Sampras returns to court tonight in Champions event at BU
By Mick Colageo
Standard-Times staff writer
May 03, 2007 6:00 AM
— It's a shame for tennis that Roger Federer and Pete Sampras only played once.
In 2001, Federer's five-set, round-of-16 triumph at Wimbledon was noted more as the sign of a legend's decline than the rise of a young star. Not yet 20, but 10 years Sampras' junior almost to the day,
Federer lost his quarterfinal to Tim Henman and was still a couple of years away from becoming the game's dominant player, a household name and someone who could count Tiger Woods among his fans.
"When he beat me in that match, I knew he was going to be a great player," said Sampras, who experienced parallel success at the same age a decade earlier. "Something clicked in him and he just became a lot more consistent."
Now five years into his retirement and scheduled for induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame on July 14 in Newport, R.I., the 35-year-old Sampras has experienced a new click in his old competitive nature.
In his first official competitive match since his 2002 retirement, Sampras will face 1996 Australian Open champion Petr Korda tonight in the Champions Cup Boston, an eight-player senior event that began Wednesday night at Boston University's Agganis Arena.
"Pete's got a new racquet, a little more hitting area, and he's hitting his backhand better than I've ever seen him hit it," said Outback Champions Series spokesman and player Jim Courier, noting that Sampras recently defeated Mardy Fish, the 31st ranked player in the world, in an exhibition.
The event also includes John McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Pat Cash, Todd Martin and Wayne Ferreira. They'll continue the round-robin format through Saturday with third-place and championship matches Sunday.
Five years removed from the grind and stress of full-time tennis, Sampras needed incentive, and it came from Federer, who sent Sampras a text message when passing through Los Angeles for the Indian Wells stop on the ATP tour.
"We hit one day for about three hours, just did a bunch of drills, and after that we talked for about an hour," said Sampras, who only recently established a friendship with his successor as the world's best player.
The next day they hit again on Sampras' court at his house and actually played. Sampras didn't divulge the scores but came away from the experience recharged.
"I was happy I can still hold my own, and holding serve is still something I can do pretty well, even against the best guy in the world," said Sampras. "It was funny — just two great players playing on a private court, just no B.S., no extracurricular fans or media, just two guys going toe to toe a little bit."
The two pulled the scene right out of Rocky III, where Balboa and Apollo Creed square off in the gym for rivalry's sake and without a single witness.
"It was fun. I actually prepared a little bit for a few days before, I stretched a bit and warmed up," said Sampras. "I knew we were going to go pretty hard so I was preparing myself for the practice."
That Sampras could stay with Federer didn't surprise Courier, a four-time major winner and contemporary of Sampras and Andre Agassi.
"The difference between us and the guys on the tour is the grind of playing 50 weeks a year," said Courier. "The human body isn't meant to take that kind of punishment."
Now that Sampras' candle is flickering again, speculation has already begun about a potential comeback, if not onto the main tour, to Wimbledon. But Sampras isn't even thinking on those levels, at least yet.
"We're not strung as tight as we used to be. When we lose a match, we'll be disappointed, but you lose a match back in my prime, you couldn't talk to me for three days," he said. "It's a different sort of gear. You want to be competitive. I still feel I can be competitive and put on a good show for the people."
Married to actress Bridget Wilson, Sampras has two children, ages 4˝ and 1˝.
"Tennis is a tricky sport to retire," he said. "You can't be a general manager when you're done playing or do golf-course design. We owe a lot to Jim for getting this (tour) together.
"It's nowhere near the tension it was in the 90s. We're all here to play serious. I love my kids, but I'd rather play Jim (Courier) than spend my time changing diapers."
Contact Mick Colageo at