Sampras misses game, not pressures that come with it

Updated: April 8, 2006, 10:10 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

He still pictures himself on the court, he says, serving well enough to beat Roger Federer. He still feels a shiver of longing on the last Sunday afternoon of Wimbledon.

The bottom line, though, is that Pete Sampras was one of those rare athletes who retired completely satisfied with his career. His contentment showed Tuesday as he spoke to reporters on a conference call to promote Thursday's exhibition match in which he'll face No. 19 Robby Ginepri at the River Oaks International tournament in Houston.

Sampras recently picked up a racket -- a bigger one than he used to play with -- for the first time in three years to get ready for the match, his first on-court appearance since his dramatic U.S. Open final win over Andre Agassi in 2002.

"Basically, after I retired, I took some time to have some fun, play some golf, and do some fun things," said Sampras, who is married to actress Bridgette Wilson and has two sons, Christian, 3, and Ryan, who was born last July.

"After a few years of that, I asked myself what was next. I need to keep myself busier, doing more, fulfilling things. The end of last year, I opened myself up to playing this year if the right thing came to me.

"Hope I won't embarrass myself out there."

That seems unlikely, but the match will be on clay, Sampras' least favorite surface, and against a worthy opponent. He said he's preparing seriously, hitting (with partners including Justin Gimelstob and members of UCLA's men's team) a couple of hours a day, four or five times a week, for the last month.

"Playing tennis is like riding a bike; you don't forget it," said Sampras, winner of 64 pro titles and a record 14 Grand Slam events. "I'm more concerned about my movement and my body than actually hitting backhands and forehands. I'm not really worried about playing anybody."

A questioner noted that he still seems to have a little swagger.

"There's always swagger when I step on the tennis court," Sampras said.

Sampras conceded that Federer's dominance, somewhat like his own during a big part of his career, is not necessarily the healthiest thing for the game.

"I put myself on the court against him and see the game and see there's no one out there that has a big enough game, a big enough serve that can back it up and really put any pressure on him," Sampras said.

"The bigger server, [Andy] Roddick, you know, stays back. That's an uphill struggle for him. I think I would stick to my game and hopefully be good enough to beat him."

But Sampras reiterated that he's not mulling a return to the pro tour. He's been playing a lot of golf and poker, and enjoyed the Indian Wells tournament as an investor rather than a player this year.

"I know playing this sport and coming out of retirement is a whole other animal," said Sampras, who also will play for the Newport Beach team in World Team Tennis this summer. "I can play as much as I want or as little as I want … Once you've shut it down long enough, you look forward to hitting a few balls.

"I miss the focus. I miss the structured life. I miss the preparation … I really miss the majors. What I don't miss is the travel, the pressure, the stress of staying on top of the game. I feel like I had a bull's-eye on my chest for most of my career, so just kind of fending people off is something that I don't miss."

The match will be webcast free of charge on the U.S. Tennis Association's Web site, www.usta.com, with the pre-game starting at 8:15 p.m. ET on Thursday and the match itself beginning at 8:30 p.m.

Also missing in action …
Sampras commented on the absence of a big serve-and-volley player since his departure.

"The art … is pretty much extinct," he said. "You have some guys that do a little bit of it, but across the board, everyone stays back and just trades groundies. I miss the contrast. I miss one guy coming in and the other guy defending. I think that's the best tennis.

"But that's just a sign of the times. It's just the kind of direction it was at Wimbledon the last couple years. The part of the court that's worn out is the baseline, not the net. So, you know, if I'd be playing today, I'd be licking my chops on grass."

Hawk-Eye post-mortem

Paul Hawkins, the inventor of the electronic line-calling system that received its first sustained, high-profile test at the Nasdaq-100 Open, said he had only one bad moment during the entire 12-day run.

"There was a cameraman and a million other people in the booth shooting to show the way it works, and a cable was kicked loose and the system went down for a few minutes," Hawkins said by phone Monday on his way to catch a flight back to his home in England. "Unfortunately, it was during the Federer match."

Federer isn't totally sold on the new system and said so, but still availed himself of it five times and succeeded in getting a call overruled just once. Most players fared similarly.

There were 161 challenges in 59 matches on Stadium Court. Only 53 calls were reversed, or just under a third. WTA players were 21-for-77 (27.2 percent) and ATP players were 32-for-84 (38 percent), but cut the women a break. Maria Sharapova dragged the numbers down all by herself by going 0-for-11. Tim Henman's 0-for-6 brought up the rear for the men.

The split was far worse for the players than the 45/55 ratio when Hawk-Eye was tested at the Hopman Cup in Australia earlier this year. Hawkins thinks that's because "players were challenging on more crucial points … challenging regardless of whether they thought they were right or not, just to have any chance to win the point."

Hawkins said he hasn't yet received any feedback from ATP or WTA officials, but had a few thoughts of his own on the criticisms he heard over the course of the Nasdaq-100.

• To the notion that chair umpires have abdicated their responsibility to overrule calls, leaving it up to players to challenge: "That's more theoretical than practical -- there's no actual information to base that on."

• On the "replay official," the extra official in the Hawk-Eye booth monitoring the system: "It's not needed. Hopefully, everyone's confidence in our abilities will get to the point where they don't feel they have to watch over us."

• On whether the limited challenge set-up works: "There were three possibilities -- limited, unlimited or having the chair umpire just look at a screen and not have challenges at all. No person can sensibly argue that one way is better than another until we've seen them all. The first one is the one most people could agree on. Time will tell. I think it's great for the crowds. It does open the question of whether different events could have different protocols."

Nasdaq-100 Open founder and former pro Butch Buchholz said was pleased with the way Hawk-Eye performed in its debut. He said if it were up to him, he'd give the chair umpire more unilateral authority to use the system. "The idea, I believe, is to not have any bad calls," he said.

"I think everyone's a little surprised that the players were wrong so often. I thought it would have been more 50/50, so clearly you can see a lot of times the players are seeing it from their emotions and what they hope."

Hawk-Eye almost certainly will re-appear later this summer in most of the 10 tournaments that comprise the hard-court U.S. Open Series, and definitely in the U.S. Open itself. Discussions are ongoing. A major issue is who will shoulder the $80,000 cost of installing two video boards at each stadium court.

Meanwhile, here's a sampling of comments from prominent players on Hawk-Eye, culled throughout the Nasdaq-100:

• Ivan Ljubicic: "I feel like the chair umpires are actually not even trying to make overrules anymore. They give all the pressure to the players."

• Martina Navratilova: "I mean, where was this 20 years ago? I was all for it. I would have loved it all along. It's definitely a plus for the game. Fans love it. And the players, you know, it gives you peace of mind."

• James Blake: "Maybe we'll be humbled a little bit … maybe we'll realize that the guys, the lines-people, are getting it right … There's a lot of times when people are just arguing for the sake of arguing. Maybe it's more hoping. You know, when you're a kid, you think the world's against you, the calls are all going against you. They're not doing it on purpose. They're doing their best out there … I don't get yelled at every time I miss a forehand, and they shouldn't get yelled at every time they miss a ball."

• Maria Sharapova: "I think the fans just want to see for entertainment. They start booing and they want to hear the entertainment, they want to see it on the screen. Sometimes it gets a little too much because you know the ball was out or you know the ball was in, you're not going to challenge it but they try to force you into it."

• Roger Federer: "My big wish from this whole thing is that the fans don't take this as a game, you know, because it happens so rarely that they shouldn't be screaming 'Oh, challenge that' or 'challenge this.' When there is close calls, they don't applaud any more because they think there is going to be a challenge."

• Andy Roddick: "I think it leaves you with a feeling that you're not getting the short end of it. Basically, it helps me selfishly because I can't just whine about stuff. It's on me whether or not I want to challenge it or not."

Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.