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Fresh off Vacation, Sampras Romps

February 10, 1999

For the first time in 74 days, Pete Sampras hit a tennis ball in anger Tuesday night.

One swift hour later, the anger was over, more orless. After the longest vacation of his professional life, Sampras walked into San Jose Arena and made mincemeat of a Spanish guy with a goofy haircut, somebody named Galo Blanco. And then Sampras uttered somewords that should give no comfort to his peers.

I'm fresh,'' said the tennis world's heavyweight champion. "And when I'm fresh, I'm dangerous.''

Sampras also was still a little miffed. Not at the way he played Tuesday. But at the way he was portrayed in ESPN's recent biographical documentary, part of the network's tribute to the top 100 North American athletes of the 20th century.

Sampras was No. 48 on the list, which made him proud. But the show was dominated by an old theme -- that Sampras is a boring guy with more soul in his sneakers than in his personality and that did not make him happy.

"It's safe to say I was disappointed,'' Sampras said. "The whole boring thing we've all seen and heard that over the years. The whole premise of it, I didn't find very flattering. I wasn't too crazy about it.''

As anyone who sits down to talk with Sampras knows, it is crazy to call him dull in terms of intellect. Maybe he doesn't show his emotions on the court as much as some of the screamers and whiners in tennis, but he does have something to say.

Lately, he finds himself defending what every American takes for granted -- an extended vacation. If that sounds odd, it is only because tennis is the planet's most obsessively omnipresent sport. The season begins in January and runs until late November. To maintain his No. 1 ranking, Sampras must essentially become a 50-week automaton.

It all caught up to him in Europe late last year, when he played in seven of the last eight weeks of the tour to maintain his top spot on tennis' top shelf. The effort allowed Sampras to become the first man to rank No. 1 for six consecutive years. But at the end of those eight weeks, his brain was extra crispy toast. He made up his mind to take an extended break from the game -- even if it did include skipping the Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments on the schedule.

`Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, the guys in the team sports, they always have three or four months off,'' he said. "And I firmly believe that one reason they continued to do what they could do was because they had that break every year.''

Still, some folks called Sampras nutty, selfish, foolish, whatever. Skipping one of the year's biggest events? And this guy is supposed to be boring?

"I have no regrets,'' he said Tuesday. "I was so mentally burned out at the end of the season. It was nice to have a normal life, to wake up in the same bed every morning, to not have any responsibilities.''

The 10-week vacation was his longest competitive break from the sport since high school. He went a full month without even picking up a tennis racket. He took a trip to Hawaii and was delighted not to have to pack his normal bundle of tennis gear. He went snorkeling and whale watching. But the natural question was: How much would he lose by taking the time off?

We received part of the answer Tuesday night, when Sampras looked slightly rusty, but pretty much dusted off Blanco when it was really necessary. Sampras lost only one point on his first serve.

"It's like riding a bike,'' he said. "You don't forget how to do it. If there's one shot I don't lose over a long span of time,it's my serve.''

Oh, yes, and that alleged non-personality? It was not on display, either. After Tuesday's match, he took the public address microphone and announced that he ``couldn't think of a better place than San Jose'' to launch his 1999 season. If it was a blatant exaggeration and a desperate bid for cheap applause, it worked perfectly.

No, he doesn't show much emotion on the court. But when Sampras cranks up those forehand volleys, it is enough to make a grown man shudder. Sampras' tennis legacy is indisputable --he is now chasing Ivan Lendl for the record of most weeks ranked No. 1 -- but when istorians look back at this era, it will be interesting to see how they judge the big picture.

If Sampras compares to any other 20th century figure, it may be Larry Holmes, a dominant boxer who had the misfortune to follow Muhammad Ali as an undisputed champ. Holmes had a better-than-advertised personality, too, but had no chance of topping Ali in that department. The same goes for Sampras with his more vocal American predecessors, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

But boring? Please. Sampras answers the questions and explains the answers. He is not afraid to stake himself to lofty goals.

His primary one this year will be to tie Roy Emerson's career record of 12 Grand Slam titles. Sampras, 27, has 11. The other goal will be to stay at No. 1 for as long as possible. Since he skipped Australia, it will help if he wins here.

He should. Andre Agassi and Mark Philippoussis are the only other players in the Sybase field ranked in the top 25. With one or two more matches to ease back into form, Sampras should be in shape to beat either one in Sunday's final.

"I'm not saying I'm going to win this week,'' said the most fresh and dangerous man in tennis. "But I feel pretty good.''


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