"[A TV commentator] had called her the Yoko Ono of tennis," he says, venom in his eyes. "That sooo pissed me off. Criticize me, criticize my game, but don't criticize my wife. She pulled me through the hardest period of my tennis life. That's why that [Open win] felt so damn good. I shut them all up in two weeks of work. I showed them that the best part of me was her."
Full yet empty at the same time, he took the rest of 2002 off and the first three months of 2003. In late April he was just about to begin the two-month sweat-a-thon that would get him ready for this year's Wimbledon when something turned up missing—his desire. "I've always had this little thing I do when I tie my shoes," Sampras says. "I finish tying them, slap the ground and say to myself, Here we go! But this time, it didn't feel good. And I stopped, right there and then."
He stewed over it. Was his career really over? He called friends in and out of tennis. Finally, when he called Wayne Gretzky and asked him what to do, the hockey god said simply, "You're the only one who can know." Sampras realized then that he already did.
And that has pleased exactly nobody else.
His family, his friends, Bridgette, they all want him to play one more Grand Slam event. "I want it to be up to him, but, just personally, I'm going to miss watching him play," Bridgette says, holding the six-month-old boy, Christian, for whom she's happily suspended her acting career. "And I'd love for Christian to be there once, even if he'd never remember."
But Sampras is choosing this new Huggies life, this Gymboree world where he's a hero to nobody but a kid who will never see him play. "My life not playing is too good!" he says, and that life includes adults—too much golf with his pal, actor Luke Wilson, and too many welts from banging with his three-on-three hoops buddies out on his tennis court. (Hey, you gotta use that space for something.)
He's a new man. You should see him chug the baby's chocolate soy milk straight out of the carton, order the extra dessert, eat dinner without a thought of carbohydrate counts. "If I want steak instead of a big plate of pasta, I can," he gloats. "Or I can not eat at all. I'm free! I don't have to worry all the time: How am I going to play tomorrow? How're my legs? Did I eat the right combinations?"
But doesn't America deserve a chance to watch you take your last bows? "Acch," he says with a shrug. "I see Michael Chang doing the farewell tour thing, the rocking chair in each city thing, taking the bows. I don't want that. I hate to be honored. I took my bows at that Open. I just didn't know it."
I pity Pete Sampras. I do. He's lost the drive, the ambition, the will that keeps the rest of us busting our butts. There is no hope for the satisfied man, they say. Sampras is 31, and he'll never do anything greater in his life. He's doomed to spend the rest of his days with a neck-snapping blonde and a gorgeous son in a hilltop palace with nothing to do but find new and creative ways to blow his career winnings of $43 million.
(Hey, Pete, need any help?)