In Retirement, Sampras Looks for Balance

Pete Sampras, winner of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, retired officially in 2003 but has been showing plenty of interest in playing the game of late. He has taken part in exhibitions in the United States, including a match in Madison Square Garden last month against Andre Agassi; he played in a senior tournament in Zurich; and he signed on to take part in a 12-city tour of the United States in September and October with Agassi, Jim Courier, John McEnroe and others.

Sampras, who will turn 40 in August, spoke in an interview last week. Here is a transcript from some of the interview.

Q. Seems like you’ve been playing, or at least practicing, fairly intensely. I know you trained with Roger Federer before the Indian Wells tournament.

A. We’re pretty good friends, so we hit a few balls for a couple of hours, and it’s fun every now and again to go out and push it hard. I don’t like doing it a lot, but when he was in town, him being who he is, I wanted to not embarrass myself and be somewhat competitive, and I think I did that.

It’s fun. It gets tougher as you get older. I don’t move as well. I’m not quite as durable, but standing and hitting, I still do it pretty well.

Q. What’s the level of pleasure playing the game gives you at this stage of your life?

A. You know what it does for me is, at home, it gives me a balance. I love playing golf. I love spending time with my kids and my wife, but at the same time I do need to work. I do need to feel like at the end of the day I did something for myself. So hitting a few balls is good for me. It keeps me in shape. It keeps me a bit focused. It’s not something I need to do every day. But every now and again, if I have a match coming up, I’ll hit every other day for an hour or an hour and a half and get out of there, and I get into the gym.

I think when I stopped playing, when I retired, I took two years of not doing anything, and I felt I was getting a little bit restless, maybe a touch bored, and I felt I needed something to kind of get me going, and hitting a few balls is something I tried and really, it’s given me a good balance over the last number of years. Listen, I’m not going to play a ton, but if I play a dozen matches a year, I’m happy. Every few months, if I have to go overseas, I don’t mind that. It’s always nice to make a few bucks here and there as well.

Q. I remember talking about this with you when you were still on tour: that you were well aware that when you retired you would basically never need to work again, that by age 30 you had taken care of your needs and your family’s needs. Do you feel thankful for that now on a regular basis?

A. I’m in complete control of what I want to do in my life and that’s a great place to be at 39 years old. At the same time, my childhood and all my years of playing, I definitely sacrificed a lot, and that’s why I was willing to sacrifice because I knew when I was retired I could pick and choose what I wanted to do, so it really is a nice place to be in life. I can spend a ton of time with my kids, take them out to the park during the week, and most guys are working eight to six.

Q. When you play matches like the one in New York last month or the coming tour in the fall, who do you reach? Who do you see in the stands when you look around the Garden?

A. I’m speaking to the older generation, to be honest with you. It’s funny. I was hitting with this one kid who goes to U.C.L.A., and he never saw me play, and I was like, “Wow, you never saw me play.” And it was weird to hear him say that. He said, “I’ve only seen you on YouTube.”

Q. What’s your take on the state of the men’s game at the moment? Novak Djokovic is off to an undefeated start to the year. Seems like the days of Nadal and Federer sharing all the spoils are over. Do you see it that way?

A. I don’t think it’s over. It might be a little less frequent. I still think there’s four guys, now five guys in Juan Martín del Potro, that are really the dominant players, and I think it really depends. But I do think that Djokovic is clearly up there now obviously with those guys, but I still look at Roger and Rafa and think they could very well play in the final of some more majors. It depends on who’s playing well. There’s only a handful of really great players in the sport.

Q. You said you were a little uneasy playing in front of 17,000 people against Andre again in New York. Why uneasy?

A. We’re not in that environment that often, and as great as we were in the 1990s, it’s tougher to be as sharp as you used to be and be able to pull off the shots. And dealing with a little bit of electricity in the air, it’s not always easy to know what to do with it. But I thought we handled it pretty well and I think the fans got a good match, so it was a good night.

Q. From my perspective, the only thing that comes close to the nerves of competing on your own is watching your own children compete. Anything else come close for you?

A. It is about my kids. My 8-year-old is starting to get involved in some different things. He had to say a few words in front of the whole second grade parents and class, and I was nervous that he had to speak in front of people, and I felt anxious for him. I felt for the kid. It’s terrifying, so there are those sorts of moments, and now as he gets a little older, hopefully he gets into some sporting things. I’ll see him competing, and I’ll feel it. I’ll feel that nervous pressure. That’s why my parents never watched me play. They couldn’t bear to watch.

Q. Federer at age 29 is now in a similar position to where you were in the latter stages of your career. Did you talk about the challenges he faces when you got together, or did you keep the shop talk out of it?

A. We didn’t talk much shop but I got the impression from him that he likes to still be out there. You just look at what he did in the fall. He went to Stockholm and all these tournaments, and I just know as much as he’s done in the sport, he’s still very much out there playing week in and week out and I’m amazed by that, that he’s still a much younger 29 than I was. I just felt a little more burned out. I see that as a big difference and will enable him to be competitive for many years.

Q. Many years? Truly?

A. I think as long as Roger wants to play, I think for those years he will be competitive. When I didn’t win a tournament for a couple years, I felt a much bigger drop-off, where I was struggling week in and week out. I didn’t have that motivation. I think Roger is just a little more hungry, a little more eager than I was at the same stage. He’s obviously dealing with some players who have gotten better but I think he’ll be fine. Listen, when it comes to Wimbledon, I still see him as the favorite and the U.S. Open. The French might be a long shot now, but I still see him as being right there. Listen, it’s hard to maintain being the best player in the world for year after year after year. Your level will stay the same, but other players will get better, and you see that in Nadal when he stepped up, and Djokovic now. So it should be an interesting year.

Q. Have you watched some of Djokovic’s three victories over Federer this year and, if so, what were your impressions?

A. I saw a little bit of Indian Wells, and it seemed to me that Djokovic probably is the best mover in the game, and he gets so many balls back, and Roger seems like he sort of presses a little bit, and if he’s a little bit off with the forehand, he’ll miss a few.

Q. A lot of players move very well, but Djokovic is so tight to that baseline when he plays defense.

A. Oh man. It’s incredible. He plays a little closer in, and he has that backhand, and he slides so well, especially on the hardcourts, that he’s able to hit that ball and recover and do something with it, and it seems like it’s hard to get the ball by him. And listen, Roger moves great and Nadal, but it just seems like Djokovic, especially in the last few months, has physically gotten in better shape, or I don’t know what he did. It just seems like he’s getting to the ball and recovering better than anyone. Obviously he’s very strong, but he’s a really good athlete to be able to be deep in that backhand corner and be able to get it back and get back in the offensive position. Andre had that great backhand but he didn’t move nearly as well as a Djokovic who is able to get there and do something with it.

Q. You and Andre have always been different. I was certainly struck by it in the different ways your autobiographies turned out: his was soul-baring, yours was pretty much classic Sampras, staying inside the lines.

A. In talking to the publishers, I said: ‘Listen guys, there are some things that are better left unsaid, and sure I’ve been through a lot of things in my personal life, and I’m just going to keep that private. I just want to write a book on tennis and how I did it and my experiences.’ I went through it, and it was just my goal to write a classic book. I wasn’t into making a ton of money. Sure, I loved for people to buy it, but my goal was to have a book my kids would read and have a better understanding of their Dad that was timeless. And certainly Andre’s book — I didn’t read it — was a lot more revealing and personal, and it’s just a reflection on what we’re willing to talk about. And I’m just more private in a lot of ways, and he’s certainly more open about a lot of things, and that’s O.K. But it’s just a good comparison. People might look at his as being more interesting in that way because people want to know the personal things, and what you’re going through. And I just felt that I’ve always been a private guy. You’ve known me since I was probably 19. I’ve just kept it quiet. It’s just the way I was raised. It’s just my personality. I don’t know any other way to do it.

Q. Can’t be much fun to be called cheap. You’ve probably done things for charity over the years nobody knows about.

A. Well, I did drop 70 grand on his charity thing one night at his thing in Vegas but listen, the whole cheap thing, maybe Andre regrets putting it in there, but it was something I never really understood. It was one moment when I was 20 years old, I don’t know. It didn’t make much sense, but it’s fine. It’s not a big deal.

Q. Do you feel an increased link with Federer now that your former coach Paul Annacone is working with him?

A. I think Paul is going to do a good job for Roger and try to help him out, and it definitely was a good decision for Roger to bring him in. I think it’s definitely made Roger and I a touch closer in that way. We’ve had the same coach, and he seems very happy with Paul and the job he’s doing.

Q. You both are certainly helping Paul’s future book sales.

A. (laughing): I was like: ‘Paul, I don’t know where you go from here? You got me and you got Roger. When Roger is done, what are you going to do?’ Paul’s a good man. He knows he’s been fortunate, but he’s a good coach, knows the game, and he’s got a personality that can work with a lot of different athletes, and so he’s done quite well.

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