Re: An interview with Pete (The Early Years)
No, it’s not a comeback (unfortunately), but Pete Sampras, who hung up his racket in 2003, is back in the game. The 36-year-old tennis legend, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July, has stayed busy in his retirement by playing a few select exhibitions. And he’ll be making two stops in Texas this month, at the Christus Pro/Celebrity Classic, in Beaumont, where he’ll go up against Todd Martin (Anna Kournikova, meanwhile, will take on Chanda Rubin), and the FedEx All American Tennis Shootout Series, in Frisco, where he’ll spar with Robby Ginepri.
Congratulations on the Hall of Fame. I think we saw more emotion from you during the twenty minutes of your acceptance speech than we did in the fifteen years of your professional career.
Thank you. It was a lot more emotional than I thought it’d be. It brought me back to my younger years and the first time I picked up a racket. Since I retired, I’ve been so wrapped up in family life that I hadn’t really looked at my career, and that weekend it hit me all at once.
Did your wife [the actress Bridgette Wilson-Sampras] give you any tips on delivering your speech or handling the emotional moments?
We worked on the speech together. I rehearsed it in front of her. But it wasn’t like she was giving me any acting tips. I wanted to do something heartfelt and thank the people who helped get me there. Her advice was more about taking your time and trying to do it conversationally. I’d much rather give a speech about anything other than myself. But she was helpful throughout the whole process. It was a fun bonding experience for us.
Is it strange to be back in the spotlight after lying pretty low for a few years?
Yeah, a little bit. Ever since I picked up a racket again and started playing a few expos—and with all the comparisons between Roger Federer and me—it seems I’m getting more interview requests to- day than I did in my prime.
Well, I meant that sarcastically, but people still want to know what’s going on and what I think about the sport. The Hall of Fame has brought a lot of attention to my career again. It’s not like I ever craved the limelight, but it was nice for me to feel that respect. Because in my prime I didn’t feel totally embraced or appreciated in some circles.
Is it true that you barely played for the first couple of years after you retired?
I didn’t do anything—didn’t pick up a racket, didn’t watch tennis. I spent those years doing some things I never had a chance to do. But after about three years of that, I felt a little bit unfulfilled from a work standpoint. So I picked up a racket and started to get myself in the gym, and it really felt good to wake up a little bit sore.
What’s it like to play in under-the- radar cities like Frisco and Beaumont?
You know, I’ve only played in a handful of U.S. cities, so to go to a couple of smaller markets is great for the game, and it’s always exciting to see different cities.
I’m sure those two will be exciting, but they can’t beat going to Asia this November to play three games against Roger Federer. How did this matchup happen?
Someone from IMG gave me a call six or eight months ago and said that Roger was playing some exhibitions after the World Championships and asked if I would consider playing with him. And I’m flattered. I would only consider making the trip if it were Roger and probably not anyone else. Originally it was just one city, but I said if they could put two or three cities together it might be worth the trip, so they put three together and we’re going to do it in a week. Obviously, Roger had a choice about who he wanted to do it with, and he wanted to play against me. I think it’s great for the game. People are asking about it all the time. Unfortunately, it’s not in the U.S., but hopefully we can do that sometime in the near future.
That would be a huge draw, to say the least.
It would. And if there’s a time to do it, it’s now because I’m still somewhat competitive. I can hold my own for a little bit. Roger’s obviously in the prime of his career, and I haven’t played at that level since I retired, so we’ll just kind of have to feel it out as we go. Roger is one of the all-time greats who will eventually break my records, so I’m just looking forward to being on the same court with him and seeing what I can do.
Are you going to ask him to take it easy on you?
I think Roger’s a lot like me. We want to have fun and play well, but we didn’t get to where we are today without being competitive. So there will be a competitive side to it. And I’ll make him feel guilty before we go out and say “Listen, Roger, I haven’t played this way in eight years. I’m old and out of shape, so just take it easy on me.” Hopefully he’ll feel sorry for me.
You’ve said it’s pretty lonely at the top. Is there any advice you’d give to Roger?
He’s got a pretty good grip on what he’s doing, and I’m sure he feels the same way. It is a little lonely at the top, and you have everyone gunning for you. But he’s been on top for a few years now, and he’s dominating much more than I ever did, so he doesn’t need too much advice.
You very graciously speak of when, not if, he’ll surpass your records. What do you imagine that will feel like for you on the day that happens?
I’d love for my records to stand the test of time, but in sports it’s just a matter of time before someone breaks records—Barry Bonds is going to break Hank Aaron’s home run record and Tiger is going to break Nicklaus’s and Roger is inevitably going to break mine—so I’m okay with it. But I think I’d feel differently if Roger beat me six out of eight major finals and overtook me. We’re kind of playing in different generations, different eras. The way I looked at it when I broke the record was that it was a number. When I won fourteen it wasn’t like, “Wow. I’m the greatest player of all-time today.” It was more like this is a great accomplishment, and I made some history. And I think that’s the way Roger looks at it. I don’t think he thinks he’s any bigger than he was a few years ago. He’s humble, and if there’s a person I want to see break this record, it’s someone with that sort of mentality.
Do you see some similarities between the two of you?
Oh yeah. I see a lot of that just in our mentality. We don’t get too up or down on wins or losses or good points or bad points. He’s pretty even-keeled and that’s how you need to be to stay on top of your profession. I think we’ve both made it look pretty easy. We’re both good athletes that are pretty smooth, though our games are a little bit different. I was more of an attacking player, whereas Roger’s more apt to stay back, but our approach to the game is pretty similar. We just go out there and play, and we don’t rub it in. We let our rackets do most of the talking.
Speaking of attacking, are there any more attacking players left in the game?
I don’t see any. Look at Wimbledon these past couple years—no one’s really looking to come in to the net. It’s sad for me to see that the serve-and-volley game is pretty extinct. The best tennis to watch, in my opinion, is two contrasting styles—like myself and Andre. Now guys are pretty much all playing the same, and there’s not a lot of variety out there, which is unfortunate. But that’s just the nature of the sport and where it’s going.
So is there anyone else aside from Federer you’d like to go up against?Rafael Nadal is right behind Roger. I love his attitude, and he’s a great competitor. And he’s the one guy who actually believes he can beat Roger. A lot of these guys go out there against Roger and are resigned to the fact of not beating him. But Nadal’s got a great competitive drive—he works hard, he’s fast, and he’s a great athlete. He’s a modern-day Borg—he really is that good. At Wimbledon this year he played seven days in a row—even on grass, which isn’t his best surface—and didn’t complain about it. And I admire that.
Do you ever see yourself becoming involved with the USTA’s junior development programs?
Over the past year I’ve hit with some of these young kids, and I realized that I actually liked hitting with them and playing against them but also giving them some advice and seeing what they can improve. My brother, who works for me, approached the USTA about doing something more officially, but they don’t seem interested, which is a reflection of how unorganized and how naive they are about what I could bring to the table. And you have to go through the board and through this and that, and I said, “Listen. I can help out some young kids here, and, if you want, let’s work out a deal.” They seem to not want to do it.
Have you ever entertained the notion of starting your own junior organization?
I was close to doing an academy, but it’s tricky because I don’t want to do some of the grinding stuff. I just want to work with some young guys that are going to college and thinking about turning pro. I think I could give them some advice. I do get it. I know the sport, and I know what it takes. I like sharing some of my thoughts, but I’m not sure the academy business is a business I want to get involved in, but we’ll see what happens.
Are we going to see you in the coach’s box like Jimmy Connors one day?
Never say never. I’m sure when Jimmy was 35 or 36 he didn’t think he’d ever travel. But when you turn 50 and you have a young kid that has the potential to win some majors, who knows? Right now going overseas and going through that grind is not what interests me, but you never know. If I see something special in the next ten or twelve years and I could really make a big impact on someone, I could coach. It’s not likely, but I’ll never say never.
Speaking of Connors, his pupil, Andy Roddick, is another favorite topic. What do you think he needs to break through the wall and finally win another Grand Slam?
Andy’s got a great attitude. He competes hard, he works hard, and it seems like he’s doing all the right things. But I told him this a year ago after he lost to Federer at the U.S. Open: He’s got this big serve and big forehand, and he’s opting to stay back, but in order to beat the Federers he needs to be unpredictable. He needs to figure out that transition game from the baseline to the net. He needs to work on serve-and-volleying a little bit and he needs to work on doing a chip and charge, even though he might be a fish out of water. He just needs to try it in practice and try it against some of these guys he knows he can beat. The only way he’s going to improve and get to the next level is to add to his game. Right now he’s getting to a certain point, but if he wants to start winning Grand Slams and competing with Federer and Nadal, he needs to feel more comfortable getting up to the net. But time is running out. Now’s his prime.
Being as competitive a person as you are, do you ever imagine what it will be like as you get older and really can’t serve like you used to?
I’m competitive to a certain degree. Even today when I’m hitting, I still want to play well and serve well, but as you get older everything kind of gets a little bit slower. When I’m fifty I’ll still feel like I can go out and play well. You gotta face facts: When Father Time hits you, it’s not going to get any better. At sixty and seventy, I’ll probably be hitting with my kids and grandkids.
Your two sons are still pretty young, but will you teach them how to play?
If they’re into it and it’s fun for them, I’d absolutely try to help them out in any way I can. If they’re not into tennis, that’s totally fine too. We’ll see what intrigues them over the next five to ten years. I want to be their dad, not their tennis dad, but I do know how to hold a racket.
Coming back to your Hall of Fame speech, you said you didn’t know how or why you picked up a racket at seven years old. So when did you—or more accurately, your parents—realize that you might be really good at it?
I picked up a racket and some people told my dad, “Your son has excellent eye-hand coordination,” and he saw that and gave me some lessons. And I think the teaching pro said “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Then I just kind of wowed people as a kid, being able to do what I was able to do at seven, eight, and nine years old.
But were you aware of what that meant?
Yeah, a little bit. I heard things. But when we moved to California, that was when things got more serious and I got involved in the junior leagues and I was flourishing. That’s when things became a little bit more real.
About how many exhibitions do you do in a year?
In the past year I’ve probably done close to a dozen, not a ton, but enough to keep me sharp.
Do you foresee keeping a similar schedule over the next few years?
I’d like to play a few events and have something to look forward to every couple of months. It’s been good so far. Sep 21: Ford Park, 5115 I-10S, Beaumont; 409-833-7747; ford parktx.com. Sep 22: Dr Pepper StarCenter, 2601 Avenue of the Stars, Frisco; 214-467-8277; prolinkplanet.com Interview by Jordan Breal