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Wimbledon stirs again in Heart if its Greatest Champion

Wimbledon stirs again in heart of its greatest champion
Pete Sampras looks at the new generation and ponders one last hurrah, writes Andrew Longmore

September 16, 2006

THE last great match of Pete Sampras' career is being played out inside his head. Each northern summer, he watches Wimbledon, hears a voice and then goes in search of his racquet. 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 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 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 Wimbledon 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 year 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 racquets, bigger and more powerful than the Wilson Pro-Staff he used in his prime. Three years after he last struck a tennis ball, he 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 racquet, 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 2500-seat arena on a golf course in northern Connecticut and sold out the Dwight Davis Memorial Tennis Centre 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 201km/h. "He was serving right, he was returning right and when you put those two together, he's, well, he's Pete," Courier said.

Sampras says: "The first step was the toughest, not swallowing your pride so much as being prepared to lose.

"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 the US Open 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 the US and says 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," Sampras says. "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 now? "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."

Although Agassi's body finally gave out, it was Sampras' 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 racquet and never quite picked it up again.

The rewards no longer justified the sacrifices. He had nothing left to prove.

For three days, 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' passion for the game has remained undimmed.

After 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," Sampras says. "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."

Federer and Wimbledon, though, will have to wait on his return. Sampras says that he wants his sons, Christian, 4, 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 there's another reason for the delay. Sampras cannot come back until the conversation in his head has been silenced.

The Sunday Times
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post #2 of 2 (permalink) Old 09-18-2006, 03:38 PM Thread Starter
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Re: Wimbledon stirs again in Heart if its Greatest Champion

Blake takes Davis Cup inspiration from Sampras

By Charles Bricker
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Posted September 16 2006

WESLEY CHAPEL · It was oppressively hot. It was stiflingly humid. And, dress code or no dress code at this luxury resort, James Blake was stripping off his shirt for this practice session.

No problem, he was informed by Kevin O'Conner, the director of tennis at Saddlebrook, who said, "The last person to get an exemption to take off his shirt was Pete Sampras."

In the days leading up to next weekend's semifinal Davis Cup match in Moscow between the United States and Russia, the name Sampras has very special meaning to Blake.

It was Sampras who almost single-handedly beat the Russians in the Davis Cup final in Moscow, also on clay, in December of 1995 -- matches that Blake at age 15 never watched.

"I saw the highlights, but I didn't watch a ton of tennis back then, which might surprise some people," Blake said. "Maybe my parents didn't want me watching too much television. So, at that time I never thought I'd be involved in something like that. Davis Cup tennis seemed so far away for me then."

Four years later, as he matured, Blake was named hitting partner to the U.S. team that lost to Australia 4-1 in Boston -- a team on which Sampras played for the first time in two years.

"Pete was a real inspiration for me at that time," Blake said. "He made me rethink my plans because at first he said he didn't want to play Davis Cup. Then, when he saw what the team did in England [3-2 over Great Britain], he wanted to be part of it. He didn't want to step on anyone's toes, so he said he'd just play doubles."

Sampras teamed with Alex O'Brien to win a five-setter over Sandon Stolle and Mark Woodforde. It was the only U.S. point.

"But to see him playing doubles ... since then, I've always wanted to be part of Davis Cup, every time," Blake said.

He's made himself available for every tie since, with the exception of 2004 and part of 2005, when he was recovering from injuries.

Blake will take an 11-6 singles record into this difficult series of matches against Marat Safin, Dmitry Tursunov and U.S. Open semifinalist Nikolay Davydenko and, after losing both his matches vs. Chile in the quarterfinal round in April, he seems particularly inspired.

"Everyone's playing well right now, us and the Russians, so I'm looking forward to this. Whoever comes out of this is going to have to really win it," Blake said.

The Russians, who are expected to thicken the amount of clay material on the indoor court in order to decrease the big-hitting effectiveness of Blake and teammate Andy Roddick, are favored, but Blake believes "we have a great chance.

"Andy is playing great and he's going to serve well on a mud field. The way I'm feeling, I've improved a lot on clay," he said, pointing to his win over Andy Murray and Carlos Moya at Hamburg and a strong performance at the French Open against Spaniard Nicolas Almagro.

But if the clay is slowed for the Yanks, it's also slowed for the Russian big hitter Safin. "In that way they're similar to us. We feel if we can get a win over Davydenko, the one true clay courter, we feel we've neutralized the surface."

It wasn't difficult for Blake to leave New York a week ago with a sense of some success after reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open and losing to three-time champion Roger Federer.

Still, it also left him contemplating what more he can do to finally beat the No. 1 player in the world.

"It's not keeping me up too much at night," he said. "But one point in the first set, one in the fourth set to get back on serve ... maybe one day I'll play those points differently."

The lost opportunity in the first-set tiebreak was dejecting. "I was coming in on a forehand and overcooked it a little. Maybe that's a sense of the moment. He forces you into errors with his defense, and that can make it look like someone is playing badly."

This is going to be one of the Americans' most difficult Davis Cup matches, against several hot players, on the Americans' worst surface and in Moscow. But captain Patrick McEnroe has access to tape of those great Sampras matches 11 years ago.

Maybe he should show them the night before the matches begin.

Charles Bricker can be reached at cbricker@sun-sentinel.com.
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