Re: Pete Win A Last.
Sampras Makes Mark In New York Return
Sliding to his left in response to the approaching ball, Pete Sampras spun suddenly to his right and delivered a definitive response with the swift swipe of his right hand. Then Sampras paused for a moment to survey the scene surrounding him at Harbor Island Park in Mamaroneck, NY and offered a subtle smile at the sight.
The 34-year-old Sampras stamped his signature on last night's World TeamTennis match before he even struck a shot.
Signing autographs for fans who thrust tennis balls and pieces of paper at him from all directions before and after the Eastern Conference-leading Sportimes scored a 21-10 triumph over Sampras' Newport Beach Breakers, the 14-time Grand Slam champion made his mark on the court with perhaps his strongest singles performance of the season. Striking his signature serve with authority, Sampras covered the court quicker than he has in prior WTT appearances, showed soft hands on select touch volleys at net and even smiled and shrugged off a leaping overhead he slammed into the net in his 5-1 victory over Alex Bogomolov, Jr. that spanned 13 minutes and accounted for half of his team's points.
During the final two years of his career on the ATP Tour, Sampras was so focused on snapping his title drought and winning one final major he seldom seemed to take his eyes off the ball or the strings of his Wilson Pro Staff, but last night a much more relaxed Sampras was accessible and accommodating to the near-capacity crowd.
"I'm a little unsure of how I'm going to play so there's a little mystery there, if you want to call it anxiety, just kind of see how it goes," Sampras said before his singles match. "But it feels good to get respect from the crowd: they really seem to like the fact that I'm back playing again so that feels really good."
Martina Hingis, the 2005 WTT Championship MVP who will play the team's final home match of the season on Friday night, sat near the front row among the Sportimes' largest home crowd of the season that convened to see Sampras in his first New York-area appearance since he stepped onto Arthur Ashe Stadium court for his retirement ceremony at the 2003 U.S. Open.
Revisiting the same hotel he stayed at during the days he won five U.S. Open titles, Sampras was struck by an emotional response that arrived as fast as room service.
"It's funny you walk into the room and it brings back memories," Sampras said. "It brings back that nervous feeling you had getting ready for your match and where you celebrated wins. So it's a little eerie, but at the same time I know it's another life that I've moved on from the competitive days. It's always a little eerie when I come back. Today, I've been walking around the city and there's no question it's eerie."
Fueled by his desire to add his Grand Slam silverware to his expansive trophy collection, Sampras sometimes guarded his emotions on court as diligently as he defended his Wimbledon title. But playing in the team format of WTT, the seven-time Wimbledon winner is willing to share himself with his fans.
"There's more of an interaction with the fans," Sampras said of playing World TeamTennis. "Doing photos and signing autographs before I play is something I would never do (when I was on the ATP Tour) and taking 20 minutes to sign autographs after the match as well. It's more about giving back a little bit to the fans and it's a fun event. It's not the most serious, but it's competitive and I still want to play well and win. I've got a lot of pride out there. It's definitely more relaxed and allows me to get a little closer to the fans and have a little fun."
Meeting with the media in the conference room of his hotel about three hours before he took the court for his singles match, Sampras sported a day-old beard growth and looked fit. Clad in a black t-shirt, baggy cargo shorts and sandals, Sampras slipped into his chair on a podium at the front of the room, but did not put his performance on a pedestal in offering a candid assessment of his current level of play.
"I'm playing OK. I mean, I'm not expecting any miracles out there," Sampras said. "I can still serve pretty well and move OK, but I miss a little more than I used to. In fact, I missed quite a bit (in my last match). But when I used to play that was my game so I'm not expecting miracles out here. I'm just hoping not to get injured and play good tennis and hopefully the fans will enjoy the tennis that we play and that's really it. I'm not looking to beat someone 5-0, I'm just looking to hit the ball well and see what I can do out there."
Taking a three year break from the sport he once ruled gave Sampras the time to explore other interests including golf and poker.
"I kind of got into the poker craze. That's what I was doing for a while. That's why I'm playing tennis. I've got poker debts to pay," Sampras deadpanned before adding. "I'm joking."
Ultimately, time off from tennis led Sampras to a realization that was a rediscovery of his professional identity.
"Tennis players, we are who we are: we play tennis," Sampras said. "We don't have a lot of outside interests. It's rare to find someone when they're real successful they don't really have to work. It's a question of challenging yourself and having some fun at the same time, but tennis players are tricky. It's not like team-sports guys who can get into ownership of a team like (Michael) Jordan has or be a general manager or golf you can play till you're 70. Tennis is really a sport where when you're done, you're done. I'm not in a hurry to play a ton. I'm just seeing how it goes over the next couple of months. So far I enjoy playing and I do miss the game, but I don't miss the lifestyle."
Though Sampras repeatedly suggested he is not considering joining the senior circuit to play a full-time schedule any time in the near future, he said his WTT debut has given his life the structure it sometimes lacked after retiring from the pro tour.
"There's not a book on retirement. At 32, you kind of take a wait and see approach," Sampras said. "You take the first year after retirement and really decompress. After three and a half years of being retired, maybe 'bored' is not the right word, I need little bit more focus, a little bit more structure in my life, in my day. Just playing golf and doing recreational things, after a while isn't the most challenging, exciting life in the world. Last year, I promised myself if I had some tennis opportunities this year that I would potentially play. I've got a lot of respect for (WTT founder and Hall of Famer) Billie (Jean King) and what's she's done for the game, so I'm trying it. Just making the commitment to play was making the commitment to get some structure in my life. Three or four days a week, I hit some balls, get into the gym — nothing to go nuts about — but something I can focus on. So I'm seeing how it goes and so far it's going OK."
The tennis landscape in the United States has changed considerably since Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang grew up playing each other, grew into Grand Slam champions and formed the most distinguished and celebrated class of American champions that combined to claim 27 Grand Slam titles. Sixth-ranked James Blake is the lone American man in the top 10 and, along with Mardy Fish, are the only American men with tournament titles to their credit this year. The seven-time Wimbledon winner watched the grass-court Grand Slam on television and witnessed a series of early-round exits as the United States was not represented by a Wimbledon singles quarterfinalist for the first time since 1911. Sampras said the current class of Americans features a couple of players capable of making the grade at the U.S. Open, but concedes top-ranked Roger Federer and second-ranked Rafael Nadal have schooled the competition at major events.
"I think the future of American tennis looks good. We have two guys — Nadal and Federer — who are just lapping the field at the moment," Sampras said. "I think the two guys we have — Roddick and Blake — have really good games. I just think Nadal and Federer are maybe just a little bit better right now. With Andre leaving it really is the end of an era. It might be years before you see a group of four guys in Michael, myself, Andre and Jim that dominated, that won majors that got to be number one in the world it might be years for that to happen again. It's kind of wait and see approach and see if Andy can regain some of his form and James is on the way up so we'll see how the Open goes."
Suggesting expectations on American men are excessive, Sampras said the rest of the world is essentially playing for second place as long as Federer is around.
"It's funny, a year goes by and an American doesn't win a major and all of a sudden it's 'Where's American tennis?' " Sampras said. "The American media and fans expect our guys to win every major and be number one in the world and that might not happen for a while so we like to be optimistic, but let's be realistic: we have Federer who is already one of the greatest of all time and I don't see anyone consistently beating him. I mean, he might have the occasional odd loss here and there, but it's unfair to put it on Andy and James and to compare what they did to what I did and what Andre did — it's a tough comparison and not fair to them. That being said, they do have the potential to some good things."
Yonkers native Blake was Sampras' former practice partner and while Blake has yet to break through in a five-set match, sporting an 0-9 record that includes his recent losses to Max Mirnyi at Wimbledon and Gael Monfils at Roland Garros, Sampras believes Blake can reach the second week and perhaps even the final weekend at the upcoming U.S. Open.
"I think he's potentially ready to make that next step," Sampras said. "He did well there last year and probably should have beaten Andre to get to maybe the final. I think he's going to come in this year with maybe a little bit more pressure on him because I think there's going to be a lot of focus on him. He'll deal with that fine and he'll get a lot of support from the crowd. I think he's got a good game to at least get to the second week or maybe get to the second weekend and you never know? He's a good athlete, he's got a big forehand, he moves really well and he's starting to figure out the game. He used to go for his shots from bad areas of the court and now he's being more selective. He's figured it out. I see him just getting better and better. He's a great guy. I've gotten to know him well over the years and he's such a great role model for kids coming through what he's had to come through with his father (dying) with his back and his disease. It's incredible that he's come back and that he's doing as well as he is."
Sampras scripted a storybook conclusion to his career by capturing the 2002 U.S. Open championship in a fitting farewell chapter co-authored by Agassi. The arch rivals began the 2002 U.S. Open as the two oldest seeded players in the draw and concluded it with a climactic clash that saw Sampras capture his 14th career Grand Slam crown with a 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Agassi. It was the 34th and final meeting between the old rivals. Sampras won 20 of those 34 meetings. In a rivalry that spanned 14 years, the pair played each other in 16 finals with Sampras winning nine of them and holding a decisive 4-1 record in their Grand Slam final meetings.
Sampras' six straight years as the season-ending No. 1 player — an achievement unmatched in ATP history — supports his status as his generation's top player.
"I can definitely say that there's nothing like it in my career that compares to playing Pete," Agassi said in the aftermath of that final. "Pete, in my opinion, is the best that I have ever played against. That forces you to get that rush of blood that makes you do a little something special."
Though Agassi's eight Grand Slam titles place him behind Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12), Bjorn Borg (11), Rod Laver (11) and Bill Tilden (10), Agassi's all-surface ability distinguishes him from other Grand Slam greats in that he he has won Slam titles on hard court, grass and clay — a feat only Jimmy Connors, who won U.S. Open titles on three different surfaces and Mats Wilander, who won the Australian Open on grass, Roland Garros on clay and both the U.S. Open and Australian Open on hard courts — can match. In six weeks, it will be Agassi's turn to bid farewell to tennis in his 21st consecutive U.S. Open appearance. Asked to assess Agassi's legacy, Sampras said Agassi made tennis matter more while forcing the world's best player to get better.
"Andre brought flash and he brought an outgoing personality with his demeanor on the court, what he wore and what he was about," Sampras said. "He certainly brought tennis to the front page of the sports page and ultimately that's what sells the sport and generates ratings. For me, he made me a better player; I've always said that. He made me add things to my game. I could always get away with certain things against certain guys, but against him I had to be on my game and add things to my game. He brought out the best in me and when he and I stepped out on the court it was different than when I was playing Becker or Edberg; it was two young Americans that led different lifestyles, had different personalities and had different games. It was like two heavyweight fighters going out there. It was more than a tennis match, it was an event, and I think we both felt that."
In a wide-ranging interview with the media, Sampras shared his thoughts on a variety of topics, including:
Line-calling technology: " I do like it. When the serves are going that fast it's hard to pick it up, I get that. But the whole challenge system I just don't get. I just feel if it's in, it's in. If the umpire sees that it's in (he should call it in). I don't like the challenge system. I think out of fairness the umpire should have a monitor there and if he sees it good then he should be able to call it good. From a fairness standpoint, I just like keeping it simple and keeping it the same for everyone. It's tricky because you have it on the show courts and not anywhere else and I don't know if that's fair either to just have it on the show courts. It is driven by TV and media and a little pizzazz, which is probably good for the sport, but I'm not a fan of how it's being done."
The WTA's plan to test coaching in tournament play: "They tried it on the ATP a while ago. Sometimes, when things aren't going well in the sport, they search a little bit. I don't think it's a time to panic in the men's or ladies field. It's their (the WTA Tour's) deal and if it adds a little bit then great. One thing I love about tennis is it's an individual deal. It's up to you out there and I've always thought that was pretty unique. The only other sport to have that is boxing and it can really expose you as an athlete and I like that. I like to figure it out on my own just as my opponent has to figure it out on his own, so I'm not into coaching."
Playing schedule for this year: "I'm playing a Hurricane Katrina benefit match against Todd Martin in October and then I'm potentially playing a doubles event Barry MacKay is putting on up north in San Francisco and maybe a couple more events in December. Just a few things here and there to keep me busy and sharp and keep me in shape."
Future endeavors in tennis: "I don't see myself going to that extreme (of John McEnroe). He (McEnroe) is playing the senior events, he's playing exhibitions, he's doing commentary — he's busier now probably than when he was in his prime. I don't want that life. I like being home. I don't like traveling. This is my first time being to the East coast since the ceremony so I don't think I would dive in quite like the way he has. But he's almost 50 so he's been away from it and I think he likes being in the lime light more than I have."
Jimmy Connors' proposal to partner McEnroe against Sampras and Agassi in a doubles match: "It was close (to happening) in Vegas a couple years ago when I retired. It was close, but it didn't quite happen and obviously at this point it's not going to happen."
The best match he ever played: "Probably the '99 Wimbledon final against Andre (a 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 victory) where I just got in a zone and beat him in straight sets. Andre won the French Open that year and was playing well. I think that's the best I ever played. That one has always stood out."
The 2002 U.S. Open final: "I haven't seen it in a while. They sent me the tape a few months after the match so I saw it a few times. It was some great tennis; some of the best tennis I could put together at a time where everyone counted me out for a couple of years there. It was a great way to go out. I wasn't planning to go out that way, but that's the way it went."