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Game, Set, Career

June 16, 2003
June 16, 2003

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June 16, 2003

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section
Freediving
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Game, Set, Career

Just inside Pete Sampras's front door in his cushy Beverly Hills
house is a case of unopened cans of tennis balls.

This is an article from the June 16, 2003 issue Original Layout

"We give them to our friends who have dogs," says his wife, the
actress Bridgette Wilson.

Suddenly, she stops and covers her mouth. "Oops! Did I say that
out loud?"

It's the worst-kept secret in tennis. The greatest player who
ever lived has quit, without a parade, without a tour, without a
goodbye. He has taken his record 14 Grand Slam singles titles and
his unseeable serve and called it an era. He's traded his Wilson
for his Wilson.

O.K., Sampras says there's a "five percent" chance he could come
back and maybe play Wimbledon in 2004. "I think I could win
another Wimbledon if I wanted to," he says, "but the problem is
wanting to." The way his nose wrinkles when he talks about it,
you get the feeling he'd loofah-scrub Al Roker first.

"It's weird to say, but I'm content," Sampras says. "I'm happy.
I've got nothing left to prove to myself. That's a big statement.
I'm coming to terms with it, you know? I'm like, 'I'm stopping?'
But there's nothing left in tennis I want to achieve."

So winning at least one French Open means nothing to you? "If it
did, I'd have been there this year," he says flatly.

Now wait a minute! You just don't do this in America! Not at 31!
You don't just stop! You're supposed to keep striving, wanting,
aching to be more, better, greater. In this country the day you
buy your Saab 900 is the day you start working your buns off
toward the Saab 9000. The carrot is for chasing, not eating, damn
it!

"I know," he says with a grin. "It's crazy, huh?"

So the final act was his smash hit: the unforgettable Big Fat
Greek Upset over Andre Agassi in the finals of the 2002 U.S.
Open, when the 17th-seeded Sampras climbed into the stands to hug
the person whom the media had blamed for his 26-month winless
streak--his pregnant wife.

"[A TV commentator] had called her the Yoko Ono of tennis," he
says, venom in his eyes. "That sooo pissed me off. Criticize me,
criticize my game, but don't criticize my wife. She pulled me
through the hardest period of my tennis life. That's why that
[Open win] felt so damn good. I shut them all up in two weeks of
work. I showed them that the best part of me was her."

Full yet empty at the same time, he took the rest of 2002 off and
the first three months of 2003. In late April he was just about
to begin the two-month sweat-a-thon that would get him ready for
this year's Wimbledon when something turned up missing--his
desire. "I've always had this little thing I do when I tie my
shoes," Sampras says. "I finish tying them, slap the ground and
say to myself, Here we go! But this time, it didn't feel good.
And I stopped, right there and then."

He stewed over it. Was his career really over? He called friends
in and out of tennis. Finally, when he called Wayne Gretzky and
asked him what to do, the hockey god said simply, "You're the
only one who can know." Sampras realized then that he already
did.

And that has pleased exactly nobody else.

His family, his friends, Bridgette, they all want him to play one
more Grand Slam event. "I want it to be up to him, but, just
personally, I'm going to miss watching him play," Bridgette says,
holding the six-month-old boy, Christian, for whom she's happily
suspended her acting career. "And I'd love for Christian to be
there once, even if he'd never remember."

But Sampras is choosing this new Huggies life, this Gymboree
world where he's a hero to nobody but a kid who will never see
him play. "My life not playing is too good!" he says, and that
life includes adults--too much golf with his pal, actor Luke
Wilson, and too many welts from banging with his three-on-three
hoops buddies out on his tennis court. (Hey, you gotta use that
space for something.)

He's a new man. You should see him chug the baby's chocolate soy
milk straight out of the carton, order the extra dessert, eat
dinner without a thought of carbohydrate counts. "If I want steak
instead of a big plate of pasta, I can," he gloats. "Or I can not
eat at all. I'm free! I don't have to worry all the time: How am
I going to play tomorrow? How're my legs? Did I eat the right
combinations?"

But doesn't America deserve a chance to watch you take your last
bows? "Acch," he says with a shrug. "I see Michael Chang doing
the farewell tour thing, the rocking chair in each city thing,
taking the bows. I don't want that. I hate to be honored. I took
my bows at that Open. I just didn't know it."

I pity Pete Sampras. I do. He's lost the drive, the ambition, the
will that keeps the rest of us busting our butts. There is no
hope for the satisfied man, they say. Sampras is 31, and he'll
never do anything greater in his life. He's doomed to spend the
rest of his days with a neck-snapping blonde and a gorgeous son
in a hilltop palace with nothing to do but find new and creative
ways to blow his career winnings of $43 million.

(Hey, Pete, need any help?)

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to
reilly@siletters.com.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
"I hate to be honored," Pete Sampras says. "I took my bows at
[the 2002] Open. I just didn't know it."