Monday, January 26'It's time to say goodbye'
By Greg GarberESPN.com
NEW YORK -- The postscript, supplied swiftly, almost glibly by Pete Sampras himself, turned out to be his epitaph.
|As soon as Sampras won the 2002 title, he knew he might not ever top the win.|
"This one might take the cake."
That was the first sentence from Sampras in the wake of his unexpected victory over Andre Agassi in last year's U.S. Open final. In retrospect, his heart seemed to know his career was over. Some 352 days later -- dressed far better in a sleek black suit and charcoal gray shirt -- Sampras' 32-year-old brain finally got the message.
"You know, I really didn't know at the time," Sampras mused Monday night, sitting in precisely the same spot -- behind the microphone in Interview Room No. 1 at the National Tennis Center -- where he first suggested the future. "I thought about it a little bit during the two weeks, but I never realistically thought I was going to win and stop.
"It's a process, retirement. It's not something you wake up one day and say 'I'm retired.' You need to go through all the emotions, and I did that. I went through everything I had to go through to be convinced I'm 100 percent done. And that's where I am right now."
||I will never sit here and say I'm the greatest ever -- I just won't. It's not up to anyone. I've done what I've done in the game. I've won a number of majors. I think that's really, you know, kind of the answer to
||— Pete Sampras
And so Sampras' win over Agassi last Sept. 8 turned out to be, as it became increasingly obvious, his last match. He won 64 tournaments and 762 matches during a 15-year career, but his record 14 Grand Slam singles titles distinguished him as one of the greatest players ever. The greatest, some would argue.
Sampras won Wimbledon a record-tying seven times, to go with five U.S. Open titles and two Australian Open crowns. Behind him on the all-time Grand Slam list are Roy Emerson (12), Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver (11), and Bill Tilden (10).
"I will never sit here and say I'm the greatest ever -- I just won't," Sampras said. "It's not up to anyone. I've done what I've done in the game. I've won a number of majors. I think that's really, you know, kind of the answer to everything."
But doesn't that mean, really, you know, kind of that Sampras thinks he's the best?
"It's hard to compare the '90s to the '60s and the '40s," Sampras said. "I don't know if there's one best player of all time. I feel like my game will match up against anybody."
Sampras made his first public appearance to discuss his recent thought process in a 40-minute news conference. Twice, he showed emotion. His voice quavered when he discussed the people who shaped his game, and tears later came to his eyes when he said he appreciated the way his parents raised him.
Sampras was honored between the two night matches at Arthur Ashe Stadium. He stood for more than two minutes as the sellout crowd clapped and roared. The man who rarely showed much emotion on the court cried his brown eyes out.
A This-Is-Your-Life lineup -- seven-year coach Paul Annacone, Jim Courier, Boris Becker, John McEnroe and (through the miracle of videotape) Agassi -- celebrated Sampras' accomplishments. It was not the yearlong victory lap exit strategy chosen by Michael Chang. It was as short and blessedly sweet as his farewell stroll around the court with his son Christian Charles to the strains of "Alive" by his favorite band, Pearl Jam.
Agassi called him the best he had ever played against. So did McEnroe. He got a swell plaque that will be displayed on the grounds here.
"I'm very touched," Sampras said. "I'm going to miss playing here. I love playing in New York in front of you guys. I know in my heart it's time to say goodbye."
And then he thanked everyone: his parents, his siblings, his coaches, the USTA, the fans, and his wife and son.
"Have a good night," he said. "Thank you very much."
"I feel like I'm going back to my house," Sampras had said earlier. "It's not painful. It's emotional. It's coming to terms with something that is a passion of mine that I love to do, that's been my life.
"To say goodbye to it, to say I'm not going to play again, not going to be out here on this court, it's emotional. It's a closed chapter, but still part of me is out there."
Sampras acknowledged that an aborted training session two months before Wimbledon told him he couldn't go on. He was hitting balls with Annacone at his house on Beverly Hills. On the third day, he stopped.
"I had Wimbledon in the back of my mind and felt like once that event came around, I might get myself going, get training and practicing," Sampras said. "And once I started that process of starting to practice, after three days, I was done.
"I just didn't want to practice. I didn't want to train. I didn't want to do everything you have to do. I feel like I did it all.
"I think that's when it hit me."
In addition to winning the grandest prizes in his sport, Sampras was also a dogged, day-to-day grinder. He was the ATP's No. 1-ranked player for six consecutive years (1993-98), a feat that had never been accomplished. Almost as remarkable was his record in Grand Slam finals: 14-4.
"He was just one of the most graceful players of all time, one of the most quietly competitive people of all time," said Andy Roddick, who is seen as a possible successor to Sampras in American tennis. "And he's got to be the one -- when I think of him, I think of him as one of the best pressure players of all time. It seemed like the bigger the match was, the better that he played.
"He did it all in his own time. He didn't really make a big fuss about things. He just made his name by winning."
And how will Sampras make his name for the rest of his life?
Truth be told, he's not so sure. He is spending quality time with his wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, and son, who was born just over nine months ago.
"I adore this little boy, I really do," Sampras said. "He's starting to crawl now. I'm having to work a little more. I love being home with him and taking care of him, taking care of my wife. It has changed my life."
|Pete Sampras said his wife never caused his game to suffer.|
In his only flare of temper, Sampras said that Wilson helped him through the harrowing 26-month period during which he failed to win a single tournament.
"She has been my rock through the whole marriage," Sampras said. "At a time where I was struggling, my heart wasn't into it as much ... she got blamed for it, which is absolute [crap]. She stuck with me, and we got through it together."
While Sampras offered few details of what he'll be doing in the near future, aside from playing lots of golf on the finest courses in the country, he all but eliminated three possibilities: becoming U.S. Davis Cup captain or a coach, playing seniors tennis and doing television commentary.
"There will be a day when I want to do something," Sampras said. "I just don't know right now."
Tennis hasn't been high among his priorities, either. He only watched a few hours of this year's Wimbledon.
"I missed it, I missed the court, I missed the stadium," Sampras said. "It's another tournament. It's a grind. It's a lot of pressure. In a lot of ways, I was glad I was home.
"To be honest with you, for the past year I've gotten as far away from the game as possible. I don't read any; I don't watch any. To shut it out has been nice. It's been so consuming to my life for so many years. It felt good not to pay any attention to it."
Monday, however, was a day for his peers to pay tribute to Sampras.
"As a player, I think his legacy will be his serve and his athleticism," said Todd Martin, who is a year older than Sampras. "And I think that's an injustice to him.
"I think Pete knew when to play, when to play better, how to play better -- more than anybody I've ever met. I think that's a skill and a talent that was too often veiled by the accolades that he got for his physical talents. At 4-all deuce, he knew what to do and he did it, time after time after time. Boy, it would be nice to walk in those shoes once in a while."
Mardy Fish, who was 8 years old when Sampras won his first Grand Slam title, the 1990 U.S. Open, grew up idolizing the champion. Fish was impressed with his belief.
"You rarely ever saw Pete get like a second break in a set," said Fish, who is ranked No. 26 in the world. "He just had so much confidence on his serve games to hold serve that, you know, he knew that all he needed was one break. Especially at Wimbledon, all he needed was one break, and he'd pretty much win the set every time."
Martin was asked if seeing Sampras celebrated on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium would leave him emotional.
"Most of us haven't seen or heard from him in a year," Martin replied. "I think it will be enjoyable to see him celebrated and see him put some formality to what we all thought was the truth already.
"But, you know, emotional? No. The guy ruined parts of my career."
Martin was kidding, but Sampras' retirement leaves a void at the top of the game. With Agassi approaching the end of his career, there are a handful of players fighting to become the best player in today's game: Roddick, No. 2-ranked Roger Federer, Australian Lleyton Hewitt and Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero.
What will Sampras miss? Playing, competing, the rush, the excitement.
"Just the joy of playing the game," Sampras said.
When asked to pick one match that he could bottle and preserve forever, Sampras chose the 2000 Wimbledon final, which broke Emerson's individual Grand Slam record.
"I played perfect tennis," Sampras said. "I just remember from 3-all to the rest of the match, it's as good as I could play."
His saddest moment? Losing to George Bastl in the second round of last year's Wimbledon.
"That was one of the biggest low points, maybe the biggest," Sampras said. "I was really down in the dumps after that."
"Two months later, winning here was the highest," Sampras said. "Pretty much night and day there."
Sampras talked about the 19-year-old kid who walked into the National Tennis Center back in 1990 and became the youngest man to win the U.S. Open. He said the turning point of his career came two years later -- in a loss.
"At 19, I won the Open, but I wasn't sure what I wanted," Sampras said. "I won't say I got lucky. I played two great weeks of tennis.
"When I lost to (Stefan) Edberg here in '92, I knew that's what I wanted. That loss made me change my career. It made me hate to lose. At that point, it was good enough getting to the finals. I gave in in that match. Ever since that moment, I just became obsessed with being the best."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.