When Pete Sampras defeated Andre Agassi in the finals of the 2002 US Open, the retirement debate began almost immediately. Was Pete going to go out on top or would he continue to try to add to the record-breaking legacy he had created? While that decision took a year to officially sort out, I’ve always wondered if Pete did the right thing. Sure, he had been struggling that last year on tour. His motivation did not seem to be as high. Getting knocked out at Wimbledon in the second round was a major shock to the tennis world. And yet his run during those two weeks at Flushing Meadows certainly showed he still had what it took to continue at a high level. During that time he knocked off his young heir apparent Andy Roddick, and perhaps his greatest rival of all time in Agassi.
But Sampras opted to go out a champion, and nobody could fault him for that. He had a young family to spend time with. His 32 year old body was taking a beating after so many years on the tour, and after tasting success at almost every possible major venue, he felt it was time to call it a career. Many wondered if Sampras would be content in retirement. At the time, I would not have been surprised if a year or two later he decided to come back while he was still young enough to compete at a high level. Maybe he could have put away another Wimbledon or two before Roger Federer truly hit his peak. Instead, no one heard a whisper from Sampras. He kept to himself while spending time with his family and practicing his game on the golf course, not the tennis court.
Almost four years would pass before the world would see Pistol Pete on a tennis court again. It started very simply, with an exhibition match against young American Robby Ginepri on April 6, 2006. Sampras could have decided to take on a fellow retiree such as Jim Courier or John McEnroe. Instead, he chose to test himself against a current professional. An interesting choice no doubt. While Ginepri would take the exhibition 6-3, 7-6, Sampras must have been content with his showing after such a long layoff and against a much younger opponent.
Talk turned quite quickly to the prospect of a Sampras/Federer clash of the ages. While that would not materialize for some time, Sampras did try his hand at World Team Tennis and some events on the Outback Champions Series, a senior level tour. Many remarked that Sampras still had some serious skills on the court; John McEnroe even stated he felt Sampras could be a top five threat on the lawns of Wimbledon.
Fast forward to the fall of 2007. Talk of a Sampras/Federer exhibition matchup came to fruition with a three match tour of Asia. Sampras had been practicing quite heavily leading up to the encounters, and although Federer was coming off the Tennis Masters Cup and a long season of tennis on top of that, he was still the clear overwhelming favourite. Federer also does not strike me as the type of competitor who simply goes through the motions just to entertain the crowd. I have no doubt that he was eager to show his was able to defeat Sampras, whose Grand Slam titles record he is trying to catch.
All three matches were quite close. Federer took the opening encounter 6-4, 6-3 in Seoul, Korea. Two days later the score was even closer; Federer again won in staight sets 7-6, 7-6. The last match of the series was the most remarkable, with Sampras actually winning in two straight sets, 7-6, 6-4. Clearly his serve and volley game was something that gave Federer somewhat of a challenge. The fact that a 36 year old Pete Sampras was even able to make these matches close against the 26 year old Roger Federer was incredible. Sampras must have left the Orient feeling pretty happy with his accomplishments. Might he also have been wondering about how he would fare against some of the other top ATP players of today? Part of him had to have, at least for a fleeting moment, considered how he might hold up against today’s players in a real tournament scenario.
Here we are now at the start of the 2008 season. Instead of taking a break from his recent exhibition revival, Sampras is scheduled to play Tommy Haas (who replaces an injured Marat Safin) at next week’s SAP Open in San Jose. Again testing himself against a current player, I must wonder what Sampras hopes to achieve with this or future matches against today’s players. Is he trying to see if he can defeat another one of today’s big names? Trying to see whether his encounter with Federer at the end of a long season was just a fluke?
Another exhibition match against Federer looms in March at Madision Square Gardens in New York City. This is good opportunity for Sampras to take on the current number one on his home soil. But then where does he go from there? Why is he continuing to play against today’s players and not his contemporaries who still dabble in the sport on the senior tour?
The only realistic and reasonable answer in my opnion is that Sampras is systematically gearing himself up for a return to the ATP tour. Not a full return, and perhaps not even a limited schedule, but certainly he is trying to gauge his response to today’s challengers. The thought has to have been planted in his head, and further nourished by his recent success against Federer. Despite his repeated denials, I would not be the least bit surprised if Sampras asked for, and was granted, a wild card at the Queen’s Club tournament in June in order to prepare for his ultimate goal, a return to the All-England club at Wimbledon. While he may be in too deep against a Federer or Djokovic, he could still give just about anyone else a good run for their money on his favourite surface. Keeping his age and fitness level in mind, he would have to try to limit his matches to three or four sets and avoid a long, drawn out five-setter. But with his booming serve still in order and his net game tuned up, I’m sure he would still be able to make it to the last sixteen.
Something more than just a desire to stay fit and have fun with today’s crop of players is at work here. While Sampras has given no official word that would indicate this is what he has in mind, don’t be surprised if we see Pistol Pete one more time on Centre Court at Wimbledon this summer. Tennis fans of all ages and backgrounds would certainly be in for a treat if this were to happen.