Pete Sampras: Bowing Out
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TERENCE SMITH: After spending the last year trying to recover from injuries, tennis great Pete Sampras made it official today at the start of this year’s U.S. Open. He is retiring from tennis. Sampras won more grand slam titles than any other man in the history of the sport — fourteen overall — including seven Wimbledon championships. His final grand slam victory occurred last year at the U.S. Open against his old rival, Andre Agassi. Sampras will be honored at the open tonight with a special ceremony. At a news conference at Flushing Meadows a short time ago, Sampras talked about leaving the game.
PETE SAMPRAS: I’m not retiring because I’m married or I have a son. I’m retiring because I have nothing to prove to myself. I’ve always had challenges ahead of me, whether it was staying number one or winning majors. My biggest challenge was last year when I didn’t win an event for a year and a half and the challenge of winning one more. Once I did that, I felt, you know, I really climbed a very tall mountain and that was my boy. (Laughter)
So if there’s something out there that I wanted to achieve I would go and do it. I have the support of my wife and family to go and travel and go and practice and focus and do everything I need to do. But I’m content — I’m 100 percent content with everything I’ve done. I’m sure tonight will be emotional, and to be back on the court and see the fans, and it’s definitely coming to terms with stopping. This is something that I love to do and I’ve been doing since I was seven, and it’s saying good-bye is not easy. But I know it’s time in my heart.
TERENCE SMITH: A short while ago, I talked with sportswriter John Feinstein, who joined us from the site of the U.S. Open. He is the author of “Hard Courts,” a look at the professional tennis tour. John Feinstein, welcome.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Terry, good to talk to you again.
TERENCE SMITH: Put Pete Sampras in context for us if you will, as a player, as a champion, and as a person.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, first as a player you mention the 14 major titles, that’s two more than any other male player won, Roy Emerson. But the to put that in a little more perspective, John McEnroe who is considered one of the great players of all time, justify ply, won a total of 7 major titles. So Pete Sampras won as many Wimbledons as John McEnroe won majors. Jimmy Connors won eight major titles, so he was an absolutely dominant player at the most important times, and as a champion he came through in some remarkable matches. There was the match here in 1996 against Alex Correja when he was literally getting sick on the court, he threw up into a flower pot, a famous moment here at the U.S. Open, and somehow saved match point, went onto win the match and went onto win the tournament. He was an unbelievable competitor at the greatest moments in his career.
As a person, I think Pete was very misunderstood and under appreciated. When McEnroe and Connors were dominating tennis in the 80s, people complained all the time about their behavior on the court, their abuse of umpires, their obscene language, and then along comes Pete Sampras, an absolute gentleman with a beautiful game and a great champion and people said he was boring. I don’t know how you win if you’re Pete Sampras in those situations. But he was a great player, a great champion, and also, I think, a very under rated person.
TERENCE SMITH: With all those numbers, where would you place him in the ranks of all-time players? Was he the equal of Rod Laver?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: I think if there was a player greater than Pete, and I say if, it would have been rod Laver who won all four of the grand slam events in the same year twice, which is an extraordinary achievement. He missed grand slam play for six years because there was a rift between the professional game and the so-called amateur game, and probably would have won far more than ten majors in all had he been able to play those six years. But Rod Laver says that Pete Sampras is the greatest player of all time. Now, that’s a pretty good source to go to, and I’m not necessarily prepared to argue with Rod Laver, so if Pete’s not number one, he’s certainly number 1-A.
TERENCE SMITH: John, recall for us the extraordinary four-set final that he played last year against Andre Agassi in the U.S. Open.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: You have to put it in perspective, Terry, because Pete had not won a tournament in two years. Everybody thought he was through, and tennis, once you hit 30, they start giving you Social Security checks, generally speaking. And people said he had lost his hunger. He got married, and was expecting his first child. He was only seeded 17th in the event coming in, which means you’re not supposed to get out of the fourth round, out of the seven that you have to play in order to win. And he fought his way through. He beat Andy Roddick, the up- and-coming young American star, and gets to the final against his great rival throughout his career, Andre Agassi. They’re only a year apart in age.
They’ve played in so many grand slam events. And in the twilight of his career and the twilight of a Sunday evening here in New York, he played as good a match as those of us who have watched him since the beginning of his career have ever seen him play, because Agassi was right on his game, and Pete had to make one shot after another to hold Agassi off, and when the two of them hugged at the net after Pete had won match point, I would make the case it was one of the truly sweet and great moments in the history of the sport.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet he doesn’t actually retire then, or didn’t say he would retire right then. I suppose we knew it was over when it got to June of this year and he didn’t compete at Wimbledon.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Exactly. The only reason he didn’t announce his retirement that day– he even sort of hinted at it and said this would be a perfect way to end it– and as it turns out, that was the way he ended it because he had lost at Wimbledon a year ago June in the second round on an outside court to a qualifier. With all his great memories of those seven Wimbledon titles, he didn’t think he wanted that to be his last Wimbledon moment, so he thought “maybe I’ll try to work through this spring; I’ll try to get back to Wimbledon one more time.”
But his first child was born in December. That changes all our lives. When it came time to get out on the road and go do the work that he knew he had to do to prepare to play at Wimbledon, he simply didn’t want to do it. And once he withdrew from Wimbledon, I think all of us who have been around tennis knew that was the last we’d see of Pete Sampras competitively.
TERENCE SMITH: John Feinstein, thanks so much. Pete Sampras gave us some great moments on the court. Thanks for sharing them with us.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Terry.