For Pete fans
Posted 1/2/2003 5:59 PM Updated 1/3/2003 9:48 AM
Sampras winds down, but not ready to go
Before assessing the future, you should attack the past, cover it from baseline to net, and so Pete Sampras recently slid in a tape of his U.S. Open quarterfinal triumph against tennis' "It Boy," Andy Roddick, a flattened bug on the windshield of high-speed fate. This rewind through the most improbable individual sports tale of 2002 emboldened the man who would be the most deserving individual sports star of 2003, a champion ready to say goodbye just when America was letting him in the door.
"The end is near," Sampras said by phone, but that end has been postponed on account of greatness and grit. He watched that straight-sets destruction of Roddick and saw his New Age opponent overwhelmed by the magnitude of some Old School majesty, by the bright lights and big stakes that defined the greatest tennis player of all time and a 31-year-old athlete who couldn't stuff his career inside his racket bag when there was one more Sunday to seize.
"I didn't retire because I still believe I can win majors, and the day I don't believe that is the day I'll stop," Sampras said. "In big moments, in big events, I still like my game against anyone else's."
He's passing on the Australian Open, and his heart still says he'll win his 15th major in 2003, the combined totals of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. As a kid, Sampras never believed it possible. What young slugger would agree that he'd someday match the combined Grand Slam cuts of Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth?
But despite the fact that one Tiger Woods trophy case (eight majors) plus one Michael Jordan trophy case (six majors) equals one Pete Sampras legacy, the nation's sporting public never fully embraced its humble and historic son.
Sad but true: Ozzy Osbourne's America prefers its weekend warriors to mimic the push-the-envelope likes of Jeremy Shockey and Terrell Owens. Back in the day, it was Connors and McEnroe.
The new year should bring a new appreciation for Sampras, a serial winner who never should've forfeited points for refusing to berate and belittle others while bathing in his own glory. In what likely will be his final year "If I'm a betting man," Sampras said, "I'm not 100% this is my last year but it definitely could be" he deserves an appropriate victory lap, the profound respect and affection he was finally granted while winning the Open after 26 title-free, demon-filled months, a grim period punctuated by Greg Rusedski's claim that his third-round Open conqueror was a washed-up bum.
"If McEnroe or Andre (Agassi) or someone I actually respected said that, it would've motivated me," Sampras said. "But when someone like Greg says that, you have to look at the source. I do feel great satisfaction that those remarks will stick with Greg the rest of his career.
"I never felt so vindicated in my life because I knocked out one and a half years of criticism in two weeks. I had the last word. I was getting down on myself, talking about quitting, thinking the media was right and that I should ride off into the sunset. But my wife, Bridgette, wouldn't hear of it. She kept me going through the toughest part of my career and was the one who said I had to go out on my own terms.
"That's why I went up into the stands to be with her after I beat Andre in the final. She took so much grief in the media, from people pointing out I hadn't won since I got married, and I thought that was grossly unfair. I wanted to show the world how important she was to me."
Bridgette Wilson, actress, just gave her husband a son. If Christian Sampras hasn't changed his father's game, he has completely altered his father's world. "He spits up on me, and I don't care," Sampras said. "It's an amazing feeling to hold him, to know I'd do anything in the world for this person."
Mother and son will travel with Sampras on a farewell tour that will start at the French, the one that's gotten away. Sampras will be packing a bigger racket this time and even bigger dreams. "Maybe destiny and fate will meet at the French this time," he said. "Who knows?
"In a romantic way, I want to finish off better at Wimbledon. People say there can't be a better way to go out than beating Andre at the Open, and even I had those thoughts in the moments before that final. But I still love playing, and I still feel I'll win another major. Once I start playing, I'll know where my heart is and how long I'll take this. I already know I'm living proof that if you believe in yourself, you can do anything."
You can even say goodbye when America is just learning how to say hello.
Ian O'Connor also writes for The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News