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Friday, February 22, 2008
Stay away, Pete

The comeback dream. Every time Pete Sampras plays it gets a little bigger. After all, he beat Roger Federer in an exhibition in November and some of his shots look as good as ever. This week, he also defeated Tommy Haas with relative ease in an exhibition on the opening night of San Jose.

Though he played stand-alone matches and seniors events last year, this is the first time he's played within the confines of a real, live ATP event. And the players' reactions, both advertent and inadvertent, have been a cold reality check.

Any return by the 36-year-old Sampras would be limited to a one-off at Wimbledon or a couple of tournaments here and there, which itself illustrates how far he is from his prime. What the comeback wishers really want is to see a vintage Sampras take on the current field. But that's not possible, and here are five reminders of why a return to the circuit would be ill-advised.

1. Don't confuse exhibitions with reality.
Here's how Haas saw his role as Sampras' foil on Monday night: "Pete's event, Pete's time, make sure he has a good time. It was fun."

Though casual watchers might not have been able to tell if Haas was holding back, Sampras knew. "Tommy was pretty nice to me tonight," he told the crowd.

2. The grass is slower -- isn't it?
Though there's a player consensus that conditions have slowed down at Wimbledon over the last few years, Sampras doesn't think so and says Federer doesn't either.

So we're all delusional?" said Roddick. "I have the most respect for Pete out of anybody ever -- he was one of my heroes growing up -- but I think it's tough to make the call on the court's not slower if you haven't played on it."

3. It was tough even back then.
Apart from his huge last hurrah at the U.S. Open, Sampras struggled during his final few months of play, going 5-8 between May and August 2002. Promoting San Jose a few weeks before the event, the forthright Roddick again didn't mince words. "You see a lot of stuff about how he'd step in and be top five right away, all that stuff. He wasn't top five when he left the game. And it's tough to imagine someone kind of sitting on the pine for three years or four years and coming back and being better."

4. It's one thing to do it in practice …
Sam Querrey, who practiced frequently during the offseason, was impressed by Sampras on Monday but indicated that it takes a full effort for Sampras to hit competitively with him. "Some days I think he wants to really show me that he can still hang," said Querrey. "Some days his back's a little tight and he doesn't go as hard."

It takes a big physical commitment to get fit enough for a tour match. And journeying to a tournament to play a real match is sompletely different from hitting in your backyard with the stereo playing in the background.

5. What's the best thing that could happen?
He's not going to win Wimbledon.

And sure, losing a second-round match on Court 2 at Wimbledon isn't an ideal way to leave your favorite tournament. But it's better than a first-round loss. And don't put it past Wimbledon organizers to send him back to Court 2, where he could easily run into a tough customer like, say, Mikhail Youzhny.

As Sampras himself said, "There's a lot to lose and not a lot to gain."