Here we find PeteSampras on a summer night in retirement, flopped into an office chair on thesecond floor of a golf clubhouse in Avon, Conn., applying ice to the righthamstring that he tweaked playing--and losing--singles and doubles matches forthe Newport Beach (Calif.) Breakers against the Hartford Fox Force in WorldTeam Tennis. "Gettin' old," Sampras shouts to a visitor as he clips theAce bandage that holds the ice in place, a self- effacing proclamation that hedelivers with a deep laugh.
Four years agocome September, Sampras retired the right way--at the top of his game, healthyand sated, ready to move on--after winning his fifth U.S. Open (and record 14thGrand Slam singles title). "There is no doubting that his game would havebeen there for many more years if he had opted to stay on tour," saysSampras's longtime rival and friend Jim Courier. "But without the passionto push yourself, it's not worth it." Sampras was just 31 then, which ismuch too young to do nothing at all.
Although he didtry. 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 inyears, gained 10 pounds and squeezed his golf handicap down to a solid two atBel-Air Country Club. "I didn't pick up a racket for three years unless itwas to hit with my son," says Sampras.
Boredom took holdnear 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 starta 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 atleast part of the July-only season. (Sampras will have played seven of theBreakers' 14 matches by month's end.)
He has landed ina tennis world far different from the one he left. Last Friday night he playedtwo matches in a cozy, 2,500-seat arena (filled to capacity) built on a golfcourse in rural northern Connecticut. World Team Tennis is noisy (loud musicplays between points) and frenetic (games are played only to four points, withno-ad scoring), and the atmosphere, while delightful, is also decidedly smalltime.
In thisenvironment Sampras is U2 playing the prom. Upon seeing Sampras sitting on thecourtside team bench last week in Philadelphia, King joked to a friend ofSampras's, "What the eff is Pete doing here?"
Likewise,Hartford's Glenn Weiner, who is ranked No. 256 in the world, laid a 5--2singles beatdown on Sampras and said afterward, "It was very surreal. Ididn't even feel like I was participating."
Sampras, who lostthree of his first five singles matches in WTT play, on occasion can stillsummon 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 Istill want to play well," says Sampras. "I want to try hard, maybe showa few of my old shots. That's a big part of this, giving something back totennis and connecting with the fans."
It is tempting toconclude that Sampras is building toward a full-fledged comeback. "Even Ihave my moments when I think about it," he says. Those moments come hardestduring the Wimbledon fortnight. "I watch guys staying back on grass, and Ithink, What an opportunity," he says. "There used to be so many moreserve-and-volleyers, but now even [world No. 1 Roger] Federer stays back morethan he did when I played him. Now I would play him like I played Andre[Agassi]: try to take his timing away.
"For thosetwo weeks," Sampras says, "I miss tour tennis."
But that isn'tenough. Last week he was staying in New York City and commuting to a series ofmatches in the Northeast--though unlike most WTT players he did so in ahelicopter with two armed bodyguards. By day he walked the streets of Manhattanand was reminded of the time he spent there during a decade and a half of U.S.Opens. "It brought back nice memories," Sampras says. "But I couldremember the old anxiety too."
He shakes hishead, again very much retired. "That," he says, "I don't miss atall."
Asked recently toassess his place in tennis history, Pete Sampras said that he thought hebelonged among the top five men's players of all time, along with Rod Laver(right), Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Roger Federer. Here's how their Grand Slamrecords compare.
Rod Laver (18)
Bjorn Borg (16)
Ivan Lendl (17)
Pete Sampras (15)
Roger Federer (9)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (SAMPRAS)
CLASSIC LOOK Despite traces of rust, Sampras still showed flashes of the champion of old.