After practice with Sampras, I learned he's still got it
Posted: Tuesday March 7, 2006 11:56AM; Updated: Tuesday March 7, 2006 5:49PM
One of Pete Sampras' greatest skills during a career which included a record 14 Grand Slams, was volleying at the net.
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First, Martina Hingis made a successful comeback. Then, John McEnroe followed her lead and became the first Hall of Fame inductee to return to the ATP Tour and win a tournament with his doubles victory in San Jose last month.
Could the most successful male tennis player in history be next?
When my phone rang last week, there was a familiar voice on the other end. That old sarcastic, condescending tone instantly revealed the identity of the great Pete Sampras. After catching up, he invited me to come and practice with him.
Pistol Pete and I have been frequent practice partners over the years, especially while he was contemplating retirement after his career-closing win at the 2002 U.S. Open. So my surprise wasn't with Sampras wanting to hit balls with me, but his desire to play at all.
In talking to Sampras during that ambiguous period, when he was assessing his desire to continue his career, I assumed he would take some time away from the game to decompress if he didn't feel he could maintain his level of commitment and excellence. Sampras earned the perfect ending to his spectacular career, winning his last event and finishing at the top of his sport -- a rare feat in any profession.
Sampras has spent most of his retirement honing his golf game, whittling his handicap down close to scratch, and helping his beautiful actress wife, Bridgette Wilson, raise their two young sons, Christian and Ryan. Sampras was never the type of player who enjoyed practicing for the sheer fun of running around and hitting tennis balls. He practiced with a purpose and out of necessity to maintain his skills as the best player in the world.
Knowing this, I wasn't surprised to hear that Sampras didn't hit much during his retirement. But even I was amazed when he told me during our first practice that it was only the fourth time he hit at all during his three-and-a-half years of retirement.
As soon as I showed up at Sampras' sprawling Beverly Hills mansion, I knew few things had changed. Contrary to public perception, Sampras is not the shy, reticent champion he is depicted as. A certain amount of confidence and self-assurance is needed in order to become the best in the world at what you do, and Sampras is no exception. I think that's why he always enjoyed practicing with me: I'm a big target, both literally and figuratively.
Never one to shy away from a confrontation, Sampras always took great pleasure in pointing out the obvious disparities in our career accomplishments. This fact was never more evident than when he walked me through his trophy room on the way to his private tennis court. If the old adage holds true that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," I must admit, catching a glimpse of those seven Wimbledon trophies side-by-side was one of the most beautiful things I have even seen.
During our frequent water breaks, we would chat and I would pester Sampras with questions. I have always been naturally inquisitive, but even more so when I'm around the tennis elite. I think it's normal to be intrigued by greatness, to wonder what sets the truly great apart or how they view certain situations. That has often been my feeling when I've been around Sampras, Andre Agassi or Jim Courier, the three most successful players that I have had the good fortune of spending time with on and off court.
Sampras informed me that he committed to play an exhibition event in Houston in a few weeks and a significant portion of the World Team Tennis schedule for the Newport Beach franchise. He was relaxed and in good spirits and we practiced over two days for about an hour and 15 minutes each. We started off rallying up the middle and then moved on to some competitive baseline games where one person feeds the ball and then the point is "live" with both players trying to win the rally.
I instantly felt like I was taking part in an experiment proving the value of natural talent and instincts. Sampras' timing and skill were still impressive, especially considering how infrequently he has played. Tennis is a sport that puts a huge premium on repetition, timing and balance -- that's what separates the greats from the rest. Sampras was, and always will be, one of the greats.
Here's a newsflash: He's still awesome, not so much in consistency, but in his shot-making ability. His cross-court forehand was automatic. His timing on his backhand was off -- as is to be expected, since it was always his weakest shot -- and he was definitely a step slower (which, incidentally, still leaves him a step faster than me). But his serve was as fluid as ever and his volleys were crisp.
I always thought Sampras was the hardest volleyer I ever played against, and I instantly remembered why when he came to the net. What amazed me the most about our workout was that everything still seemed as effortless and explosive as ever, almost like he took some old tools out of the shed, polished them off and they were right there again.
Unfortunately for the tennis world, Sampras has no interest in competing on tour ever again. His participation will be limited to exhibitions and special events, even though I'm fully convinced he could still challenge the best in the game.
Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com.