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Dreaming of SW19

angiel
09-11-2006, 12:20 PM
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.

angiel
09-16-2006, 12:15 AM
Sampras gets last laugh

By Joe Guistina
Sports Editor

So this is what it feels like to be outnumbered -- 22,548 people were rooting against Andre Agassi on Sunday evening.

It was nothing against the American tennis player. It had nothing to do with how he had played that evening. It had nothing to do with his strong performance, but after three and a half sets, the crowd's cheering changed. The shouts for "Andre!" ceased and instead came a tremendous roar in anticipation of his doom.

It had nothing to do with anything he had said or done over his career, now marked with seven major championships. It had nothing to do with his failed marriage to actress Brooke Shields and his current mate Steffi Graf, for Graf and Agassi are widely recognized as the first couple of tennis. It had nothing to do with his heart and his grit to return to a Grand Slam final for the first time since he won the Australian Open in January of last year.

It had to do with an external force that had beaten Agassi 19 times previously in his career. Sunday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, N.Y., that force had something to prove.

Pete Sampras, 31, once again proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the best tennis player ever. In a sport dominated by youth, men who can barely drink legally seem to win a majority of the championships. Sampras, 12 seasons past his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open, won his 14th grand slam, the 2002 U.S. Open.

The media frenzy can begin again, or stop, or whatever it will do because after two years without a slam, Pete Sampras is back. He's back with a 130-plus mile per hour serve. He is back with the same game that led him to his first U.S. Open title when he was only 19 years old.

He is back when the media had given him up for dead. He is back when it had been written that he gave too much time to his Los Angeles lifestyle and not playing tennis. Sampras, on Sunday, did what no one was sure he could do anymore.

Sal Paolantonio wrote simply in the 2002 ESPN Sports Almanac, "Is Sampras done? The easy answer is yes. He has not won a major championship since Wimbledon in 2000."

The answer was not yes, though, and to credit Paolantonio, he did predict that "Sampras [would] not go away." For 13 seasons, Sampras has been a force in pro tennis like none that had ever been seen. He has the best serve ever and he rode that to unprecedented domination at Wimbledon, where beginning in 1993, he won seven of the next eight tournaments at the fabled All England Club.

But it was his final win at the club in 2000 that many thought was the crowning achievement in his tremendous career. If he had left the sport on the afternoon of his seventh Wimbledon Championship, no one would have faulted him. No one but Sampras himself.

In his last two years, however, Sampras has grown maybe not more apart from the sport he has loved from the time he was a toddler, but up. He has married actress Bridgette Wilson. In the past several years, his relationship with Agassi, that was tense at best when both were in the early stages of their careers, has blossomed into one of the best friendships in all of sports. Though rivals, there is no doubt that respect between them is strong.

On Sunday, all those components came together. He dropped a volley past Agassi for a 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 victory and the crowd roared. He held his arms, racket in his right hand, up to the sky in triumph for the first time in a long while. He was an old warrior, returning to reclaim what was rightfully his, the title of the best in the world. He then shook Agassi's hand and embraced him. Both smiled in the moment. Then Sampras moved through the crowd to find Wilson and hugged her. For if nothing else, in the past two years, they have shared the heartache of his losses together. And Sunday, they shared the joy of a victory that many doubted would come.

And now Pete Sampras has a decision to make. He was the youngest player to ever win the U.S. Open in 1992. At age 31, he is the oldest player to win the Open since Ashe in 1968.

Sampras could leave the game the best ever, leaving at the top of his game. He could be John Elway winning the Super Bowl and then riding into the sunset. He could be Ted Williams hitting a blast into the right-field stands in his last at-bat. He could be Dominik Hasek kissing the Stanley Cup in Detroit after years of drudgery in Buffalo. He could leave at the top.

Sampras has already proven he is the best ever, and on Sunday he stamped the endorsement of that fact. But Sampras could go on and prove, one more time, that he is the best tennis player in the world and no one would fault him if he did.

Greg-Pete fan
09-21-2006, 08:37 PM
Any comments? It would be wonderful to see Pete in this tournament again :worship: But I think he won`t come back to London :confused:

Mimi
09-22-2006, 03:59 AM
no i don't want and don't think he will come back, guys, be realistic, pete is the greatest ever but he is 35, i don't think he can beat roger/roddick in wimby, so i prefer him to have always this happy ending: the last win being a win a grand slam final ;)

Any comments? It would be wonderful to see Pete in this tournament again :worship: But I think he won`t come back to London :confused:

angiel
09-22-2006, 07:57 PM
Any comments? It would be wonderful to see Pete in this tournament again :worship: But I think he won`t come back to London :confused:


I am dreaming of seeing him back at his HOME and I think many more would too, will it happen???????????????????. I say yes. :worship: :worship: :wavey:

the_natural
09-25-2006, 03:42 PM
i wish, my bigger dream woulda been for him to win RG, just to shut up the critics!!!! :mad: he would be the undisputed number 1 all time then, forget laver, the Calendar grandslam was lucky cos he had NO competition AT ALL, and his best competition were old and grey. Too bad Pete was never driven enough. But yeh Wimbledon would be bhis only chance at ever coming back, like Becker in 1999, except much older.

angiel
09-26-2006, 05:44 PM
i wish, my bigger dream woulda been for him to win RG, just to shut up the critics!!!! :mad: he would be the undisputed number 1 all time then, forget laver, the Calendar grandslam was lucky cos he had NO competition AT ALL, and his best competition were old and grey. Too bad Pete was never driven enough. But yeh Wimbledon would be bhis only chance at ever coming back, like Becker in 1999, except much older.


Me too natural, me too my dear. :worship: :worship:

angiel
10-07-2006, 01:11 AM
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