End of the road for the king
[June 22, 2003 Sunday times, Andrew Longmore]
Pete Sampras exclusively reveals he has played his last match at Wimbledon and may not even defend his US Open title.
The racket lies in the games room, next to the pool table. Close by stand the trophies, the videos neatly stacked next to the television, the images of a career that is done. Being Pete Sampras, as cautious off the court as he was explosive on it, he will not fully commit to a life without tennis, but in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times last week, the seven-time champion admitted for the first time that he would not be coming back to his beloved Wimbledon.
"We've got the two biggest events in tennis coming up, Wimbledon and the US Open, and if there was anything in me, that would be enough of a challenge," he said. "But it's not there, it's time for other guys to hold up the trophies. I'm 95% sure I'm stopping."
Sampras can even date the moment the odds slipped beyond his reach. Two months ago, he returned to the practice court at the bottom of his garden in Beverly Hills. It was spring and the inner clock was counting down the days to his favourite time of year. He called his coach, Paul Annacone, and said he wanted to hit some balls again, the first since he won his fifth US Open so dramatically and emotionally
late last summer.
"I knew I had to get my body back in tennis shape if I wanted to play at Wimbledon," he recalls. "I'd been putting off the decision and putting off the decision in the hope that something would come back. I thought I would get back to practising hard because of what the tournament meant to me. For a couple of days we had some good practice down there. But then on the third day, after about half an hour I called over to Paul and said, `Let's sit down for a second'. He knew what was coming. "I said, `This is real, I can't do it'. I just knew my heart wasn't in it. It wasn't my body that felt bad, it was just getting up and going to practice. I enjoyed hitting the balls, the backhands and the forehands, it was the bagful of other stuff that I knew I had to do, all the drills and the fitness.
" I just wasn't where I needed to be. Last year, losing like that (to George Bastl) on Court Two wasn't the way I wanted to go out. I couldn't think of anything worse, but even that wasn't enough to make me go back.
"Then it really hit me that I wasn't going to play Wimbledon. I had to own up to the facts, to the reality of where I was, and that was a huge deal because of what Wimbledon has meant to me. Growing up as a kid, that was where I dreamt of playing and where I dreamt of winning.
"It's no longer a tennis tournament, it has become part of my life and the whole process of not playing there after so long was very hard."
For two weeks, Sampras knew he wasn't going to play; he just didn't know how to tell anyone. He had to pass one further test of motivation. At Christmas, his brother had bought him the video of his seven Wimbledon triumphs, compiled by the BBC: Courier, Ivanisevic, Becker, Pioline, Ivanisevic, Agassi and Rafter. Late one evening, when his young son Christian had gone to sleep, he slipped the video
on for the first time. He wanted to see the final against Andre Agassi, the moment he reached perfection on a grass court.
"I was searching for something," he says. "I wanted to see if that would do anything to inspire me. So I sat there and watched the match against Andre and a little bit of my last final against Rafter, out of curiousity.
"But, actually seeing me play, seeing the mindset I was in, the focus and the concentration, knowing all the work that goes into that, made me pull away even more. It seemed like another age. It made it even more clear to me that my time had gone."
Admitting that to the rest of the world proved a bigger problem, a part of what Sampras calls the "process of retirement". He told Bridgette, his wife, and the rest of his family and discussed what to do with his agent.
In the end, Sampras was sitting at the side of the court, watching the LA Lakers lose to the San Antonio Spurs, when the news leaked out.
"That was an eerie day because people kept coming up to me and asking me about it," he says. "Everyone thought I was going to play, and when I said I wasn't I think they understood what I was going through.
"The public hadn't heard from me for quite a while because I had nothing to say, but once Wimbledon came around it was time to own up. I'd be cheating myself and the tournament to go out there. So the racket went back in the cupboard and that was pretty much it."
So, for the first time in 15 years, the greatest player in Wimbledon history will be absent, on the golf course at the Bel-Air Country Club, maybe, where he regularly challenges Annacone and a group of actors, new friends of his, to a dollar or two a hole.
Curiousity will drive him to switch on the coverage late at night, to check on the progress of his old foe, Agassi, and to glimpse the tunnel vision in Lleyton Hewitt which he once recognised in himself. He was asked to do commentary at Wimbledon for an American television station, but politely declined such an instant and obvious hop over the fence. Too much of his soul would be there on the court.
Yet there will be times over the next fortnight when he will shake his head at the succession of factory-built baseliners masquerading as grass-court players.
Whatever his heart might say, his instinct will remind him that, at the age of just 31, he could beat most of them tomorrow. "I used to lick my chops when I saw someone staying back," he says.
"Look at the top 10 in the world now. I think my game could still stack up against some of these young guys. There's nobody there who can serve you off the court and I never used to worry much about returners, to be honest.
"Last year's final (between Hewitt and David Nalbandian) was a sign of what's to come. Tim Henman's there, he's one of the few natural serve and volleyers, but if he's not in the final, you could have two baseliners again.
"Roger Federer's got a good game for grass, I think, and Andy Roddick has the ability, though it's hard to serve that well every match.
"One of the reasons I was able to win it so many times was that I could play at a high level at Wimbledon with less effort than many of the others. I could just serve and volley some guys off the court and my reputation helped me, there's no question about that. But this year I think it's a matter of who gets hot over the fortnight."
He pauses, contemplating his own absence. "I'll always miss Wimbledon, this year, in 10 years' time, whenever, but I'm not going to come back and play just to say goodbye. People talk about Michael Jordan and his competitiveness in everything, but I don't feel like that. I was competitive at tennis and that's why I didn't want to contemplate a farewell tour or anything, because the only reason I play the game is to win. I've raised the bar over the years, and though it has been tough to touch the same heights over the last couple of years, I still expected to reach certain standards. "Before the last US Open I wanted to win one more major, to prove to everyone that I could do it, to prove everyone wrong. When I won it, I felt kinda empty because I realised I had nothing left to prove, but the day after wasn't the right time to call it a day. I thought maybe it was time to stop, but I wanted to be 100% sure.
"I didn't want to retire and then six months later come back again. The good thing is that I don't have to report to anyone, not an owner of a ball club or a team manager. I'm my own boss and I can make my own decisions."
The statistics define Sampras's status in the game with indisputable accuracy. He has won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, more than anybody else in history, spent more weeks at No 1 (286) than anybody else and
earned more money (just under $44m) than anybody else. His record at Wimbledon : played 70, won 63 (including 53 victories in 54 matches from 1993 to 2000) : is unsurpassed. Yet it will mean as much
to Sampras that Stefan Edberg, a player and a man in his own image, recently nominated the American as the greatest player he'd ever seen.
Nobody at Wimbledon will need any reminding of that essential truth. Sampras made it look so easy, deceptively so. "People misunderstood me, underestimated the amount of work I've had to put into the game," he says. "The game did come pretty easy to me, but for six or seven years I was the man to beat and that has taken its toll. It's nice to see Andre still out there at 33, and I wish him well, but I've burnt more fuel along the way than he has. You have to be in better shape as a serve and volleyer than a baseliner. The arm, the back, the
shoulder; the movements are more explosive. It's like the difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner."
Occasionally, the vague outline of a return to the courts infiltrates the reality of his conversation. He will give it a few more months, he says, before he finally gives up on his motivation. The US Open, and the prospect of defending his title, will be the last chance. Any longer and there will be rust on the wheels. "I feel content," he says quietly. "I never felt like that in my career. It feels good not having the responsibility any more, the travel, the practice, the airports, the lifestyle of a professional tennis player. It's not a bad life at all, but it's a hard life. I've a seven-month-old boy and he's smiling now and it's a lot of fun to see him growing up. Having a routine at home, sleeping in my own bed at night, making breakfast in the morning, that's something I've never had. It'll take time before I'll pick up a racket again, even for a gentle hit. Besides, the strings on the racket have all popped."
Just one thing he wants to know. Why do the players no longer have to bow to the Royal Box? Maybe, I laugh, it's because he's not there.
"That's right," he says, enjoying the idea. "The king is gone."