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A quiet star leaves the racquet to others
Pete Sampras always threatened to do it this way, his way, with a minimum of fuss, to let a career that began with a bang lapse after little more than a whisper.
Monday night in New York, in almost the same spot where he became the youngest U.S. Open champion ever, the game's greatest player ever called it quits at age 32.
There was a brief ceremony scheduled between the first and second night matches, sure to be followed by a sustained roar, with emotion crackling back and forth between Sampras and the opening-night crowd like electrical current. Then he was set to pull the plug on tennis and quietly head off to get on with the rest of his life.
"I'm 100 percent retired," Sampras said at a news conference earlier in the day, his voice cracking. "I'm at peace with it. It's time to call it a career."
Sampras hasn't played a competitive match since beating Andre Agassi to win a record 14th major title at last year's Open. But make no mistake: Few people loved to play the game more; none ever did it better.
A teenage champion
He grabbed international headlines by winning the 1990 U.S. Open at age 19, a well-groomed, sometimes-painfully polite kid who lionized the Australian greats of a bygone era and still lived at home with his parents. Sampras was the anti-Agassi back then -- all substance and no style -- and for the rest of his career, the sideshow would always be more intimidating than the matches.
A year later, as defending Open champion, Sampras got waxed by Jim Courier in the quarterfinals. Afterward, Sampras said he felt, "Like a bag of bricks just came off my shoulders."
It was the same year that Jimmy Connors, just shy of 39 and the grand old man of American tennis, was making another magical run through the bracket. Someone asked Sampras whether he could see himself in Connors' shoes some 20 years down the road, stubbornly refusing to give up the stage and feeding off the energy of the crowd to play better tennis than he had a right to.
"I don't know if I'll be playing this game 20 years from now. I don't know," Sampras said with little enthusiasm and even less conviction, "where I will be and what I will be doing."
Connors, who had been standing off to one side during the interview, followed Sampras to the podium.
"Do you believe that garbage?" Connors howled, and then added, "Because I don't."
He then launched into a tirade about how dearly won each of his own major championships had been and wondered if Sampras would ever win another with an attitude like that. Connors didn't have to wait long for the answer.
Within five years, Sampras had picked up another half-dozen Grand Slam wins to pull alongside Connors and head in the direction of Rod Laver, the previous greatest player ever. By 2000, he had passed Laver (11) on the majors list and soon after bumped leader Roy Emerson (12) into the ditch of history.
"I don't know if there's one best player of all time," Sampras said. "I feel my game will match up to just about anybody. I played perfect tennis at times, in my mind."
Sampras was good everywhere, but he practically owned Wimbledon for most of that stretch, going 53-1 over the previous seven years and losing the title only once, in 1996. For six years in a row, from 1993 to 1998, he finished each season at No. 1.
The strange thing is that Sampras never became an easy sell. He was a throwback with no weaknesses in his game, a classic serve-and-volley stylist and one-handed backhand. But he also was deliberate to a fault, like a man working over a hard-boiled egg.
For all the winning, you can count on one hand the number of stirring victories. Fighting back tears, he beat Jim Courier in the Australian Open just after his coach, Tim Gullikson, was diagnosed with cancer. Another time, weakened by repeated bouts with dehydration and vomiting, he held off the ailments and Alex Corretja in the U.S. Open. But that's been pretty much it.
Champions on Sampras' scale shouldn't just dominate their sport, they have to grow it.
They can't be content just to be caretakers, especially not when a waning sport needs competitors whose desire to entertain is eclipsed only by their desire to win.
Great players like Sampras grab our attention with their skill, but the only way to hold it for that extra measure is with the force of their personality -- the way the best players keep the tennis ball on their strings a millisecond longer to execute the toughest shots.
Sampras is through trying. He married actress Bridgette Wilson shortly after the 2000 U.S. Open and became a father last November when she gave birth to son Christian.
"He waited to give himself the best chance to be sure," his coach Paul Annacone said recently. "Pete doesn't want to unretire five times, like some athletes have done, whether it's Jordan or a professional boxer. He's pretty secure in that."
"Maybe in six months, he'll say, 'Gosh, I really miss it.' But I don't see him doing that," he added.
And he's not the only one.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org