WIMBLEDON, England -- The top of the official list of withdrawals for gentlemen's singles reads like this:
Player Date Reason
1. Pete Sampras 5/16/03 Not match fit
Not match fit.
Succinct. In a word (or two), very British.
The 12 other men who elected not to play at the All England Club cited injuries -- hand, back, shoulder, elbow, etc. Sampras' "injury" is something less precise, a psychic void, if you will.
|Like strawberries and cream, Pete Sampras and Wimbledon went hand in hand. He won seven of his 14 Grand Slam titles at the All England Club.|
After winning the U.S. Open final last September over Andre Agassi for his record 14th Grand Slam singles title, Sampras said, "This one might take the cake."
Those six words framed the internal debate that has consumed him ever since. Sampras was prescient, for the hunger that once drove him is now gone.
Two months ago, he realized -- perhaps for the first time -- it might never come back.
Sampras was rattling around his Beverly Hills home, the hum of SportsCenter and golf at Bel-Air Country Club starting to lose its appeal. This was the time each year when he got excited about tennis, when he usually began to prepare for Wimbledon, where the slick grass played to his greatest strengths. Half of his Grand Slam victories came on Centre Court and the circadian rhythms of competition were calling him.
Sampras, 31, called his old coach, Paul Annacone, and a few days later they began practicing at the court by his garden. It had been seven months since he hit a ball with vigor and for two days it felt good. On the third day, though, he stopped after about 30 minutes. He asked Annacone to sit down.
"This is real," he told Annacone, earnestly. "I can't do it."
Sampras recently related this revealing anecdote to Andrew Longmore of The Sunday Times of London.
"I just knew my heart wasn't in it," Sampras told Longmore. "It wasn't my body that felt bad, it was just getting up and going to practice. I enjoyed hitting the backhands and the forehands, it was the bagful of other stuff that I knew I had to do, all the drills and the fitness ...
"Then it really hit me that I wasn't going to play Wimbledon. I had to own up to the facts, to the reality of where I was, and that was a huge deal because of what Wimbledon has meant to me. It's no longer a tennis tournament, it has become part of my life and the whole process of not playing there after so long was very hard."
The feeling here at Wimbledon is mutually miserable. For Sampras' first absence in 15 years has cast a cloud over The Championships. In the first day's Wimbledon program notes, the first player referenced was the one more than 6,000 miles away.
"He has not officially removed the strings from his racket yet," it read, "but he has opted out of The Championships this time around while considering his future. It would be nice to think of Pete raising a glass to the success of this year's event, but since he lives in California, starting time of 1 p.m. on Pete's second home, Centre Court, is five in the morning at the official Sampras residence, so perhaps Pete will settle for a ceremonial sip from a bowl of cornflakes to wish us all luck."
Luck is something that Sampras can afford to share. He is happily married to the actress Bridgette Wilson and seven months ago a son, Christian, arrived. Sampras has something in the neighborhood of $100 million in the bank and all the big-name Hollywood friends he can handle. His greatest regret? His Lakers didn't win another title. Life, he says brightly, is good.
So why are some people dogging him for flagging motivation? Why, when he said he was 95 percent sure he was done, did they roll their eyes?
"Like I said when he was going through his slump: This guy has earned the right and deserves the respect of playing the game on his terms," says no less an authority than Agassi. "If he wants to get out there and continue losing and losing and losing, that's his choice. Then he goes and wins the U.S. Open.
"Now he's choosing not to play, and I sort of have the same feeling about it. He has earned the right and deserves the respect not to play the game on his terms."
The beginning of the end
His last match was more than nine months ago, an eternity in the world of professional tennis and a cycle of life in human terms.
It was Sept. 8 when the No. 17 seed eclipsed Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in the glorious final of that U.S. Open. For Sampras, it ended a 26-month period without a tournament win. In retrospect, it was the beginning of the ultimate end.
"I never thought anything would surpass what happened at Wimbledon a couple of years ago," Sampras said, referring to his record-tying seventh title in 2000. "But the way I've been going this year, to kind of come through this and play the way I did today, I was awesome."
It was the grand exit he imagined at the tournament he cherishes the most. Instead, he lost in the second round to George Bastl, ranked No. 145 in the world, in the relative anonymity of Court 2. It was his earliest departure at the All England Club since 1991. He had read a note from his wife before the match, telling him what a great champion he was and that he was widely admired, but there was no magic that day. The year before, he lost ignominiously to Roger Federer in the fourth round.
When top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt was similarly dispatched in the first round of this year's tournament by unknown Croatian qualifier Ivo Karlovic, the void here grew deeper and darker. Sampras' seven Wimbledon victories have left the men's draw bereft of winning experience. There were only two former champions in the field to begin with -- last year's winner, Hewitt, and Agassi, the distant 1992 champion.
"You don't win a tournament again and again without there being some meat to the bone," Agassi said. "It's not like it's smoke and mirrors. You have to go out there and earn it.
"If you've done that a few times, there's a heck of a chance that the environment itself really lends to your game in a certain way that makes you pretty darn tough to beat. Pete at Wimbledon is a great example."
That Sampras couldn't find the fervor for this tournament of tournaments was telling.
During his athletic life, Sampras developed a custom. He would tie his sneakers, slap the ground and say to himself, "Here we go!" After 15 years as a professional, Sampras couldn't bring himself to do it.
"It's weird to say, but I'm content," Sampras recently told Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated. "I'm happy. I've got nothing left to prove to myself. That's a big statement. I'm coming to terms with it, you know? I'm like, 'I'm stopping?' But there's nothing left in tennis I want to achieve."
Really, it's that simple. Why must everyone make it so complicated?
He revels in the simple world of his infant son. He can eat anything he wants without worrying about the nutritional implications. He can play golf or basketball with his buddies whenever he wants.
"As much as you want to make things special and unique with superstars, it's really a phase of life that he's going through," Annacone told ESPN.com. "He's just trying to really sort it all out before he says, 'OK, I'm definitely done,' or 'OK, I just needed a break and now I'm ready to go again.' I think that's human nature.
"I think romantically in everyone's mind, and probably in my mind, too, to think of your last match against Andre Agassi at the center court of the U.S. Open, it's kind of a nice thing to think about, a way to stop. But in actuality, can you do that? Do you want to do that?
"Those are the kinds of things he's mulling over."
Sampras says as much, or more.
"I see Michael Chang doing the farewell tour thing, the rocking chair in each city thing, taking bows," Sampras told Reilly. "I don't want that. I hate to be honored. I took my bows at that Open. I just didn't know it."
And what about that 5-percent chance he might come back?
"I've given myself to the end of the year to make a decision on whether to stop or not," Sampras said. "I don't want to totally close the door. The decision not to go back to Wimbledon was followed immediately by that not to play at all in 2003, because if I can't motivate myself for that tournament that I put above all others, it's not even worth thinking about the rest."
Even after sending Annacone home two months ago, Sampras didn't tell anyone of his decision to pass on Wimbledon. For two weeks, he kept it to himself. One last episode convinced him he wouldn't, couldn't, go back. His brother Gus had given him a Christmas present, a compilation of his seven championship victories. One night, after Christian had gone to bed, Sampras played the video for the first time.
He wanted to watch the 1999 final, when he beat Andre Agassi in a monumental straight-sets match.
"I was searching for something," he told Longmore of The Times. "I wanted to see if that would do anything to inspire me. So I sat there and watched the match against Andre and a little bit of my last match against (Patrick) Rafter, out of curiosity.
"But, actually, seeing me play, seeing the mindset I was in, the focus and the concentration, knowing all the work that goes into that, made me pull away even more. It made it even more clear to me that my time had gone."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com