Pistol Pete: Playing Russian Roulette with Reputation
What do you do when you’re 34 years old, retired with a wife and kids, and have earned more than $43 million in your career?
You bottle your boredom and go back to work part-time.
Three years after ending his illustrious career with his fifth U.S. Open victory, Pete Sampras turned his attention back to tennis. Before agreeing in February to play seven World Team Tennis (WTT) matches, Sampras had only played one competitive match since his career ended at the 2002 U.S. Open. His return to semi-competition was marked by a heavily promoted USTA exhibition match in April against Robby Ginepri, and streamed live on the Interweb. Fans witnessed a limping Sampras, huffing and puffing, and looking defeated at times by a younger player who took pride in tiring out his older opponent. He appeared as a man with the face and demeanor of Sampras, with the serve and the strokes that resembled the man known as ‘Pistol Pete’, without the movement to match.
He’s competing in seven WTT matches over the course of the summer for the Newport Beach Breakers. He’ll also play a few exhibition matches, including a best-of-three set exhibition against former rival Jim Courier on August 7th at the JPMorgan Chase Open.
No one should count on seeing the player who won a men’s record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and he even admits he’s far from his peak. Sampras lost his singles match Monday against world No. 211 John Paul Fruttero of the St. Louis Aces, but won his doubles match. On Wednesday
Sampras played the Sacramento Capitals and lost 5-2 to Jesuit High School alumnus Sam Warburg, who idolized Sampras growing up. In doubles, he and Rick Leach lost 5-2 to Warburg and Mark Knowles.
Earlier in the day the King of Swing held a small press conference in the furniture department of the local Macy’s department store. This isn’t surprising given that the event is held at the Allstate Stadium, located in the sunny parking lot of the Sunrise Mall in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento.
Instead of playing and working out every day for more than six hours like he did during his career, Sampras’ schedule now consists of hitting three or four days a week and spending a few hours in the gym. Although he’s not playing as well as he’d like and won’t commit to anything beyond this summer, he says that he is enjoying playing WTT and being in the limelight again.
In his biggest press avail since his quasi-return, a call with reporters last week, Sampras said he considers himself among the top five players of all time. The others? Rod Laver, Roger Federer, Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl.
And no, he wasn’t shy with his praise of Roger Federer:
Well, I think when I look at Roger, I mean, I’m a fan. I mean, I’m a fan of how he plays, what he’s about, just the fact that I think he’s a class — I don’t know him personally, but seems like he’s a class guy on and off the court. He’s fun to watch. Just his athletic ability, what he’s able to do on the run. I think he can and will break every tennis record out there.
I just think he’s the only really great player I see playing. I think Nadal is really good, shows — and he’s a great player, but I just think there’s less of him. Today I think Roger is two, three levels above the rest. The fact that he seems like he’s even getting better. You combine all that, I don’t really see anyone threatening the No. 1 ranking. I think he’s just too consistent and too good and has a fear factor in everyone else that I had at times, but I think he has it even more.
About a year ago, many pegged Federer as a threat to surpass Sampras’ career totals and questioned the presence of rivals to Federer’s game. It’s impossible to think of a peak Sampras playing Fed-man. Though Sampras had Andre Agassi to push him, Agassi announced before Wimbledon that he’ll retire after the U.S. Open.
When Sampras was asked to speak about his chief rival’s career, he reflected on how he was forced to elevate his game with Agassi there. “When he had his moments playing so well, in the finals at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, I played some of my best tennis,” Sampras said. “I think we, as a rivalry, hit mainstream sports fans that might not be tennis fans, but maybe tuned into the match… I’ve always said he’s made me a better player, made me add some things to my game that against other guys I could get away with. You know, he’s always going to be the one guy, when people ask me who my rival was, he’s the one. ”
Nearly four years since his last Grand Slam match, Sampras still has fond memories.
“I miss [Wimbledon],” he said. “I’m just so familiar with that feeling of playing there, the court, just the daily life at Wimbledon. I’ll miss it at 34, 44, 54. So familiar with the place, so many good memories, that I think these are the two weeks that I really do miss the sport. And I miss the Open and the rest, but I think these two are just — I was so successful, so many good memories there, I definitely miss it.”
Yes, that seems obvious Mr. Sampras. Still, asked if he would return to the ATP Tour, Sampras didn’t hesitate with a resounding, “No.”
Instead, he’ll be doing an appearance at a mall or a furniture store, playing in a parking lot in an obscure league, a long way from his glory days of big prizes and fawning attention. And hopefully no one will have the bad taste to ask him, “Didn’t you use to be Pete Sampras?”
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