) for about a set-and-a-half," Sampras said. "I can still play at a pretty good level, but to do it for two hours two days in a row? I don't have it in my body. I don't have it in my mind."

And if he needed a reminder, Hewitt's topspin lob - generally regarded as the best in the game - provided him more than one Monday night.

"There was a lob or two I was like 'Get up there, Pistol,' but I was not quite getting to them," said Sampras, whose overhead may very well be the best in the sport's history.

"The mind wants to get the ball, but the body's sort of saying 'Easy, big fella.' "

No sense in making the subject that much sorer.

Source: The Huntsville Times

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