Here we find Pete
Sampras on a summer night in retirement, flopped into an office chair on the
second floor of a golf clubhouse in Avon, Conn., applying ice to the right
hamstring that he tweaked playing--and losing--singles and doubles matches for
the Newport Beach ( Calif.) Breakers against the Hartford Fox Force in World
Team Tennis. "Gettin' old," Sampras shouts to a visitor as he clips the
Ace bandage that holds the ice in place, a self- effacing proclamation that he
delivers with a deep laugh.
Four years ago
come September, Sampras retired the right way--at the top of his game, healthy
and sated, ready to move on--after winning his fifth U.S. Open (and record 14th
Grand Slam singles title). "There is no doubting that his game would have
been there for many more years if he had opted to stay on tour," says
Sampras's longtime rival and friend Jim Courier. "But without the passion
to push yourself, it's not worth it." Sampras was just 31 then, which is
much too young to do nothing at all.
Although he did
try. Sampras and his wife, actress Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, had two sons
(Christian, now 3 1/2, and Ryan, 1). Pete ate badly for the first time in
years, gained 10 pounds and squeezed his golf handicap down to a solid two at
Bel-Air Country Club. "I didn't pick up a racket for three years unless it
was to hit with my son," says Sampras.
Boredom took hold
near the end of 2005. "I needed some structure and focus in my life,"
says Sampras. "What was I going to do, rent out some office space and start
a business? Tennis is what I know." He called WTT founder Billie Jean King,
who had long lobbied Sampras on behalf of the league, and agreed to play at
least part of the July-only season. ( Sampras will have played seven of the
Breakers' 14 matches by month's end.)
He has landed in
a tennis world far different from the one he left. Last Friday night he played
two matches in a cozy, 2,500-seat arena (filled to capacity) built on a golf
course in rural northern Connecticut. World Team Tennis is noisy (loud music
plays between points) and frenetic (games are played only to four points, with
no-ad scoring), and the atmosphere, while delightful, is also decidedly small
environment Sampras is U2 playing the prom. Upon seeing Sampras sitting on the
courtside team bench last week in Philadelphia, King joked to a friend of
Sampras's, "What the eff is Pete doing here?"
Hartford's Glenn Weiner, who is ranked No. 256 in the world, laid a 5--2
singles beatdown on Sampras and said afterward, "It was very surreal. I
didn't even feel like I was participating."
Sampras, who lost
three of his first five singles matches in WTT play, on occasion can still
summon his classic form: a scorched running forehand, a leaping overhead smash.
He has dropped seven of the 10 offending pounds. "It's not Wimbledon, but I
still want to play well," says Sampras. "I want to try hard, maybe show
a few of my old shots. That's a big part of this, giving something back to
tennis and connecting with the fans."
It is tempting to
conclude that Sampras is building toward a full-fledged comeback. "Even I
have my moments when I think about it," he says. Those moments come hardest
during the Wimbledon fortnight. "I watch guys staying back on grass, and I
think, What an opportunity," he says. "There used to be so many more
serve-and-volleyers, but now even [world No. 1 Roger] Federer stays back more
than he did when I played him. Now I would play him like I played Andre
[Agassi]: try to take his timing away.
two weeks," Sampras says, "I miss tour tennis."