Late Bloomer Stella Sampras, Pete's big sister, makes her name coaching UCLA's women

May 29, 2000
May 29, 2000

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May 29, 2000

Late Bloomer Stella Sampras, Pete's big sister, makes her name coaching UCLA's women

Long before he conquered Courier, beat Becker and aced Agassi,
Pete Sampras had to handle a serving terror with a bigger
forehand, a better overhead and a passion for the game as strong
as his own. "I beat him all the time," says Stella, Pete's older
sister, who coaches the women's tennis team at UCLA and holds the
unofficial mark for most wins over Pete. "My brother thinks I
stopped beating him when he was 11, but he was definitely 13."

This is an article from the May 29, 2000 issue Original Layout

This Sampras debate has raged from the Atlantic to the Pacific,
and when told of this sisterly boasting, 28-year-old Pete refuses
to concede the point. "She claims I was 13 when I started beating
her, but I was 11," says Pete, who was seven when Sam and Georgia
Sampras piled their four children and a parrot named Jose into a
cramped Ford Pinto and left Potomac, Md., for tennis-crazed
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. "Sure, she had her moments. But once
I hit 12, I kind of surpassed her, and I think she accepted the
fact that she was never going to beat me again."

Family is at the center of any Sampras tale, especially those
involving 31-year-old Stella, who's carving out her own identity
in a sport over which Pete has reigned for a decade. "When she
was on the WTA Tour, the comparison with Pete was there," says
brother Gus, 32, an account executive at IMG. "When she was
growing up, the comparison with Pete was there. But that
comparison isn't there at UCLA."

In Westwood, Stella is known as Coach Sampras. Last week her
Bruins made it to the quarterfinals in the NCAA women's
championships, at Pepperdine, before losing to Stanford. She'll
be in Malibu again this weekend when the best of her UCLA
players--most notably Pac-10 champion and freshman of the year
Sara Walker--will compete in the NCAA singles and doubles
competitions. Says Pete, "Her life is her work and her team."

While Pete is a world traveler, Stella is a homebody--she still
lives in her parents' house in Palos Verdes Estates, albeit in a
separate wing. The old-world housing arrangement is a source of
ribbing from her brothers, who kid her about her search for
quarters closer to UCLA, which has been going on for about five
years. "She's been looking for her own place for so long," says
Gus with a laugh, "I'm starting to wonder if she wants one."
(Stella says she has finally found a place, and plans to move
this summer.)

All of the four Sampras children (the fourth is Marion, 26, a
teacher) are close, but Stella and Pete have a special bond
because of tennis. It's not unusual to see the 12-time Grand Slam
champion delivering his sister's lunch to her Morgan Center
office at UCLA before heading to an afternoon workout at the
nearby Los Angeles Tennis Center. Occasionally Pete will come by
and talk to Stella's players, which is akin to Yo-Yo Ma talking
shop with the local orchestra. But their relationship is not a
one-way street. "She's always looking out for me and protecting
me," says Pete. "If someone is in my life as part of a personal
relationship, her opinion is so important to me that if she
doesn't like that person, it definitely unsettles me."

Pete and Stella were both top juniors in Southern California, but
while his star took him to Wimbledon before his 18th birthday,
she spent her salad days in Westwood. Stella, as a freshman, and
Allyson Cooper won the NCAA 1988 women's doubles championship for
UCLA. When she graduated in '91, she was one of four Bruins women
ever to have been named All-America four times in tennis. What
followed was a lonely year on the WTA tour, during which she felt
mostly like a curiosity. "I would be interviewed at these
tournaments, this newcomer playing satellite events, and
obviously it wasn't because of my accomplishments, because I
hadn't done anything," says Stella. "They wanted to talk about
Pete, and that was fine, but I was getting all this attention for
nothing. I never felt comfortable."

"Stella's a very strong girl, but I'm sure it was tiring after a
while to have to talk about me and what it's like to be my
sister," says Pete. "Siblings can get competitive, but I never
sensed any jealousy or resentment from any of them--especially

It was Bill Zaima, Stella's coach at UCLA, who offered her the
chance to come home. He saw her enthusiasm for college tennis and
her experience with the Bruins' program and told her, "If you're
not happy on tour, why don't you come back to UCLA as an
assistant, and I'll groom you as my successor." She served four
years as Zaima's assistant and became head coach in 1996 upon his

The Bruins have a record of 68-34 during her four seasons at the
helm. At the outset of this season Sampras believed UCLA had the
talent to win its first women's NCAA tennis title, but the Bruins
were beset by injuries, including a season-ending knee injury to
junior Cristina Popescu, their likely No. 2 player. Then on March
6, one day after a four-match UCLA winning streak ended in a
tough 5-4 loss to No. 3 Georgia, came worse news: Walker's
mother, Terry, had died in an automobile accident in southern

The next day Stella flew to El Paso to comfort Sara at her
family's home. She stayed with the Walkers for three days before
returning to coach the Bruins against Arizona and Arizona State.
"I thought she would be here a day and then ask Sara if she was
coming back to play," says Ross, Sara's father. "When I asked
Stella if she had found out what Sara was going to do, she told
me, 'I'm not here to find out what her plans are. I'm here only
to be here if she needs me.' I thought that was remarkable. It
spoke volumes about the kind of person she is."

The following Sunday, Sampras, her two assistants, a trainer and
11 players boarded a Southwest Airlines flight to El Paso to
stand with their teammate at Terry's funeral--a trip financed in
part by Pete with the approval of the NCAA and UCLA. "She doesn't
usually show her emotions, but she did in El Paso," says freshman
Abigal Spears, who recalls Sampras weeping at El Paso's Temple
Mount Sinai. "That made us respect her even more."

On April 30, five weeks after returning to school, Walker won the
Pac-10 title without losing a set. She enters this weekend's play
ranked No. 2 in the nation in singles. "What my daughter has
achieved since the accident speaks for itself," says Ross. "She
won the Pac-10 championship only weeks after the most devastating
loss you can imagine. It was so touching to us to have Stella and
the team fly down for the funeral, and Stella was here even
before that. When Sara went back to UCLA, it was very emotional
for me and her. But I knew that she was going back to family."

"My brother thinks I stopped beating him when he was 11,"
Stella says,"but he was definitely 13."