As fans and collectors, we all know how difficult it can be to connect with many of today’s elite professional athletes. They often pretend to be too busy to talk to us or sign an autograph, unless, of course, we are willing to pay them a lot of money to do so. But still we chase after them, because without their signatures, there might be big holes in our collections.
Every so often, however, a player comes along who overwhelms us with his friendliness and gracious attitude. Former No. 1-ranked tennis pro Pete Sampras is one of those guys.
Officially retired from the pro tennis tour since 2002, Sampras now keeps busy by raising a family and playing active tennis on the exhibition level. It was his participation in the FedEx Shootout series of exhibitions that brought Sampras to Chicago recently for appearances at Alan Schwartz’ MidTown Tennis Club, as well as a match at the UIC Pavilion against former No. 4-ranked player, Todd Martin. The bonus for local collectors was Sampras’ willingness to spend a considerable amount of time signing autographs at the club when the clinic was over.
After working up quite a sweat demonstrating his moves to the clinic participants, Sampras, joined by Martin, segued to a small lounge area above the courts and sat at a table near a cozy fireplace for a free “meet and greet” with fans. Furthermore, if you had not brought anything of your own for them to sign, they would sign a full-color, 8-by-10 photo supplied by promoters Pro Link Sports & Entertainment of Austin, Texas. And even though the players were on a tight schedule that wasn’t helped by the bad weather, no one who wanted an autograph was turned away empty-handed. Sampras and Martin signed balls, racquets, shirts, caps and even ticket stubs from old matches. And they continued signing even when their time at the tables was up. Furthermore, both players took their time signing their names so that you could actually read the signatures.
Sampras might have been in a particularly good mood because he was coming off a recent victory over the current No. 1-ranked player in the world, Roger Federer. He and Federer had played three exhibition matches in China, and Sampras won the third match. In fact, after that match, Federer expressed his belief that if Sampras, who is now 35 years old, were still playing regularly, he would probably rank in the top five in the world.
In the exhibition match against Martin at the UIC Pavilion, Sampras got off to a shaky start and lost the first set. But then he regained his form and won the next two sets to win the match. Remember, it was not by accident that Sampras won a record 14 Grand Slam titles, including seven at Wimbledon. He won a total of 64 singles titles altogether. That was the main reason Sampras was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this past summer.
Question and answer
Prior to the clinic, Sampras sat down for some questions from the media, including SCD, at which time he discussed his current activities and his hopes for renewed success on the part of American tennis players.
Some of what Sampras had to say was very enlightening.
When asked why he was trying to stay active in tennis even though he was officially retired, Sampras said, “I still love it. I still love to compete. I love hitting the ball. I play these exhibitions, but it isn’t quite as stressful as it used to be back when. It is just a good balanced life these days. I don’t play too much. Just enough to keep me sharp.”
What else keeps him active?
“I’ve got two kids. Raising them is work, but it’s fun,” Sampras said. “I play golf. I get into the gym. I work out. I’m busy with some of my investments, like the Tennis Channel. I’m trying to keep my hands in the sport. You know, it’s a work in progress, being retired at 35. There are no set answers. You just have to figure it out as you go.”
Did he expect retirement would be like this?
“I really didn’t know what to expect when I retired,” Sampras continued. “I knew I was done playing. I just didn’t know what I was going to do next. You kind of take it a day at a time. There is no pressure really to do this or that. You play with the kids, or you get in a good workout or you play a little tennis. It’s just that at the end of the day you want to feel good. Playing tennis is something that I enjoy doing and it is something I am still pretty good at.”
Along those lines, he was asked what it was like to beat Roger Federer.
“It was fun,” he said. “In the beginning I was a little nervous, but the surface was a little fast and that helped my game. But really, I just wanted to be competitive. And if I won a set, that would be a bonus. I didn’t think I would be able to win a match. So I was excited. It was really exhilarating. It was good for the sport, and it was fun for me. But I spent a lot of time with Roger and got to know him quite well – a great guy.”
Someone else asked Sampras how close he thought he was to the top of his game, alluding to what percentage of his game Sampras might have lost.
“I don’t think I’ve lost too much,” he answered. “My movement isn’t quite as good, and my flexibility isn’t quite as good. But as far as hitting the ball and serving, it is still pretty good.”
Is it fun for him to be out there imparting his knowledge to younger people who are interested in tennis? Does he teach the sport to his own kids?
“It is quite a bit of fun,” he said. “I work out with my kids on the court I built at my house. I show my son how to improve his grip and things like that. Of course, being a kid, he doesn’t always listen to me. It’s a great sport for kids, though; it keeps them out of trouble.
“As for the clinics, I have done more clinics and pro-ams in the last few years than I think I did in my whole career, because when I was still playing I was pretty focused. So, now I have an opportunity to give back to the sport, answer some questions and really connect with the fans. Back in my prime, I was more focused and a little more reserved. Now I’m a little more relaxed and can have more fun.”
But is Sampras really OK with retirement?
“All those things I had to do when I was playing – the travel, the weight room, the track, those are the things I really don’t want to do anymore,” he said. “Sure, there have been a few moments when I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to play one more Wimbledon?’ But now I just play to play. I don’t play for the money, I play to win. I’m content now.”
Sampras was also asked about the fact that Federer is coming close to breaking his records. Wouldn’t he like to come back to hold Federer off?
“Absolutely not,” he answered. “Sure, would I like to see my records stand forever? Absolutely. But it doesn’t work that way. I know Roger is going to break those records over the next couple of years. And he can go on to win 17 or 18 majors, probably. He’s that much better than everyone. I had my time in the ’90s. My coming back now isn’t even a consideration.”
Someone reminded Sampras that he had Andre Agassi to push him when he was playing. Federer doesn’t really have anyone. Does tennis need that?
“What American tennis needs is an American to be part of a rivalry like that” Sampras said. “If we had Andy Roddick or James Blake competing with Roger in those Grand Slam finals, that would be a great help. Right now, Roger has (Rafael) Nadal. But we need an American presence. As people here in Chicago know, you need a rivalry to sell sports, like the Bulls and the Pistons. Right now, Roger is a one-man show, and that is where the sport is at.”
Sampras was asked if he is currently doing any coaching or consulting that might help in that regard?
“No, I’m not,” he responded. “But USA Tennis knows where I am and that I am available, and the ball is in their court.”
What about the Olympics – does he think it would be more interesting if tennis were a team event?
“I think it should be a team event,” Sampras said. “There would be a better atmosphere. I remember when I was in Barcelona. I was on Court 1 and another member of the U.S. team was on Court 3, and it just didn’t have that team feel that you need in the Olympics. So, I think the change of format is something that should be considered.”
Sampras was also asked if he had saved any memorabilia from his career or traded things with the other players?
“No,” he said. “I just have my trophies. I did get the Wimbledon net from when I set the record. Other than that, though, I just have some old racquets and maybe a couple of things from here and there that mean a lot.”
And with that said, Sampras headed off to his next commitment.