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Late Bloomer
Richard Deitsch
May 29, 2000
Stella Sampras, Pete's big sister, makes her name coaching UCLA's women
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May 29, 2000

Late Bloomer

Stella Sampras, Pete's big sister, makes her name coaching UCLA's women

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Long before he conquered Courier, beat Becker and aced Agassi, Pete Sampras had to handle a serving terror with a bigger forehand, a better overhead and a passion for the game as strong as his own. "I beat him all the time," says Stella, Pete's older sister, who coaches the women's tennis team at UCLA and holds the unofficial mark for most wins over Pete. "My brother thinks I stopped beating him when he was 11, but he was definitely 13."

This Sampras debate has raged from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and when told of this sisterly boasting, 28-year-old Pete refuses to concede the point. "She claims I was 13 when I started beating her, but I was 11," says Pete, who was seven when Sam and Georgia Sampras piled their four children and a parrot named Jos� into a cramped Ford Pinto and left Potomac, Md., for tennis-crazed Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. "Sure, she had her moments. But once I hit 12, I kind of surpassed her, and I think she accepted the fact that she was never going to beat me again."

Family is at the center of any Sampras tale, especially those involving 31-year-old Stella, who's carving out her own identity in a sport over which Pete has reigned for a decade. "When she was on the WTA Tour, the comparison with Pete was there," says brother Gus, 32, an account executive at IMG. "When she was growing up, the comparison with Pete was there. But that comparison isn't there at UCLA."

In Westwood, Stella is known as Coach Sampras. Last week her Bruins made it to the quarterfinals in the NCAA women's championships, at Pepperdine, before losing to Stanford. She'll be in Malibu again this weekend when the best of her UCLA players—most notably Pac-10 champion and freshman of the year Sara Walker—will compete in the NCAA singles and doubles competitions. Says Pete, "Her life is her work and her team."

While Pete is a world traveler, Stella is a homebody—she still lives in her parents' house in Palos Verdes Estates, albeit in a separate wing. The old-world housing arrangement is a source of ribbing from her brothers, who kid her about her search for quarters closer to UCLA, which has been going on for about five years. "She's been looking for her own place for so long," says Gus with a laugh, "I'm starting to wonder if she wants one." (Stella says she has finally found a place, and plans to move this summer.)

All of the four Sampras children (the fourth is Marion, 26, a teacher) are close, but Stella and Pete have a special bond because of tennis. It's not unusual to see the 12-time Grand Slam champion delivering his sister's lunch to her Morgan Center office at UCLA before heading to an afternoon workout at the nearby Los Angeles Tennis Center. Occasionally Pete will come by and talk to Stella's players, which is akin to Yo-Yo Ma talking shop with the local orchestra. But their relationship is not a one-way street. "She's always looking out for me and protecting me," says Pete. "If someone is in my life as part of a personal relationship, her opinion is so important to me that if she doesn't like that person, it definitely unsettles me."

Pete and Stella were both top juniors in Southern California, but while his star took him to Wimbledon before his 18th birthday, she spent her salad days in Westwood. Stella, as a freshman, and Allyson Cooper won the NCAA 1988 women's doubles championship for UCLA. When she graduated in '91, she was one of four Bruins women ever to have been named All-America four times in tennis. What followed was a lonely year on the WTA tour, during which she felt mostly like a curiosity. "I would be interviewed at these tournaments, this newcomer playing satellite events, and obviously it wasn't because of my accomplishments, because I hadn't done anything," says Stella. "They wanted to talk about Pete, and that was fine, but I was getting all this attention for nothing. I never felt comfortable."

"Stella's a very strong girl, but I'm sure it was tiring after a while to have to talk about me and what it's like to be my sister," says Pete. "Siblings can get competitive, but I never sensed any jealousy or resentment from any of them—especially Stella."

It was Bill Zaima, Stella's coach at UCLA, who offered her the chance to come home. He saw her enthusiasm for college tennis and her experience with the Bruins' program and told her, "If you're not happy on tour, why don't you come back to UCLA as an assistant, and I'll groom you as my successor." She served four years as Zaima's assistant and became head coach in 1996 upon his retirement.

The Bruins have a record of 68-34 during her four seasons at the helm. At the outset of this season Sampras believed UCLA had the talent to win its first women's NCAA tennis title, but the Bruins were beset by injuries, including a season-ending knee injury to junior Cristina Popescu, their likely No. 2 player. Then on March 6, one day after a four-match UCLA winning streak ended in a tough 5-4 loss to No. 3 Georgia, came worse news: Walker's mother, Terry, had died in an automobile accident in southern Spain.

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