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After that letter, Sampras must read the writing on the wall

June 30, 2002

After that letter, Sampras must read the writing on the wall by Boris Becker The Times - June 29, 2002 - I WAS in the middle of a talk with Vijay Amritraj for Asian TV and the picture flashed to Pete Sampras on No 2 Court plucking at the strings of his racket after his defeat by George Bastl on Wednesday. I had to stop the interview. "That's it," I said, "he will not come back. That is the end of Pete." To me, his Wimbledon life stopped at that moment.

We had a seven-times champion who had spent much of a second-round match reading a letter of inspiration from his wife - out in the open, on a show court at Wimbledon, not at the dinner table in the candlelight. I could not believe the whole thing. He had sunk into himself at the end of the match. Maybe he was shedding a tear, not in public this time, but inside.

When he said in his press conference that of course he would be back, that it was not all over, it was a natural reaction. He had not had time to consider all the consequences, it had been so unexpected. He is going to have a difficult summer using everything he has left in the tank to make it a succcessful American hard-court season, culminating in the US Open. If that goes well, there is no reason why he should stop. If it doesn't, he will have a very long autumn to consider what to do next.

I think he will be more comfortable at the Open. He has reached the final in the last two years, it is his bread-and-butter tournament, the bounce is higher and it should not have such draining demands on his body. Whatever happens, though, he is going to be in a state of turmoil because he knows his career is close to the end and for an athlete, that situation is the hardest to bear.

My situation was easier. Pete has been six years the No 1, seven times the Wimbledon king, he has won 13 grand-slam titles. After what happened to me as a boy, I had some difficult years in the early Nineties. I was struggling in 1994 and 1995, then in 1996 I won a slam again (the Australian Open), I was No 1 or 2 in the world, but I knew it was not going to last for ever. I swore that I would go out on my terms, not be driven from the sport that was my pride and joy.

Some people say it is an easy decision to make, but they are not inside of me, they have not been athletes, they do not know. In 1996 I won at Queen's, I was the second seed at Wimbledon and the bottom half was opening as it is this year, but I had a bad wrist injury and lost in the third round.

That was a shock to me. In 1997, I came back still in the top ten and reached the quarter-finals, where I played Pete, but I had already come to terms with the fact that he was better on his best day than I was on mine. It was the right environment to say, "this is it". But I could not bring myself to do it.

I played only a handful of tour events in 1998 and in '99 I wanted to have one more go for Wimbledon. I had made up my mind that when I lost, I would go. I saved four match points against Miles Maclagan of Britain in the first round on No 2 Court, reached the fourth round and I hoped so much that they would put my match against Pat Rafter on Centre Court. They did. I lost in three sets, I dropped my bags as I walked off, raised my hands, and did that terrible thing - I said goodbye.

Tennis had been my habit, my passion, my love. But it is part of maturing to know when to say I could not live with these guys any more. There is no perfect script, no handbook to tell a champion how to stop. You have to feel it. Bjorn Borg stopped when he lost in the final of the US Open in 1981 and didn't come back to Wimbledon until the Champions' Parade of 2000. How did he do that? Pete and Andre Agassi lost on the same day this year. Andre, I think, is the type who wants to go out with a big bang. He will announce it, celebrate it. I am not so sure which way Pete will choose because he has always had a hard time in the spotlight and has trouble opening up to his feelings. I wonder whether he would like such a perfect finale.

Pete has never had a bad year but there does come a time when you don't have an answer any more. It is hard to be objective, it takes time to say "this is ridiculous", but you have to be prepared to do it for yourself. When I came to Wimbledon in 1999, I knew I could not be a champion, but in 1997 I felt there were only two players better than me. It is OK not to be a great athlete any more, but painful to accept.

I am going to have a few German friends to my house tomorrow to watch the World Cup final. We will all be in Germany shirts, we will drink, and I hope I will end the day happy. This year we lost to England and to Wales. And we can be world champions. Whichever side scores first will win it and we have a 50 per cent chance of being that side.

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