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Sampras Probably Finished

He withdraws from Wimbledon and French Open, signaling the end of a record career.

May 16, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

Pete Sampras, whose status as a tennis legend is best represented by his record 14 major titles, probably has played his last competitive match.

Through his coach, Paul Annacone, Sampras withdrew Thursday from three tournaments that were holding entry spots for him. One was Wimbledon.

"Yes, for me not to be at Wimbledon, I guess that's big," Sampras said from his home in Beverly Hills.

Seven of Sampras' 14 Grand Slam event titles came on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, where, in 2000, he beat Australian Patrick Rafter in the final. That brought Sampras his record-breaking 13th Grand Slam title, topping by one the standard established by Australian Roy Emerson in 1967.

Sampras beat Rafter after losing the first set and trailing in a second-set tiebreaker, 4-1. When Rafter returned wide on match point in the fourth set, giving Sampras his seventh Wimbledon title in eight years, a period in which he had a 53-1 record, Sampras sank to his knees, emotions pouring out that were seldom seen from him. He climbed high into the stands to embrace his somewhat reclusive parents, who were making a rare trip to watch him, and he spent much of the immediate aftermath battling to fight back tears.

He was still a month away from his 29th birthday then, but the high of his 13th major title was so hard to maintain that, over the next two years, he went on a 33-tournament victory drought that did not end until he stunned a tennis world that had begun to believe he couldn't win a big one again by doing just that. He beat Andre Agassi in a dramatic U.S. Open final last September.

That was his 14th major title, the 762nd tour victory of his 15-year career, against only 222 losses, and brought his earnings total to $43,280,489, by far the most ever.

He has not played since.

Late last year, he announced that he would begin a comeback at a February tournament in San Jose. But that event came and went, as did one withdrawal after another, followed by statements that he wasn't quite ready to come back, stirring speculation that the real comeback might be never.

But Wimbledon was always the carrot held out by those in the tennis community who felt he would not be able to resist returning there for one more try, especially because his 2002 experience there, a second-round loss to unheralded George Bastl of Switzerland on a side court, left both a bad taste and some unfinished business.

"I'm going to watch some of Wimbledon on TV," Sampras said. "I'll be curious. I won't watch a ton, but it'll be interesting to see how I feel."

Sampras said that he hadn't totally closed the door to a return.

"More like maybe 95%," he said, adding that, by the end of the year, "it'll all be more clear to me."

Sampras also pulled out of the French Open, which begins May 26, and the Queen's Club event, a grass-court Wimbledon lead-in tournament in early June. Wimbledon will begin June 23.

Few expected him to play the French, his least favorite of the major tournaments because its slow clay surface does not suit his serve-and-volley game. The French is the only major he has not won. He advanced as far as the semifinals only once and lost in either the first or second round seven of the 13 years he played there. Besides his seven Wimbledon titles, he won the U.S. Open five times and the Australian Open twice.

Sampras' decision was a gradual one. In March, the first real alarms went off in the tennis world that he might, indeed, never play again. He missed the Masters Series event in Indian Wells, an event that had been one of his first as a pro and one close to home. At that time, he told a reporter that he had been training hard and was ready to play physically, but that the thought of playing matches that didn't mean a lot and then going back to an empty hotel room made him change his mind.

"Maybe my juices will start flowing when the Slams get closer," he said then.

But as it became time to get ready for the one that really mattered, Wimbledon, Sampras found that he really wasn't ready.

"I know what it takes, the time and the training," he said, "and I just feel it isn't in me right now. If I went to a major, I would go there to win, not just to say goodbye."

Jack Kramer, a tennis legend in his own right, mourned the likely loss of Sampras to tennis.

"This is very sad for me if he stays retired," Kramer said, "because he just happens to be my favorite player."

Kramer, himself a big server and great net player in his Hall of Fame career, also bemoaned the loss of another serve-and-volleyer.

"There are only five or six left now," he said. "The players today, they are wonderful sluggers with two-handed shots from the baseline. But it is also dull as hell to watch."

J. Wayne Richmond, executive vice president for the Americas of the ATP Tour, said, "We wish Pete would stay, but we also feel he has earned the right to go out on his own terms. He certainly left on a high note with his victory over Andre in the U.S. Open, and we wish him the best."

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