Dreaming of SW19
The Sunday Times September 10, 2006
Dreaming of SW19
ANDREW LONGMORE IN BEVERLY HILLS
Pete Sampras admits that in retirement he finds the green grass of Wimbledon calling him
The last great match of Pete Sampras’s career is being played out inside his head. Each summer, he watches Wimbledon, hears a voice and then goes in search of his racket. The other 50 weeks of the year, he is merely another former champion, playing some golf, enjoying his weekly game of poker and taking his eldest son out to lunch. The problem is that the soothing voice, the voice that he wants to hear, the voice that says he could still play one last Wimbledon, is getting louder. The bigger problem is that the other, quieter voice knows the truth.
An interview with Sampras now is more conversation than question and answer. The period of isolation, the re-entry into real life, is over and the 14-time Grand Slam and seven-time Wimbledon champion — world No 1 for 286 weeks — is rediscovering exactly what it is about the game he once dominated that he now misses so much. Most of the time he can cope with the gnawing feeling of loss, but during Wimbledon the ache becomes persistent.
He sees player after player staying at the back of the court, he sees Jonas Bjorkman reach a semi-final and Rafael Nadal, a clay-courter, in the final and wonders aloud what damage he, Sampras, could still do.
The danger of embarrassment if he came back seems irrelevant. What could be more embarrassing than his last match, losing to George Bastl, a qualifier, in 2002 on Court Two, the so-called Graveyard of Champions. He would still be younger than Andre Agassi, who played his final Wimbledon this summer at the age of 36.
So the phrase just slips out. “I mean, great a player as Nadal is,” Sampras says, “you put a really good serve-and-volleyer against him and you have got to feel pretty good about it.” So you would fancy your chances against him on grass? “Oh yeah, even today. If I worked at it and I . . . I’ve had those moments, they come and go, like playing Wimbledon again — I haven’t ruled it out. I’m not saying I’m going to come back, but I’ve had moments of wanting to play there more now than I ever have.”
Haven’t ruled it out? “Well, I have. But seeing how everyone’s playing, staying back on grass like it’s Paris, and just the fact that I miss Wimbledon and the fact that I ended it on such a poor note on Court Two against someone I shouldn’t have lost to. That still left a bad taste in my mouth. So you think, ‘Wow, one more time’, and if I wanted to do it, I could do it. But there would be so much more work to do. In reality, it’s not going to happen.’”
That seems to be the end of the rally, the backhand down the line, the forehand volley. But there will be more points. Last summer, Sampras began playing competitive tennis again. He ordered his new Federer rackets, bigger and more powerful than the Wilson Pro-Staff he used in his prime, and, three years after he last struck a tennis ball, went to hit with some kids from the University of Southern California. He had forgotten how sweet it was to hear the gentle thud of ball on racket, to feel the satisfaction of returning to the office.
“Frankly, I was pretty bored, pretty restless,” he says. “I was playing a lot of golf, a lot of poker, recreational things, and I had a talk with my wife about it at Christmas. I was a little bit down and she could see it and I promised myself that if I had some tennis opportunities I would consider playing again.
“So I opened myself up this year and some people called from Houston asking me to play an exhibition. I had about a month and a half to hit some balls and when I got off the phone I was excited.
“I played that exhibition and then a friend of Billie-Jean King’s, who’d been wanting me to play Team Tennis since I was about 20, asked me again and I decided to play. The preparation was just what I was looking for, I wanted the structure in my life. I felt an element of life in me.”
Sampras gave a press conference in a furniture store in Sacramento, made his debut for the Newport Beach Breakers in a 2,500-seater arena on a golf course in northern Connecticut and sold out the Dwight Davis Memorial Tennis Center in Forest Park, St Louis. He played in Boise, Idaho, and Atlanta.
He also lost 5-0 — four-point games, first to five — to a guy called John Paul Fruttero in Carson, California. But in the Home Depot Centre in Orange County, Sampras beat Jim Courier, a good friend and an old foe, 6-1 6-4 in 64 minutes and felt like a proper player again. His first point was an ace timed at 125mph. “He was serving right, he was returning right and when you put those two together, he’s, well, he’s Pete,” said Courier.
“The first step was the toughest, not swallowing your pride so much as being prepared to lose,” says Sampras. “When I played Jim here in Los Angeles, because he’s a rival, I played really good. I’m not going to be as good as I once was, I don’t move as well, I’m not as sharp, I’m not holding on as tight as I used to; when I lose to some of those guys, I shrug it off.
“But I’m still a competitive person inside. I’ll play a few more matches at the end of the year (including a charity match to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina) and that’s where I’m at.”
AFTER Agassi retired in New York, Sampras called and left a message. A few days later, Agassi returned the call. It was a significant moment for both men. Agassi’s tearful farewell at Flushing Meadows had marked the end of a golden era of American tennis, begun by 17-year-old Michael Chang’s astonishing victory in the French Open in 1989 and continued by Courier, Sampras and Agassi through 17 years and 26 more Grand Slam victories. Sampras found the scenes as moving as the rest of America and rang to say so.
But there was more to the call than congratulation and support. “I wanted to say how much I had enjoyed the matches we’d had (34 in total, 20-14 to Sampras). When we were one and two in the world it was difficult to be close, but we always liked and respected each other. We’re very different, but we still have a lot in common. He’s got two kids, I’ve got two kids, I go to Las Vegas, he comes to LA. It would be good to catch up in a way, to remove ourselves from what we used to be, so we agreed to stay in touch. It was just like two guys talking.”
What will Agassi be feeling this week? “Relief. It’s over. He was banged up pretty bad. His back was hurting, his thigh muscle had gone, everything was breaking down. He doesn’t have to deal with all that any more, he doesn’t have to worry about tennis, about eating, sleeping, working out — all that stress. He’ll get excited about doing some things with his foundation and with his kids and he’ll go through the whole emotional cycle when you don’t miss it and then you slowly miss it.”
While Agassi’s body finally gave out, it was Sampras’s mind that folded first. “My heart,” he corrects. After winning his 14th Grand Slam at the US Open in 2002, two months after his ignominious exit from Wimbledon, Sampras put down his racket and never quite picked it up again. The rewards no longer justified the sacrifices. He had nothing left to prove. For three days that spring, he practised in anticipation of his return to Wimbledon, the one tournament sure to stir his emotions. Midway through the third day, he told Paul Annacone, his old coach: “This is for real, I’m done.”
His retirement was neither expected nor scheduled.
Agassi always compared his career in tennis to a journey through life. Sampras was never as philosophically minded or as chameleon-like in his temperament or image. Sampras appeared as a fully fledged champion to win the US Open at the age of 19 and didn’t change his approach much thereafter. He was, he admits, a creature of habit, keeping to the same routine, staying at the same hotel, eating at the same restaurant at the same tournaments year after year. “Same shit, different city” was the unofficial motto of the Tour. But no less than Agassi, Sampras developed as a character through his tennis.
Initially shy, sometimes dour, he was criticised for being dull, just as Courier was accused of being an untalented blue-collar grinder and Agassi a flamboyant fake. “What do you want?” Ivan Lendl once asked the press in New York. “In Pete, you have a kid who behaves well, plays great tennis and wears white.”
Lendl was right, but it took several Wimbledon championships for people to acknowledge that a proper heart beat beneath the unchanging half-smile. Having said in the aftermath of his retirement that he didn’t want to talk, watch or read tennis, that he just wanted to “decompress”, Sampras’s passion for the game has remained undimmed.
Over an hour and a half’s conversation, he talks of how much he could help today’s players with their mental approach, of how much Goran Ivanisevic scared him as a player — “I knew he could serve me off the court” — and how his real reward for winning Wimbledon came not with the trophy but on the plane home when he read all the descriptions of his victory in the British newspapers.
“Some of you guys said things that got me, got the sport; it wasn’t a bunch of quotes, it was like you were writing about theatre,” he says. “Then when I got home to Florida I’d go to a place called Checkers, a greasy hamburger joint, and have a celebration meal.”
Equally apparent is his concern for the future of tennis in an age of big Babolat rackets and punishing groundstrokes. The serve-and-volleyer, he believes, is now officially extinct or will be with the passing of Tim Henman. After the last Wimbledon, he rang Annacone to ask what was going on. “He said the balls were a little bit slower, but I don’t buy it,” says Sampras. “It’s still grass. I’m amazed at everyone staying back. Serve and volley is an art, it’s something that you learn as a kid, not when you’re 20. But that’s hard because you’re going to get passed a lot, it’s much easier to stay back.
“Roger (Federer) is a legend in the making, he’s such a great mover and can go from defence to attack in an instant. Regardless of whether he stopped tomorrow, he’s dominated his generation more than anyone has. Nadal is a great player, but the rest I look at are really good players.
“But even Roger’s staying back at Wimbledon. When I played him, he came in on every ball. I have always felt the best tennis was a contrast, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, me and Andre, someone stays back, someone comes in. Now it’s just guys banging from the back courts.
“When I watch Roger freewheeling, so confident, it’s such a great feeling, but if I was playing him now, I would still try and take his time away, come to the net first and second serve, attack his second serve, same as with Andre. Nobody takes his time away. I’d just come at him and keep coming.”
For all the praise for his Wimbledon heir, Sampras was genuinely appreciative when, during one of the many breaks for rain at this year’s US Open, they replayed his last final against Agassi four years before. “McEnroe said some nice things — ‘It was just four years ago and we forget just how great Sampras was’. You hear so much talk of Roger, it felt pretty good to hear,” he says.
Federer and Wimbledon, though, will have to wait on his return. Sampras says that he wants his sons, Christian, four, and one-year-old Ryan to be old enough to appreciate the significance of the surroundings before they make the pilgrimage.
“I miss it badly and I want to come back,” Sampras says. “I just want to wait a little bit longer.” But, deep down, he knows that there’s another reason for the delay. Sampras cannot come back until the conversation in his head has been silenced for ever.