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COMMENTARY

Sampras Retirement Is a Know-When Situation

May 16, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

Pete Sampras was at the Laker game Thursday night. The tennis star said before the game he was a little bummed.

"If only Horry's shot had gone in," he said. "I would feel a lot better now."

If only Sampras would stay around for a while longer, the tennis world would feel a lot better now.

But he is not. Most likely, we have seen the last of a magnificent talent. A maestro has put down his violin. Once, we had Agassi and Sampras. Now we have Rodgers and no Hammerstein.

For years, we took for granted that with "Breakfast at Wimbledon" came that tall, handsome Greek American, rocking back at the service line and then, as smooth as vanilla ice cream on chocolate cake, exploding forward with an effortless motion that would send a tennis ball into the service box at speeds impossible to imagine and to spots impossible to reach.

When Sampras won his last Wimbledon title, the four-set nail-biter against Patrick Rafter in 2000, he hit 118 aces in his seven matches. Most club players don't hit that many in a lifetime.

Thursday, when his coach, Paul Annacone, called the people at the French Open, the Queens Club event and Wimbledon and said that his player would not be playing this year, an era most likely had ended.

"There is really no right way or wrong way to do this," Annacone said, referring to how to announce that one of the greatest players ever probably won't play again. "He is still uncertain sometimes about coming back, but not playing at Wimbledon says a lot. He won't play any more this year, and I'd put it at about 95% that he will not play again, period.

"I know one thing for sure. He doesn't want to be like one of those pro boxers who retires and unretires seven times."

The question that will ring out most loudly is why. Why would a player who is not going to turn 32 until August, who has his health and wealth and his place in history firmly established, go so quickly and somewhat mysteriously off into the sports ether?

Why no victory tour? Isn't that what Michael Chang is doing?

Why no reduced schedule as a pre- lude to total absence?

Why no request for Davis Cup captaincy, or network TV commentating spots?

Why not cling, in some way, to a sport that has made him a household name?

The answer is complicated, and simple. Just like the man.

Since Sampras walked off the court at Wimbledon in July 2000, after beating Rafter and reaching the goal of 13 Grand Slam titles that he had pursued since he was old enough to understand its significance, his tennis life was, in his eyes, less than happy, maybe even miserable.

He went 33 tournaments without a title. The closest he got in tournaments that really mattered to him were U.S. Open finals in 2000 and 2001, and both times he was blown out by youngsters, Marat Safin of Russia and Leyton Hewitt of Australia. Especially galling to him was the loss to Safin in 2000. It was the first time Sampras had lost a Grand Slam final in straight sets. Safin couldn't miss and has said since that he has no expectation of ever playing a match like that again.

It was almost as if the tennis gods had given Sampras Grand Slam event No. 13 and now wanted payback.

"The last couple of years took a lot out of me," Sampras said Thursday. "I had climbed the mountain and I knew what it took to get there."

And so, when he climbed the mountain one more time and beat Agassi in last year's U.S. Open final, he was both ecstatic and conflicted. It was such a romantic ending, such a wonderful exclamation point to a career of wonderful highs. But he was also young and healthy and figured that he had lots of years left and lots still to achieve in the game.

Many of his friends recommended a victory tour. The premise was that he had accomplished everything, that he could go and play when he wanted, as hard as he wanted, and with medium success, and that people would not only understand but embrace him for it.

But in the end, that was never an issue, any more than the fact that he had a newborn son at home. People who speculated that he cut back or considered retiring because of the baby at home infuriated him.

No, the issue -- the answer to the question of why Pete Sampras would stop now -- is the very reason that he was as great as he was. He never played just to play, or to get to the quarterfinals, or to please his parents or fans, or to collect a check, or to become famous or to position himself for a later job on ESPN.

He played to win. Not some matches or many matches. All of them.

All of us think it would be wonderful if he trained for a few weeks now, got in pretty good shape, went over to Wimbledon, did the interviews and waxed poetically about memories and history, and then won a couple of matches and went home.

To Sampras, that thought is horrifying.

And so now, the reality is that, while he could still get himself to the point where his mind knows that, with decent draws and decent breaks, he could go over and win Wimbledon yet again, getting himself to that point is no longer worth it.

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