Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 20 News List

King of the courts to take final bow


Pete Sampras will return to a tennis court one last time -- to say goodbye.

The owner of a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles hasn't played a match since winning last year's US Open, though he never officially announced he was quitting the sport.

That will change at a news conference on Monday, when Sampras also will be feted at Arthur Ashe Stadium on the opening night of this year's US Open.

In keeping with Sampras' muted public style, the news came via an e-mailed statement from his representatives on Thursday.

"He was just one of the most graceful players of all time, one of the most quietly competitive players of all time, one of the best pressure players of all time," said Andy Roddick, who's seeded fourth at the Open.

"The bigger the match was, the better he played. And he didn't make a big fuss about things. He just made his name by winning."

Sampras, 32, leaves with 64 singles titles, and he was ranked No. 1 a record six years (1993-98). His collection of major titles includes a record-tying seven Wimbledons, five US Opens and two Australian Opens.

He forever will be associated with the All England Club, where his strong serve, crisp volleys and booming forehand made him nearly unbeatable on grass.

In July 2000, Sampras won a fourth straight Wimbledon to break Roy Emerson's career mark of 12 major titles. After beating Patrick Rafter in the final, Sampras -- tears glistening in his eyes -- looked into the stands for his parents, who never before had been present for one of his Grand Slam victories.

Reflecting on his successful pursuit of Emerson's record, which stood since 1967, Sampras said: "Time will tell if it will be broken. I think in the modern game, it could be difficult. It's a lot of commitment, a lot of good playing at big times."

He wouldn't win another tournament of any sort for more than two years. The disappointments included early losses to journeymen at the French Open -- the lone major he never won -- and Wimbledon, and Sampras carried the drought into last year's US Open.

He was seeded just 17th, with barely more wins than losses for the season.

And he put together what, in retrospect, was a perfect going away gift to himself and tennis fans.

The man he beat in the Open's third round, 1997 finalist Greg Rusedski, called Sampras "a step and a half slow" -- but Sampras just kept winning. He knocked off twentysomethings Tommy Haas and Roddick while playing five matches in seven days to get to a fairytale final against lifelong rival Andre Agassi.

In what turned out to be Sampras' last match, he pounded 33 aces to beat Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 and, at 31, become the tournament's oldest winner since 1970.

At the postmatch news conference, Sampras alternated between sounding as though he were ready to hang up his racket and ready to get back to work.

"I'm going to have to weigh it up in the next couple months to see where I'm at. To beat a rival like Andre, in a storybook ending, it might be nice to stop," Sampras said at the time.

"But," he added, "I still want to compete, you know?"

He has other interests, too, including fatherhood. Sampras' wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, had their first child in November.

So Sampras exits with perfect bookends: His first major title came with a victory over Agassi in the 1990 US Open final. That made Sampras, barely 19, the tournament's youngest champion.

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