Game, Set, Career
by Rick Reilly (June 16, 2003 SI)
Just inside Pete Sampras's front door in his cushy Beverly Hills house is a case of unopened cans of tennis balls.
"We give them to our friends who have dogs," says his wife, the actress Bridgette Wilson.
Suddenly, she stoops and covers her mouth. "Oops! Did I say that out loud?"
It's the worst-kept secret in tennis. The greatest player who ever lived has quit, without a parade, without a tour, without a goodbye. He has taken his record 14 Grand Slam singles titles and his unseeable serve and called it an era. He's traded his Wilson for his Wilson.
O.K., Sampras says there's a "five percent" chance he could come back and maybe play Wimbledon in 2004. "but the problem is wanting to." The way his nose wrinkles when he talks about it, you get the feeling he'd loofah-scrub Al Roker first.
"It's weird to say, but I'm content," Sampras says. "I'm happy. I've got nothing left to prove to myself. That's a big statement. I'm coming to terms with it, you know? I'm like, "I'm stopping?' But there's nothing left in tennis I want to achieve."
So winning at least one French Open means nothing to you? "If it did, I'd have been there this year," he says flatly.
Now wait a minute! You just don't do this in America! Not at 31! You don't just stop! You're supposed to keep striving, wanting aching to be more, better, greater. In this country the day you buy your Saab 900 is the day you start working your buns off towards the Saab 9000. The carrot is for chasing, not eating, damn it! "I know," he says with a grin. "It's crazy, huh?"
So the final act was his smash hit: the unforgettable Big Fat Greek Upset over Andre Agassi in the finals of the 2002 U.S. Open, when the 17th-seeded Sampras climbed into the stands to hug the person whom the media had blamed for his 26-month winless streak--his pregnant wife.
"[A TV commentator] had called her the Yoko Ono of tennis," he says, venom in his eyes. "That sooo pissed me off. Criticize me, criticize my game, but don't criticize my wife. She pulled me through the hardest period of my tennis life. That's why that [Open win] felt so damn good. I shut them all up in two weeks of work. I showed them that the best part of me was her."
Full yet empty at the same time, he took the rest of 2002 off and the first three months of 2003. In late April he was just about to begin the two-month sweat-a-thon that would get him ready for this year's Wimbledon when something turned up missing--his desire. "I've always had this little thing I do when I tie my shoes," Sampras says. "I finish tying them, slap the ground and say to myself, Here we go! But this time, it didn't feel good. And I stopped, right there and then."
He stewed over it. Was his career really over? He called friends in and out of tennis. Finally, when he called Wayne Gretzky and asked him what to do, the hockey god said simply, "You're the only one who can know." Sampras realized then that he already did. And that has pleased exactly nobody else.
His family, his friends, Bridgette, they all want him to play one more Grand Slam event. "I want it to be up to him, but, just personally, I'm going to miss watching him play," Bridgette says holding the six-month -old boy, Christian, for whom she's happily suspended her acting career. "And I'd love for Christian to be there once, even if he'd never remember."
But Sampras is choosing this new Huggies life, this Gymboree world where he's a hero to nobody but a kid who will never see him play. "My life not playing is too good!" he says, and that life includes adults--too much golf with his pal, actor Luke Wilson, and too many welts from banging with his three-on-three hoops buddies out on his tennis court. (Hey, you gotta use that space for something.)
He's a new man. You should see him chug the baby's baby's chocolate soy milk straight out of the carton, order the extra dessert, eat dinner without a thought of carbohydrate counts. "If I want steak instead of a big plate of pasta, I can," he gloats. "Or I can not eat at all. I'm free! I don't have to worry all the time: How am I going to play tomorrow? How're my legs? Did I eat the right combinations?"
But doesn't America deserve a chance to watch you take your last bows? "Acch," he says with a shrug. "I see Michael Chang doing the farewell tour thing, the rocking chair in each city thing, taking the bows. I don't want that. I hate to be honored. I took my bows at that Open. I just didn't know it."
I pity Pete Sampras. I do. He's lost the drive, the ambition, that will that keeps the rest of us busting his butts. There is no hope for the satisfied man, they say. Sampras is 31, and he'll never do anything greater in his life. He's doomed to spend the rest of his days with a neck-snapping blonde and a gorgeous son in a hilltop palace with nothing to do but find new and creative ways to blow his career winnings of $43 million.
(Hey, Pete, need any help?)