New Pete Interview
For those who miss him as much as I do *sniff sniff*
PRO GAME: Pete Sampras: Made Man
6/15/04 4:41 PM
Shortly after winning the 2002 U.S. Open, Pete Sampras happily dropped off the gameís radar screen. No, heís not making a comeback. But heís ready to talk about those last agonizing and, ultimately, triumphant moments of his career, as well as life beyond the sport he dominated.
By Peter Bodo
Photographs by Art Streiber
From the July 2004 issue of TENNIS Magazine
When Pete Sampras opened the heavy wooden door of his home in Los Angelesí Benedict Canyon, I was pleasantly surprised. He hadnít, as Iíd heard, put on 20 pounds. Nor did he look like a man whoíd been sleeping 14 hours a day or neglecting basic grooming habits like trimming the toenails poking out of his shower slippers. If anything, Sampras, 32, looked a lot like the lanky, happy-go-lucky 19-year-old who rocked tennis in 1990 when he won the U.S. Open with a game that appeared to be crafted in Grand Slam heaven. Same conspiratorial grin. Same slouching presence. Same jock uniform: baggy black shorts and loose white T-shirt. Different life.
Samprasí ranch-style home, once an elegant repository of heavy, masculine furniture and replicas of his most prized trophies, reflects the changes in his life. Sampras and his wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, have a 20-month-old son, Christian, and were living out of boxes while waiting for the renovations to be completed on a new home nearby.
Plopping down into a plush white sofa, Sampras looked utterly comfortable, and fully realized. The battle was over. He has become what he spent most of his early life wanting to beóa champion for the ages. He holds a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and he finished No. 1 in the ATP rankings for an unprecedented six straight years, from 1993 to 1998.
Sampras hasnít talked very much since he retired. This day, though, he opened up with his familiar combination of modesty, caution, and pride.
This is a man who, accomplishments notwithstanding, has a marked aversion to taking stands, to giving what he repeatedly calls ďunsolicited advice,Ē to making pronouncements, even to using the word ďIĒóhe prefers the second person, even when talking about his own opinions and feelings. If thereís one true thing about Sampras, itís the essence of his own charmingly modest assertion: ďIím just an athlete. I never wanted to walk around like I was more important than anyone else.Ē
Are you going to line up your Wimbledon trophies on top of the TV and watch the tournament? As you can see, I donít have them out. Iíve never been a big watcher. The only tennis Iíve seen for the past year was [Roger] Federer playing [Marat] Safin in the final in Australia, just to see what Federer was playing like, and I was pretty impressed.
Itís interesting. When youíve been in a sport for so many years you look forward to getting as far from the game as possible, and thatís kind of what Iíve done since the Open in 2002.
Wimbledon starts very early here. Iím not going to be like a 12-year-old, setting my alarm clock so I can watch it at 6:00 in the morning.
Why do so many championsó--Steffi Graf comes to mind--turn away from the game as if theyíre in denial about having been players? When itís been your life, you can kind of resent it. The misery, the stress, that life being on top of the game. I feel like . . . Iíve done my tennis, kind of moved on to other things, like having a family. I look back at it and think of the good times and good memories, and also remind myself of the pressure and stress. In that sense, itís been nice to get away.
Does it feel like a big transition to you? Itís a huge transition. Itís always been about me and my tennis and my traveling, and now Iím doing a lot of other things, taking care of my son, trying to be a better husband, doing things I havenít had a chance to doótravel, play some golf tournaments. Itís like going from 100 miles an hour to basically stopping. It was weird for me. I mean, Iíve enjoyed it. But itís like Iíd wake up in the morning and for 30 years I always had something to do, training or practicing. Now itís a different priority.
I miss hitting tennis balls. I miss playing the majors. But it also reminds me, man thereís a lot of stress!
What have you learned about yourself since retiring? Iíve learned that I didnít play for the limelight. I played to win, played because I enjoyed playing. What else have I learned about myself? I like a pretty simple life. I like just being home, with my family, having some friends, playing some golf, doing normal things.
Iíve been so goal-oriented all my life, there are days when I feel like I want to do a little more than play golf. But I havenít figured that out yet. Itís a tough transition. This is like, OK, your life stopped. What are you going to do to fill your day? But itís fine.
Is there an urge there, to be commissioner of tennis, or something like that? I was a really good tennis player; I donít care to be in politics of any sort. Iím an athlete. I still get to go to good restaurants and I play great golf courses and at some level thatís all I really want. I never really expected tennis to open doors to anything else.
Having had an entourage, is it tough having to do most practical things for yourself? You kind of have to have a team around you when youíre playing: the stringer, the trainer, the coach. You pay them to cater to you. Not to kiss your ass. Obviously, I donít need that now. My wife takes care of me, thatís all I really need.
You said before that you wanted to be a better husband. Was your career putting a strain on your marriage? A tennis player is the type of athlete where it really is all about you, your schedule, when to practice, when to leave, when to play the next tournament. You have to be with someone whoís selfless. Fortunately, my wife was willing to put her career on hold, travel with me, be all about me. Thatís priceless. It would have been tough if we had two separate lives, she doing her thing, me doing mine--thatís when you get in trouble.
Bridgette was willing to give up her life a little bit to support me through a tough time. And now that itís done, itís not about me, itís about us.
Do you ever feel guilty or look back thinking, I was selfish? When youíre in it, youíre just so into your matches and winning that you focus on that. I knew I had to do A, B, and C, and I just did them. I didnít want to compromise that. Thatís why it was such a great ending, winning the Open in 2002.
Can you talk about that ending a little bit? It was kind of surprising. Were you able to appreciate what you did right away? I think it was the happiest Iíve ever been. Hell yeah. I enjoyed other majors and there were great moments but this meant more because of where I came from. After Wimbledon of that year, I was as low as Iíve ever been [Sampras had lost in the second round]. I had no continuity with my coaching, people were blaming my marriage, even my wife.
It was a burden on our marriage. I got back from Wimbledon and said, ďMaybe itís just time to stop.Ē And Bridgette just said, ďYou know, Iím not going to say anything, just promise me one thing: When you stop, itíll be on your terms. Donít stop based on what the media or people in tennis think, do it on your own terms.Ē
I felt like I had some more left in me. I wanted to prove one more thing to myself. I remember at the Hamlet [before the 2002 U.S. Open], I was struggling. I said, ďIím going to win the Open.Ē And I could see that the reporters were just smirking. I felt I shut that all up in two weeks. And I really felt that final versus Andre was the best I ever played.
Do you miss the applause? I miss the arena, I miss walking out, taking a step back, and seeing 20,000 faces eager to see a clash. But even more, I miss [moments like when] itís 1:30 before the 2 oíclock Wimbledon final and . . . that nervous, you-want-to-throw-up feeling.
I miss being at Wimbledon and playing in the final. I miss that more than I miss the others because it suited who I am. Iím a full-blown American and I love the Open. But Wimbledon always has had a special place in my heart.
I always enjoyed the Open but felt a little stressed out by [New York]. I didnít get the same sense of history you get at Wimbledon, knowing it hasnít changed much since [Rod] Laver was here, or Pancho Gonzalez or Fred Perry.
This year, they wanted me to come back on the middle Saturday and sit in the Royal Box. I declined. Itís too soon to go back there. Maybe when my boyís a little older, 5 or 7 or 10. If I were sitting there now Iíd probably want to pull on some tennis shoes and jump down on the court, thinking I can still beat some of those guys: ďHey, I still got it! I still got the arm!Ē
Were you a competition junkie, and do you miss it? Iím pretty competitive only on a tennis court. I donít need to win every golf bet. Thatís not in my nature. And only a few players made me feel competitive. I mean, [Jim] Courier, Andre, Boris [Becker], I knew them, we had rivalries, it made me more competitive than if I was playing some journeyman. You know how Michael Jordan talks about how heís got to win at everything? Iím nowhere near that.
Youíre a poker player? [Laughs] Yeah, you know, [former pro] Alex OíBrien lives over here. Every now and then we get together and have a little poker game. We have like five, six guys, and we play three-on-three basketball once a week. So Iím trying to stay in shape a little bit.
A lot of guys bust loose, live the high life after they retire. Do you? Iíve probably had more drinks in the last year than my whole career becauseóbecause I can. But itís never out of control, nothing too crazy.
I play golf four or five times a week, itís been kind of a passion. Iíve made friendsóyouíve got to, so you put yourself out more. I met Mark McGwire, not to drop names, but I met a bunch of athletes up at Lake Tahoe. McGwireís kind of in the same boat, he just retired. Heís come out here to play golf.
The mentality is so different from when I was playing, it was almost like you didnít have time for people. I couldnít have someone come visit me on the road, hang out, and go out to dinner. I wanted to go with my coach to the same restaurant--that was my formula for success.
What do you see when you look in Christianís eyes? I see heís looking at me like he needs me, needs me for comfort, for when heís hungry, when he needs to be changed. He looks up like he needs you. I see innocence.
How do you want your child to grow up? Iíve talked about that with Bridgette. Weíre in Beverly Hills, which means private school. Itís like 20 grand to get into a private school and thereís a yearís wait. I didnít grow up that way; I went to public school. I didnít have a cellphone until I was 28. This private school here, itís at the top of a building. Itís nice, but I want my kid when he has recess to be able to run around in the grass. Itís a different mentality from how we grew up. Bridgette is from Gold Beach [Ore.], a town of 2,000 with one high school. We want to be hands-on parents, not hand our child off to a nanny or school for eight hours a day.
What are your concerns about the future and the kind of world Christian grows up in? Well, I hope this is a much safer place. How weíre getting there, it isnít for me to say. This stuff is always tricky. I always thought those were the two things you donít talk about, religion and politics. My parents raised me in a pretty conservative way. Thatís kind of my direction.
Do you vote? I havenít voted. I donít think Iím even registered to vote. I just havenít really made it a priority.
Do you talk to Andre? I talked to him a few times last year after Wimbledon. We havenít spoken since then, but itís pretty remarkable what heís been doing. After 15 years, he knows what to do out there. I think Steffi [Graf, Andreís wife] has had a pretty good influence that way. He probably sees how she did it, how focused she was, and maybe that rubbed off on him. Heís not so much about the other things, the way he was earlier in his career. We need him to kind of last awhile.
Federerís young, but heís being touted by some as the next Pete Sampras. Is the comparison valid? Itís nice to see somebody with a complete game, but [in the Australian final] he stayed back more than I thought he would.
Heís clearly the best in the world. You know, you get to a point where itís about different levelsówinning majors, defending majors, then being really great, it being your life. Thatís kind of what happened to me.
Heís got all the tools. Itís nice to watch him, heís a smooth player, easy on the eyes. Rogerís got that even keel. He doesnít get too high or too low. That helps when you want to be the best player in the world, no doubt.
Is getting through the dayóóor nightóóeasier now? Absolutely. I sleep like a rock compared to when I was on the road having to take a sleeping pill because I was jet-lagged. Iím more relaxed, Iím not worried about things or looking over my shoulder, afraid somebody is going to knock me off, or dealing with injuries. What things do you miss the least about your playing days? The international travel, going from L.A. or Florida to Europe and having to play in three or four days. That first morning, youíre in an absolute coma.
I donít miss the stress, I donít miss waking up in the morning with the soreness and pain and stiffness and playing through it. Iím on a roll here, want me to go on? I donít miss the pressure, the pressure I put on myself.
Would it make you proud if Christian took to tennis? If heís into it, Iím more than willing to help him. Maybe itís an area he wants to stay away from, or maybe itís something heíll be interested in, and want to hit some balls with me, which I look forward to doing. He does walk around a lot with a golf club in his hand. Maybe that will be his sport. But itíll be up to him.
Do you have any sense that Christian has athletic genes, and would it make you happy if he did? He kicks righty, but I donít know yet. I want him to be an athlete, no question. What I would like is for him to have focus, and sports was a great way to stay out of drugs and parties and getting into the wrong crowd.
The rhythm of your life is different now, as youíve said. Do you do things like go down to the Starbucks, read the paper? People ask, what are you doing with yourself? Iím like, ďHey, be with your infant son for half the dayónow thatís work.Ē After a few hours with Christian, Iím like, Wow, Iíve really accomplished something here. I enjoy when he gets up at 6:30 or 7:00 and Iím feeding him. Thereís no phones ringing; thatís our time together.
And I play a ton of golf. Iíve gotten a little better at it. Iím down to about a 6 [-handicap] now.
Ten years, 15 years down the road, will you be disappointed if you donít find something else that really fires you up? You touch on something interesting. If there is something in the next five or 10 years that will really move me, if itís a charity or something else, I donít know. But I feel like there could be, if there was something I was truly passionate about, I could do something.
I feel like Iíve got a lot to offer, but Iím not going to walk in and give unsolicited advice, like, ďUSTA, this is the way you should do the Open.Ē Thatís just not my personality. But maybe in five, 10 years Iíll run for Congress [laughs]. But I doubt it.
The merry-go-round of a career: Now that youíre off it, what was the most interesting part? When I was growing up and won the U.S. Open [in 1990], I wasnít sure what I wanted. I wasnít that great a competitor, not very strong mentally, always a little question about my heart. Thatís the way I was up until that loss in the 1992 Open final. If that loss never happened, I wouldnít have achieved what I achieved. That was my career-defining moment.
Before, I was happy at No. 6, getting to semis and finals of majors. But I always kind of packed it in a littleóno, thatís too strong, I just didnít dig deep enough. I found out that nobody cares who comes in second. That loss made me become a winner. It made me believe.
Where do you feel the game of tennis is right now? I think the game is fine, but I think it needs more Americans. Roddick is like the only guy now, in the U.S.
You need a rivalry. When I was playing Andre, there were always a few more people in the media room, even non-tennis people. Thatís what has to happen. I donít see it happening.
Do you think your records are safe? These records could be broken but it will be very hard. Not to blow my own horn, but to stay on top year-in, year-out, it kind of has to be your life. Connors had that, Lendl had that, I had that.
Because itís like, to do this, you need to do A, B, C, D, and E. And a lot of guys will say, ďWhoa, Iím not doing any of those, or Iím doing two of them.Ē
But I donít think any one person can carry the game. You need a lot of personalities and different games.
THE HIT LIST
Nearly two years after leaving the game, Pete talks about some of the things heíll never forget
5 Most Memorable Matches
Early 1980s, a first-round junior match in San Diego. ďI drove down with my dad. I lost 6-0, 6-0 and cried the whole ride home.Ē
1992 U.S. Open final; Stefan Edberg d. Sampras. ďThe match that turned my career around.Ē
1995 U.S. Open final; Sampras d. Andre Agassi. ďWe went in different directions after this one.Ē
2000 Wimbledon final; Sampras d. Pat Rafter. ďThe record, sure, but it was also the first time my parents watched me live at Wimbledon. That meant a lot.Ē
2002 U.S. Open final; Sampras d. Agassi. ďMy happiest moment.Ē
5 Most Frustrating Opponents
Andre Agassi. ďObvious, but itís a fact. He scared me.Ē
Boris Becker. ďAlways a tough customer, especially indoors.Ē
Wayne Ferreira. ďA great shot-maker who always played me tough.Ē
Guy Forget. ďHe made my Davis Cup debut [in 1991] miserable.Ē
Goran Ivanisevic. ďHis crazy and unpredictable game put me on my heels at Wimbledon.Ē
5 Greats I Wish I Had Played
Bjorn Borg. ďThe Wimbledon icon before me.Ē
Jimmy Connors in his prime. ďHe had the intensity to make it personal.Ē
Pancho Gonzalez. ďWas he really the best server ever?Ē
Lew Hoad. ďAn earlier version of Becker.Ē
Rod Laver. ďMy role model.Ē
5 Favorite Players to Watch
Bjorn Borg. ďHe was a great athlete.Ē
Roger Federer. ďFor his smoothness.Ē
Rod Laver. ďHad the complete package.Ē
John McEnroe. ďA unique game.Ē
Ken Rosewall. ďI loved the backhand.Ē
5 Memorable People
Paul Annacone. ďHe made me the best I could be.Ē
Dick Enberg, TV commentator. ďHe knew what I was about.Ē
Rod Laver. ďA class act.Ē
Ivan Lendl. ďWhen I was 16, I spent a memorable week practicing at his home.Ē
Tim Gullickson. ďAll I have are memories. He brought me to the brink of greatness.Ē