Pistol Pete: Playing Russian Roulette with Reputation
by Lynn Berenbaum | July 15th, 2006, 10:13 pm

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. ADHEREL

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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30 Comments for Pistol Pete: Playing Russian Roulette with Reputation

Jason Says:

Jeez, lighten up on the guy.

Bob Says:

Well said. Pete is another of a long line of ex-jocks who don’t know how to leave. Everyone knows it’s sad, if not pathetic, and yet guys like Pete just can’t seem to walk off the field – and STAY off the field – with enduring class. I guess the fame, fortune and feeling that accompanies prime-of-life athleticism must be a narcotic that we mere mortals have never experienced and will never understand.

CR Says:

Hey, I’m not a Sampras fan, but even I thought that was needlessly harsh.

JDC Says:

Definitely too harsh. So, are retired athletes supposed to maintain their greatness until their deaths? Of course not. Next, you’ll start ripping on Cal Ripken because he can’t play shortstop in celebrity softball games as well as he did before retirement.

federated Says:

Yeah, lighten up! I’m just glad to see him back on the court. I hope he joins the Legends tour. There’s no reason why retired athletes should hide under a rug for the rest of their long lives–or try to compete at the level they once did.

bagelgetter Says:

I don’t think this was harsh at all. In fact, I’m a big Sampras fan, and I think it was pretty much on-target. Look, Sampras is really hurting his reputation by putting himself out there in front of fans and not even seeming to try. I read that at the Sac Bees game the other day he wouldn’t even sign autographs for little kids, and he was taking calls on his cell phone during change-overs. No one wants to see that and see him ruin his credibility.

If he really wants to do something, he should try helping the USTA by starting a foundation or doing fundraising appearances.

I thought this was right on. Good job.

Daniel Stern Says:

I couldn’t agree more. I think Sampras’ return to tennis is all a little to conveniently calculated to get his name back in the papers so that people remember him. I also think deep down, he’s trying to take a little bit away from Agassi’s goodbye — since we all know that Agassi is the MUCH more loved player and the one that will be remembered forever and more fondly.

M Webb Says:

Pete is not alone in his desire to return to his former sport. At least the worst that can happen is he loses a tennis match.I remember when Mark Donahue returned to race F1 with Penske and paid the ultimate price. Johnny Mac is still active and I don’t believe he has tarnished his rep (ahem)maybe he has even improved it. Sampras has only been swinging a racquet for around 2 months. If the fever is still burning, his game will rise to a much higher level

FS Says:

Bagelgetter, you’ve been misinformed. I was at the Sac Capitals match (what are the Sac Bees?) and yes, Pete did an autograph signing after the match. I did not see him using his cell phone during the match (perhaps others did, but I did actually watch some tennis), but he was interviewed by the broadcasters while his teammates were on the court.

Pete made the decision to play team tennis last March, so how could he have calculated it to interfere with Andre’s retirement?

Investing in tennis? Rather than waste his money with the USTA, Pete helped with the start up costs for the Tennis Channel and invested in Tennis magazine. Just because he doesn’t make sure that his name is in giant letters on the outside of the building doesn’t mean he isn’t involved.

Leo Says:

Several of you are flat out missing the bigger point. Pete’s not playing Wimbledon, he’s playing an exhibition to help the sport, not to mention showing respect to Billie Jean. You need to respect the humility he’s shown in acknowledging how closed off in his prime and he wants to show a more positive side. You want to criticize, pick on Connors, who only helps tennis, when there is a buck in it for him. Tennis players are fortunate that they actually have these opportunities. We’re fortunate to have Johnny Man, Courier, Sampras, Agassi, Martin, and Evert staying involved.

Nina Says:

Is there some reason that everything single thing written on this site has to be a negative and snide attack on a player/coach/td/etc? It’s been stated repeatedly that tennis as a sport has been weakened by big-name players who make their money and then just walk away, as if the game meant nothing to them. Now we have one of the greatest players ever who has both honored Billie Jean King and come back to play a sport he loves and that fans want to see him play. If it hurts you to see him play less well then when he was 22, then just don’t go to the matches. It’s called freedom of choice, which I have, you have, and Pete has.

Joy Says:

Listen Pete knows he’s rusty out there, and I believe the competitive Pete will start practicing more and get himself more in shape.

We (his fans) all know he hates to lose!! I love the fact that he is back in tennis. I love to watch him serve and I have faith that he will get his returns going too.

As far as him taking the limelight away from Agassi’s farewell tour, I believe he has more class then that!!! And like one of the other posters mentioned, this was a done deal months ago.

Samprasfanz wishes him the best of luck! If you love Pete, do drop into our website and enjoy reading about and looking at the pictures of one of the best tennis players ever, if not the best.

HG Says:

Was never a great fan of Sampras. Agreed with all the press comments during his career that tagged him as boring. At times I even viewed him as grumpy.

Last week I watched “Beyond the Glory”….a story of his tennis life, the dedication required, the hurt felt, personal loss…and personal triumph.

My view has changed…he is a class act….and deeply regret my earlier judgements of him. My son could do worse than to emulate a guy like Pete Sampras.

Maritza Says:

I think that Pete Sampras is a Legend and will always be! Coming back to play a few matches and exhibitions show that he is not the proud player who hides himself so as not to lose luster. And to those who expect him to play like before are way off their mind! Did Michael Jordan come back the same? Has he lost anything because of this? No! Do you pity Jack Nickalaus when you see him playing golf on a tour? No, I admire his guts! And so do I admire Pete win or lose! He is a great champion and will always be and him playing now is a good demonstration of humbleness!

Ryan Says:

Nina hit the nail on the head.

Dorothy Cleaves Says:

I agree with a number of the messages that supported Pete. I was a huge fan of his through much of his career. Granted he looks a shadow of his former self in tennis terms, but I don’t think he is tarnishing his pro career or image. Clearly he does not want to go back to the years of putting huge pressure on himself in order to be #1 on the tour. Hopefully he will practice harder before the Courier match or he will lose 6-0 6-0, since Courier is still playing very well.

:) Says:

Forgive me for sounding rude, but the above blog is pointless…good try though.

todd Says:

give me a break! Anyone remember Borg’s comeback and think that tarnished his reputation? Nope..not a chance.

Look..Pete loves playing the game that has brought him so much success. He draws people in to watch him play which is what the game needs.

dude Says:

Am I the only one who watched the expo Sampras did with Ginepri? He looked lame, and his attempt with WTT is pathetic. If he cared so much about WTT, I have a question: DId he play when he was a pro?

He’s out getting beaten by kids half his age who watched him in grammar school and I’m supposed to respect the attempt?!

NO way. I’m embarrased for him.

Jason Alfrey Says:

Pete’s not trying to regain the spotlight again or overshadowing the fact that Andre is retiring after this years Open. He misses the game and wants to have a little fun. If you look at the Golden Bear and Arnie who played in tournaments well after there prime and most the time not even make the cut. You never hear fans ripping on them. When they do play they are actually taking a spot of a younger and much more likely player to make the cut. It would be one thing if Pete was using his status to get a wild card in the tournament and looking like an old man, but he’s not. Arnold was 80 playing in his last Masters and had thousands surrounding him cheering him on knowing that he was not going to win. Maybe tennis fans should embrace their history and respect it more. Great atheletes don’t care if they are in mall or a furniture store to sign autographs as long as there people. I’m sure there a few more people that became interested in tennis because of Petes return to the court, maybe got to shake his hand at the mall, or had a conversation with a fan. Do you think Pete’s asking himself is this good for me or the game? If he was, I’m sure he would answer the game.

maloy Says:

I’m from the Philippines and a big Sampras fan. I envy you guys because you can again actually see Pete playing tennis again while i have to be content to watch a delayed telecast on tv. I really don’t understand some of you guys. Why do you criticize Pete for playing tennis again but not at the same level that he used to play? He loves the sport and misses it. He has been very vocal about his not being at his usual peak but he enjoys playing anyway. Why can’t you guys just be happy for him? You are an American and Pete is for me the best American champion ever. You should be proud of him instead of putting him down.

Bonitto Says:

Pete can’t win with his naysayers, what a bunch you are, leave the man alone and go find someone else to pick on, you all do it enough when he was playing, let him be, tennis needs him, have you ever think about that, all who are ripping him, damm if he did, damm if he dont, has for taking away from Andre retirement, get real all you knuttle heads, pete is the better player, so he dont need anything from Andre, nothing, thank you.

Cynthia from UK Says:

I swopped tickets for Henman on Wimbledon Centre Court so I could watch the incomparable Sampras on Court 1. Some things transcend loyalty to one’s compatriots and Pete inspired my admiration because he had not only a superb game but a champion’s fighting heart, as well as quiet modest dignity that many of today’s players would do well to emulate. I’m glad for people who didn’t see him during his unique career if they can watch him play now, even though he’s not at his brilliant best.
It was only after Pete Sampras retired that some realised how much the world of tennis had lost. Roger Federer is already being called ‘the greatest ever’, but what has he had to overcome so far? Sampras still won when he was sick, injured, dehydrated and grief-stricken. He also had to contend with the blood condition thalassaemia, which sapped his energy. He even won another Slam after two dreadful years when many said he was washed up. So if he wants to enjoy playing competitive tennis again but without the stress of chasing another record, he thoroughly deserves that.

dude Says:

Just ran across an article on one of the web boards from the local Newport Beach paper. The Breakers coach says that Sampras might be good for fans, but he is messing up the team:


DOn’t get me wrong, I love Pete. I just think he’s doing this whole thing half-assed…though his ass is definitely full LOL. Lose some weight and get serious Pete! We want to see you win!!!

roGER Says:

Sad to say, but the day Pete retired was a great and happy one for men’s tennis.

The sport had the misfortune to produce its blandest champion at the same time as technology leaped in front of technique and produced the most boring power tennis ever.

Through no fault of his own, Pete, along with the Williams sisters, produced a boredom crisis that the professional game is only just getting over.

Bonitto Says:

hey Dude, the coach is taking through his ass ans you know it, this is WTT not the ATP, it is all about fun, why did he have him to play if it is all about winning, leave Pete alone and stop blame for the team lost, it is a team concept, isn’t a Team.

Bonitto Says:

Hey roGER, I wonder what you would call Roger Federer if Pete Sampras was so bad for tennis? beacause surely Federer is more a robot than any players i ever saw in all my life.

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SG Says:

I mean come on. We don’t bash players and say they’re “hanging on” when they play the Senior Tour. But, Pete Sampras who can still play some tennis at 35 wants to get out there and hit a bit and we rip him to shreds….puuuhleeeze. if I was the greatest player who ever lived, I don’t think I could put a racket down forever either. The man is a competitor.

T Dawg Says:

I simply enjoy knowing the fact that Sampras can’t enjoy obtaining ‘The Record’ for very long, as I’m sure he is watching Federer battle his way towards the record…and I wish I could make a bet w/each and everyone of you, that when Federer get’s #15, Sampras WILL NOT be there to ‘pass the torch’ (doesn’t have the class). And, what about Sampras playing Davis Cup – it was always ‘too much’ for him and ‘too hard’ Sampras would always frustrate McEnroe, because of his lack of interest in playing Davis Cup

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