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Posted on: July 29th, 2009

Retirement proves to be Sampras’ toughest test

- petepage

Jul 28, 2009

WESTWOOD, Calif. – Pete Sampras looked quick enough during an exhibition match against Marat Safin here Monday night. What caught him flat-footed was a question during a news conference held before Sampras took the court.

“What are you working on?” a reporter asked. “What’s your favorite project?”

An awkward pause followed.

Dethroned by Roger Federer three weeks ago as the record holder for most Grand Slams won (15) by a tennis player, Sampras welcomed questions about his place in history. The present is more vexing, with Sampras facing a challenge every bit as formidable as Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and even Federer.

Retirement. At the age of 37

Recovering from the moment of silence, Sampras grinned and shot back , “Six- and 3-year-old kids. That’s a lot of work there.”

And then there’s his golf game, his handicap down to a 4. And hitting tennis balls with his kids for, oh, 10 minutes because they find tennis on Nintendo Wii more interesting than the real thing. And running on the treadmill because, well, when he makes public appearances like the one here Monday at the L.A. Tennis Open, he doesn’t want to look flabby.

Of course the real challenge is life, seven years after he officially ended his professional tennis career.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said, “being retired at 37.”

In his prime, was Sampras better than Federer? That’s the question Sampras fields again and again these days. The trickier one: How is he going to fill his days, once consumed with tennis?

“Every tennis player goes through it,” he said, and indeed there was the day John McEnroe had to contemplate life without berating tennis umpires.

As Sampras pointed out: “McEnroe’s still playing, and he’s 50.”

McEnroe plays on the senior circuit which to this point Sampras has eschewed. But Sampras has scheduled a couple of exhibition matches against his old foil, Agassi, and on Monday fired the first volley.

“I didn’t beat Andre every time,” he said. “He’d beat me. Just not in the big matches.”

Take that, Andre.

Once mind-numbingly bland, Sampras showed a new aspect to his off-court game. Someone asked him about Federer’s wife recently giving birth to twins.

“He’s going to be on the road as soon as he can,” Sampras said with a grin. “He’s going to be playing, like, 40 weeks a year.”

But newborn twins will pose no problem for Federer at the upcoming U.S. Open either, according to Sampras.

“I don’t see Roger changing diapers at 4 o’clock in the morning in New York,” he said. “What do you think?”

What we think is Sampras still cares – about his place in tennis history and how people view him and Federer. If he had to choose one player as the greatest of all time, Sampras said, he’d vote for Federer. But someone might want to follow him to the ballot box to make sure.

Sampras pointed out that Federer’s record against Rafael Nadal is 7-14 (it’s actually 7-13). Or Rod Laver – had he been eligible to play Grand Slams during a six-year period in the 1960s when pros were barred from those events – “might have won 25.”

Twenty-five, a figure that would dwarf Federer’s total, even if Federer adds another five. (Sampras has qualified the observation as one that Federer’s “critics” make. You know, for the record.)

After Federer won his semifinal match at Wimbledon, Sampras decided he should be there for the potential record-breaking moment. So he hopped on a redeye, changed clothes at the airport and, once he’d arrived at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, found himself in a special box at center court.

From that view, he watched the epic match between Federer and Roddick, but differently than anybody else.

“Part of me, during the match, was thinking, ‘What am I going to do against this kid, Roger, in my prime?” Sampras recalled. “… Just the matchup, what it’d feel like.”

In his mind’s eye, Sampras was blistering 120 mph serves and rushing the net. Or, he was waiting on Federer’s serves and ready to pounce. No doubt he could feel the adrenaline, exhilaration and exhaustion largely missing from his life of retirement.

For those who wonder if Sampras might come out of retirement in hopes of winning another Grand Slam, there’s not enough Bengay on the store shelf.

“The tricky part for me now is that the way I play, the way I serve and volley, it’s hard on my body,” he said. “It takes a lot of strain on the back and the hips and I’m feeling like this year has been a year where I’m not quite as explosive. …

“I can’t pick up my racket and try to win another major. My days are over. So I’m content with the 14 I have. I’m amazed at what Roger has been able to do here. It’s incredible.”

But incredible enough to have vanquished Sampras in his prime? Tennis fans aren’t the only ones wondering.

On Monday, Sampras noted that most of today’s players, unlike so many he faced, are content to sit back on the baseline. Federer would have no luxury against Sampras.

“I just feel like I would bring in all the gas, bring in all the power that I had, try to mix it up, go to his backhand, just try to figure it out,” he said. “Put pressure on him. You’ve just got to put pressure on him.”

For an instant, Sampras no longer sounded like a retired 37-year-old, but rather a decade younger – Federer’s age, actually – and unleashing those 120 mph serves, rushing in for crisp volleys and, in preparation for Grand Slam finals, plotting the match down to the last shot.

But the reverie ended.

“Last question,” the moderator said.

No one bothered to ask the obvious: What’s next for Pete Sampras?

Off the court, he’s still trying to find his way.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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