Sampras says thrill is long gone on the court

PETE SAMPRAS might not be ready to retire from professional tennis, but he is ready to retire from the French Open.

CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

Pete Sampras with his wife Bridgette Wilson. Sampras has never made it past the semifinals at the French Open and it will always be the hole in his near-perfect resume. — Pic. VINCE BUCCI/GETTY IMAGES-

PETE SAMPRAS might not be ready to retire from professional tennis, but he is ready to retire from the French Open.

"It's clear; I don't see myself playing it," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles in which he talked extensively about his state of mind and his career, which most likely came to an end with his 14th Grand Slam singles title at last year's United States Open. Sampras, who turns 32 in August, won five United States Opens, seven Wimbledons and two Australian Opens. He also finished No. 1 in the computer ranking for a record six consecutive years. Yet, he never made it past the semifinals here at Roland Garros. It will always be the hole in his near-perfect resume, and, while Michael Chang was playing his farewell match on centre court and Martina Hingis was watching women's matches from the stands, Sampras was content to keep his distance and fade away.

"It's not going to affect the rest of my life, but it is one of my more disappointing moments," he said of the French Open, where he won one match in his last three appearances.

By the end, the clay surface was not the only problem in Paris. "If it was a hard court at the French, I don't know if I would have played well," he said. "I was more relaxed at the others, but at the French, I was trying to make it happen instead of letting it happen."

Such a different feeling than he had at Wimbledon, where his big serve and athleticism kept him in the comfort zone. The irony is that the last match he played there was arguably his worst: a second-round defeat last year to the journeyman George Bastl of Switzerland. But instead of trying to create a more fitting final image, he has decided to skip Wimbledon this year for the first time since 1988 and expects — but does not promise — that he will never play there or at any professional event again.

"If that's my last image at Wimbledon, my apologies to the people there and to myself," he said. "I never thought it would be like that. I hope people think about what I've done, and what I accomplished there. Sure I had thoughts about that match over the months," he said. "It's such a miserable ending. It makes you want to go out there and end it on a better note. But then you think that there are no guarantees that it's going to happen. You can plan on these things and on having a storybook ending. Sometimes it happens, like at the last couple of majors I won, but there are no guarantees I'd play Wimbledon this year and win and beat Andre in the final in five sets. The reality is it's a lot of hard work, a lot of things you need to do to get yourself ready."

Until recently, Sampras thought he might be able to get ready for Wimbledon, but he now concedes, "I haven't picked up a racket in a long time." He has been debating whether to continue since he beat Andre Agassi in the United States Open final after more than two years without a tournament victory. He said he discussed his quandary extensively with his wife, Bridgette Wilson, other family members and his coach, Paul Annacone.

He called the hockey great Wayne Gretzky late last year. "I was kind of picking his brain a little bit," Sampras said.

He finally decided to play this season, but each time he returned to practice, he lost his motivation in a hurry. With Wimbledon looming, he said he started a final cycle of training about a month ago. "I started practicing three or four times, and one day I started hitting with Paul for half an hour and just said, `Paul, let's have a seat on the bench,'" he said. "And he felt it was coming, and when I sat down, I said: `This is real. I can't get myself going to play Wimbledon. I feel like we're coming to an end pretty soon.'"

"I thought, `Should I have a big press conference and just stop now, don't draw it out? Because I don't want to draw this out.' But I also felt there might be a time when I might want to play again, might have the urge to pick up a racket and see if I could come back after taking a year and a half off and do well in or win a major. Wouldn't that be great? To top what I just did. But if I continue, I will do it for the right reasons, not because I'm bored."

Sampras said he had no concrete plans for a new occupation. Then again, when you have earned $43.2 million in prize money, there is presumably no need to rush. For now, he is interested in taking vacations with his wife and six-month-old son, Christian, and improving his golf game, which he plans to work on with Jim Courier. Sampras is not interested in coaching, tennis administration or continuing his formal education, which ended in high school. Nor is he interested in television commentary.

"I'm not sure how good I'd be at it," he said. "If I wanted to do it, I'd want to be good, and that means taking a lot of training for something that's not a huge passion of mine." Sampras said that the months since Christian was born had been "the most enjoyable time of my life" but that his family was not the reason he had decided to stop.

"I realised that it's all about me and my goals and something I need to prove to me," he said. "To be No. 1 or win the majors, it was all about putting something in my head and then I had to do it, and now, I just don't have that feeling.

"It was important to me to win another major after 13, just for me, because I felt I wasn't ready to stop.

I wanted to keep on going and prove to myself and the people who were pulling for me that I could still do it, still get it going when I had to. And that was the toughest challenge."

He realises that by leaving the door ajar to a return, he risks diluting the impact and public appreciation when he does officially retire.

For now, he is only 95 per cent certain, so he will watch from afar and monitor his reactions during this year's Wimbledon.

"I have a lot of respect for what Andre's been able to do," Sampras said. "He's a great player, able to play well at 23 and 33. We've had different journeys to this point in our careers, and he obviously still has a little left in him. He seems more focussed now than when he was 23. That's him changing as a person and growing up a little bit. The time off he had, the ups and downs he had through those years, is a big reason he has been able to keep it going. If he was at the pace I was at, burning candles at both ends trying to stay No. 1 for those years, I don't know if he'd be there now."

He might instead be at home preparing to watch Wimbledon himself.

"I'll have my TV ready to make sure I'll get every match," Sampras said. "I'll be charting, getting the draw out to see who's going to do what." He was kidding. But skipping Wimbledon is, in general, no joking matter.

"I will miss the echo of the ball, and I will miss walking out on centre court," Sampras said. "I will miss it at 31, at 41, at 61, for the rest of my life."

New York Times News Service