Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Sampras says goodbye

The Associated Press

NEW YORK - On an emotional first night of the U.S. Open, Pete Sampras left tennis - at peace with himself and his place in the history of the sport.

His dossier speaks volumes - a record 14 Grand Slams among 64 career titles, a record six years and 286 weeks at No. 1.

At the start of the season's final Slam, where he won his first Grand Slam title in 1990 and his last a year ago, Sampras made his retirement official Monday night. And he picked the perfect spot - the place where he burst on the tennis landscape as a 19-year-old, the youngest champion in Open history.

He was a throwback, equipped with a booming serve and a devastating serve-and-volley game, always dressed in tennis white, idolizing the past champions like Rod Laver and Don Budge. He beat some heavyweights such as Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe on his way to that first crown. And when he won it, he remembered feeling a bit confused.

"I wasn't sure what I wanted," he said. "I won't say I got lucky. I played two great weeks of tennis."

Two years later, he was back in the Open final, beaten that time by Stefan Edberg. That, he said, was a turning point for him.,

"That loss made me change my career," he said. "It made me hate to lose. At that point, it was good enough getting to the finals. I gave in in that match. Ever since that moment, I just became obsessed with being the best. It was like night and day from '90 to '92. I just felt like I was a better competitor, I worked a little harder. I wanted it a little more. After that loss, it changed my career."

There would be five Open titles, seven championships at Wimbledon and two in Australia, a record 14 breaking the mark of 12 held for so long by Roy Emerson. Perhaps the most satisfying came last September.

Winless for nearly two years and viewed as an also-ran in a tournament he once dominated, Sampras was dismissed as no threat, seeded at No. 17. The buzz was that he was done, that he had no business still playing.

And then he showed everybody why he had hung around, winning the title in an emotional final against Andre Agassi.

"I wanted to win one more," he said. "It was a tough year and a half. To win last year felt great. Once I did that, I felt I really have climbed a tall mountain."

After that, Sampras went home to California, in no hurry to decide his future. He became a father for the first time and every so often thought about playing again.

"I kept on pulling out of events, always thinking I might play Wimbledon again. And once I started doing some practicing and training for Wimbledon and my heart wasn't into it, I knew that it was time. I know in my heart that I'm done, I'm at peace with it. That's great."

Now he talks about little Christian Charles Sampras starting to crawl. He talks about watching his little boy grow up, being a good father and a good husband. He talks about how his life has changed.

There was one last thing to do. He needed to say goodbye.

"It's not painful, it's emotional," he said. "It's coming to terms with something that is a passion of mine, that I love to do, that's been my life. To say goodbye to it, to say I'm not going to play again, it's emotional. It's a closed chapter.

"I'm also realistic in knowing that my time is done. I've done everything I can do. I'm at peace with stopping. It's time to move on."

As he stood on the court, the crowd roared, the noise spilling down, section by section, engulfing Sampras. He could not help crying.

Minutes later, he made one last trip around the court, carrying little Christian in his arms. This time, he was smiling broadly. His last goodbye was complete.

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