Will Open title be curtain call for Sampras?

Posted: Tuesday, September 10, 2002

NEW YORK -- Pete Sampras kept saying it.

After losing a second straight U.S. Open final a year ago, after exiting Wimbledon in the second round, after losing to a 77th-ranked nobody last month, he'd clear his throat and pronounce:

''I'm going to stop on my own terms.''

Few are likely to offer the 31-year-old Sampras career advice now, not after he beat old foe Andre Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 Sunday to win his fifth U.S. Open title and record 14th Grand Slam championship. He's the Open's oldest winner since 1970.

''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. ''But ... .''

If he does take his time deciding whether to keep playing or concentrate on being a family man (his wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, is pregnant with their first child), well, he's earned it.

After one last crisp volley found its intended spot to close out Sunday's victory, Sampras mustered what energy was left in his weary legs to climb into the stands and hug his wife, his sister and his coach, Paul Annacone.

Sampras credited his ability to stay strong through two tough years -- he hadn't won a tournament since July 2000 -- to ''just a lot of support from my wife, my family, working with Paul again. That really gave me a lot of peace of mind. Some stability.''

''So much of what I was going through this year was mental,'' he added. ''It wasn't forehands and backhands and serves. It was kind of my head space. I wasn't real positive out there; kind of got down on myself extremely quick out there.''

He wasn't the only one. Plenty thought or wrote or said that Sampras should get out while the gettin' was good, retire before he lost so often that it would erode the memories of all his triumphs.

''That was one thing I promised myself, even though I was struggling this year and hearing this and that: I deserved to stop on my own terms,'' Sampras said. ''I've done too much in the game to hear the negative things and start believing it.

"Because there was a point I was believing it, maybe this time.''

As he tried to get things going in the right direction, he switched coaches repeatedly in the past nine months, going from Annacone to Tom Gullikson to Jose Higueras and back to Annacone.

Sampras had to weigh more than a decade of excellence -- all the major titles, the record 286 weeks at No. 1, the 64 titles, the 762 match wins -- with two seasons of mostly mediocre play. He was seeded 17th at the Open; Sampras hasn't finished a year outside the top 10 since 1989, his second as a pro.

And while losing to Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin or Andy Roddick might get easier to take, Sampras wasn't exactly staring across the net at a rising star each time he lost. His 20-17 record in 2002 heading into the Open included defeats against Paul-Henri Mathieu, Georg Bastl and Andrea Gaudenzi. Who, who and who?

It turns out it was good for the sport for Sampras to stick around, because little drives interest like a good rivalry.

The TV ratings Sunday were the highest for a U.S. Open final since 1990 -- when Sampras beat Agassi for his first major title. It was the 34th edition of Sampras vs. Agassi, the same number of times John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors played.

Who will be the next transcendent pair? Perhaps Roddick and James Blake, two up-and-comers who are unbeaten for the United States in Davis Cup play but have yet to get past the quarterfinals of a major.

Hewitt isn't exactly a media darling, Safin is as inconsistent as he is talented, and no other young player has shown an ability to contend at big tournament after big tournament.

For Sampras, the low point came at Wimbledon in June. He lost to Bastl -- in the draw only because someone else withdrew -- on a tiny side court with a hand-operated scoreboard.

During that match, Sampras read notes his wife had written on a small sheet of paper, words meant to inspire. After losing, he sat in his chair for a few minutes, head down, processing the disappointment and knowing that shouldn't be his lasting image.

''I'm not going to give in to the critics,'' Sampras said then. ''I'm just going to have to stop here and just kind of reflect a little but also not get too down. I still want to continue to play. And there is the U.S. Open in another month or so.

''I just hope I can find it pretty soon.''

He certainly did, right on cue.

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