Sampras returns

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This is working for Sampras 

Champions Cup series rids him of restlessness

After a while, Pete Sampras found that retirement didn't really agree with him.
After a while, Pete Sampras found that retirement didn’t really agree with him. (FILE/Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff

April 27, 2008

For 15 years, Pete Sampras was a driven and dedicated professional tennis player who stalked the world, claiming tournament titles. His identity was fused with winning and losing matches and with the rigors of the tour. Life was training and tournaments.

 Though he was always on the move, Sampras said he eventually felt as if he had no room. The workday began the moment he woke up, preparing or finding a good breakfast, and marched methodically through a morning practice, an afternoon practice, an off-court workout, a massage, and was wrapped up by 6 or 7.

So in 2002, after winning his fifth US Open title, Sampras retired. He was 31, newly married to actress Bridgette Wilson, and the couple were expecting their first child. Sampras discarded tennis like a ball gone flat.

“In some ways, you can reinvent yourself when you retire,” Sampras said in a phone conversation from his home in California. “I would wake up and play golf, or sleep in a little bit, and then play golf. My wife and I took a few trips. I started to eat whatever I wanted. I just really exhaled for the first time in 15-16 years.”

Sampras played enough golf to get his handicap to a 4.

“It seems like I was playing eight days a week,” he said. “I didn’t read about tennis. I didn’t watch tennis, I got away for a while.”

It took a few years, but Sampras began to feel a little uncomfortable. At first, it was just his jeans, which seemed a little tighter in the waist. Then he struggled with restlessness. The son of Greek immigrants, whose father worked two jobs to support his family, Sampras said he was increasingly uneasy with his life of leisure. He was raising two sons (Christian is 5, Ryan 2), but he wasn’t sure he was sending them the message he wanted.

“I needed to get out there and do a little work,” Sampras said. “There was something about being home all day, and Dad not working – I didn’t want my sons to think that’s the way life is. It’s the principle of it.”

Sampras, who collected 64 career singles titles, including 14 in Grand Slam events, and finished as the No. 1-ranked player for six consecutive years (1993-98), returns to Boston this week for the Champions Cup at Boston University’s Agganis Arena. Eight legendary (i.e. over 30) tennis champions will compete for a first prize of $54,000, beginning Wednesday and concluding with Sunday’s championship. Joining Sampras are John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Todd Martin, Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein, Wayne Ferreira, and Mikael Pernfors.

Last year, Sampras made the Boston event his first competitive match since his retirement.

“It was my first event and I loved it,” Sampras said. “It was fun. It was nice to be competitive and Boston is a great town. I played John one night, and toughed it out. It was a great experience.”

Sampras vs. McEnroe – surely the marquee matchup in this competition – will be the second match of Friday night’s session.

“I do like playing John,” Sampras said. “He’s still, at 49, incredible. He still has great hands. He has a certain intensity with his presence out there. I’m looking forward to it.”

Sometimes it’s easier to know what you don’t want to do than to know what you want to do. Sampras, with the luxury of a fat bank account after so much success (his career earnings topped $43 million), didn’t need to make money to support his family.

But uneasiness told him that he needed to walk out the front door and go to work now and then.

Sampras said his wife was very patient with him during his years of transition, but he was stewing.

“I was thinking ‘I need to find something; I need to start a business or something,’ ” he said. “We would sit and talk about it. One night I told her, ‘I’m going to go out and hit a few tennis balls.’ ”

The transition from professional touring pro to retirement to part-time pro in senior events taught Sampras that he should never say never.

When he was 25, he had insisted he would never play any senior tennis. When he got into his 30s, he changed his mind. A Houston promoter asked Sampras to play an exhibition match in 2006, and when he had some fun with that, he joined the Champions Cup series in 2007, winning each of the three tournaments he entered.

His play was sharp enough to provoke questions about a possible return to the regular tour, and Sampras said he still gets those inquiries all the time, but he has no intention of coming back. He has found a balance he can live with.

“Tennis is pretty limited, when you retire,” said Sampras. “You can commentate or play.”

It’s no surprise that Sampras, silent and serious when he was on the court, is not attracted to commentating. Or coaching, which would put him back on the road, grinding through a schedule of 15-20 tournaments.

It’s competing that gives him a charge. This year, he played three exhibitions in Asia against the world’s current No. 1 male player, Roger Federer, winning one of the three-set matches, and took on Federer again in March at Madison Square Garden (losing, 6-3, 6-7 [4-7], 6-7 [6-8]).

“Part of me is wondering, how long am I going to do this?” Sampras said. “Will I be doing this at 40? I don’t know. It’s a work in progress.”

Barbara Matson can be reached at matson@globe.com

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.