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Wednesday, September 11, 2002
And baby makes Pete

By Chris McKendry
Page 2 columnist

I was not surprised to find myself getting nervous while watching the Pete Sampras-Sjeng Schalken semifinal match Saturday at the U.S. Open. Understand that I think being nervous during a sporting event is a great feeling, because nerves can mean only one thing: that you care. And I did. I wanted Sampras to win. But unlike those who simply wanted one more Sampras-Andre Agassi showdown, my reason had nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with priorities, particularly Sampras' new ones.

Bridgette Wilson, Pete Sampras
Though many critics faulted her for Pete Sampras' decline, Bridgette Wilson was the main source of inspiration for his comeback win at the U.S. Open.
Finally, after years of total self-absorption, of being No. 1 in tennis first and everything else tied for second, Sampras has his priorities in order ... wife, family, tennis. (Or maybe it's family, wife, tennis.) If in any other industry, a 31-year-old who, after a decade of world domination in his chosen field, suddenly found some balance in his life, everyone would applaud. But apparently this does not hold true for Sampras, who has been called old, unfocused, washed-up, a "victim" of marriage. And not only has his game been under attack, but so has his wife, the actress Bridgette Wilson, currently six months or so pregnant with their first child. She had been "accused of" -- oh, the horror! -- paying more attention to Sampras' career than her own, as if being concerned with the well-being of your spouse is a negative quality. What's next ... when will someone compare her to Yoko Ono, often given "credit" for breaking up the Beatles?

After hearing the questions ... and even asking a few ... I took a step back and realized how absurd the whole line of questioning was.

Maybe it's just that I can empathize with the transition Sampras is going through, as tough decisions concerning family and career are in my very immediate future, too. Currently pregnant with my first child, I'm also learning that everyone seems to think they "know" exactly what I should do. People are constantly telling me how important it is for a parent -- not a care-giver -- to raise the child. Of course, just as many love to remind me of how hard I've worked to build a career, and that I can't stop now. Unsolicited advice has flown my way by the bushel ... and after each win at the U.S. Open, it flew Sampras' way, too.

Consider, for example, these bits of advice, masquerading as questions, just a small sample from a single Sampras press conference:

  If fans could get to see the postmatch Sampras, they'd really like him. The robotic champion who offered very little insight or personality at his peak now chats up pregnant reporters about due dates. 
  

Q: Pete, the stock wisdom is, "Marriage is a distraction. He's thinking about somebody else besides himself (which is why your game has deteriorated)." How to you respond to that?

Pete Sampras: (remarkably politely, considering the circumstances) "There were times, five years ago, where tennis was my life. I was consumed with being No. 1. You know, just being on top for so long, I think I kind of had enough. Getting married and having a child on the way gives me balance.

"But even though the years of dominating are over, I still feel like I can win a major. If I didn't believe that, I would not play."

Q: Pete, this is your first Grand Slam as a family. Is it more satisfying?

Sampras: "Yes. It hasn't been easy. I've had a rough year. Putting in a lot of work and getting nothing in return. It was tough ... and I was tough. I was tough to live with at that time. But my wife ... she was the one to talk to me late into the night and she gave me stability. You know, I heard all the negative things being said. It's been rough on our marriage, to be honest, but she stood by me."

Q: Pete, you've had to answer questions over the past two years about whether finding your wife coincided with losing your game. How did this win affect her?

Sampras: "It wasn't fair ... the timing of my breaking the record and getting married. I just felt like I was at a point in my career that was tough after winning 13 Grand Slams. I got married two months later, and I was happy. I met the woman of my dreams and we are going to have a child. I mean, that's what life's about."

That's what life's about!!!

What? Shame on you, Sampras ... retire!

By now, you get the point. Sampras is OK with being ranked lower than No. 1, No. 10, even No. 15 in the world. In other words, he's grown up and gained perspective. Isn't that something we wish more athletes, more workaholics, would do?

The past two years haven't been easy for him. He's pulling away from a very regimented schedule and learning to live. Tennis was his identity for so long and, when his skills slipped, he admitted he lost a bit of confidence. But he kept working to find the mix that worked for him.

If fans could get to see the postmatch Sampras, they'd really like him. The robotic champion who offered very little insight or personality at his peak now chats up pregnant reporters about due dates.

Pete Sampras
After becoming a bigger winner off the court, Sampras regained his championship form on it.
After one late-night match, Sampras was ready to do his press conference and bolt. But he stopped for our interview, looking at pregnant me and saying, "I'd better do this one," so his wife wouldn't be angry with him. (I think he was joking.) The first thing that happened was he asked me a question: When was I due? When I told him -- it's very close to his wife's date -- his face lit up. I'll never forget that look of pure joy.

Throughout his slump, Sampras asked only for what anyone should have, former world champion or ordinary Joe -- the chance to go out on his terms. He said he deserved the right to say when and how he should retire. After winning the Open on Sunday, he's not promising anything. He told me he wants to play Wimbledon once more because he'd hate to end his legendary career there with a loss in the second round on court two, as was his fate this past June. But then again, as he said, beating Agassi at the U.S. Open is a nice way to go out, too. He's going to think about it for a few months.

Final question: "So can you have a family and career?"

Pete Sampras: "You can do both. Jack Nicklaus was married and had kids and he won 18 majors."

Whether Sampras stops at 14 (Grand Slam wins, not children!) is for him and his wife to decide. Their baby is due just about a month before the next major, the Australian Open. This could be a severe test of his new-found delicate life balance.

But somehow I think the new Pistol Pete will do just fine.

SportsCenter anchor Chris McKendry is a regular columnist for Page 2.