Even today, Sampras augments legendary status

Pete Sampras won a record 14 Grand Slam titles and finished No. 1 in the world six straight years. Adam Pretty/Getty Images

In April, ESPN.com asked you, the users, to name tennis' greatest living legends. On May 5, we began rolling out your top five in ascending order, beginning with the "Rocket" Rod Laver. But it was Pete Sampras who ran away with the voting as the most eminent and distinguished living legend.

BOSTON -- Figurative lightning has struck the court at Boston University's Agganis Arena. John McEnroe has just beaten Pete Sampras in the Outback Champions Series, his first win over Sampras on any circuit. They first played in 1990 when Sampras was a darkly intense teenager and McEnroe was an older dog running out of new tricks. McEnroe, with typical understatement, stalks around with both arms raised in a victory salute as if he's just captured a major.

Sampras doesn't waste any time going into his obligatory press conference. It's past 10 p.m. and he's tweaked his back -- "Welcome to the senior tour," McEnroe will say later -- and isn't happy about losing, but Sampras is still patient and professional.

Afterward, a starstruck and somewhat tongue-tied reporter from a local network affiliate quizzes Sampras in the corridor.

"Do you still appreciate what you can do out there -- I mean, do you appreciate yourself?" the reporter asks.

Sampras grins devilishly. "I'm not that deep," he says.

We beg to disagree. Sampras, who won our Legends poll and is the only semi-active Living Legend in our lineup this week, has shown himself to be a thoughtful athlete in transition, and an independent-minded and plucky one.

He refused to be hurried out to pasture after his emotional, made-for-Hollywood 2002 U.S. Open win over archrival Andre Agassi, and took the better part of a year to make a decision some thought should be obvious one way or the other. Sampras won't be herded into any neat categories now, either.

"Pete does things in his own methodical way," Jim Courier said last week. "He could have felt like -- 'I've given everything, I have nothing more to give, I have a family and I'm going to raise my family quietly and ride off into my own perfect sunset.'

"And that would have been well within his rights to do. But that would have been a shame for tennis. Ultimately, I think we're all richer that he's back in the sport and he's probably feeling more complete because he's reconnected with his roots."

When I got Sampras aside to ask if he thought he'd ever find something else as stimulating and rewarding as tennis, he politely cut off the last part of the question.

"It's tricky," Sampras said. "It's hard. It's a work in progress, retirement. It's very hard to find what that passion is. … When you're 31 and retired, you sort of reinvent yourself and it's not easy to do."

Meanwhile, he's playing a little tennis after not touching a racket for three years.

The last thing the world needs is yet another rehash of Sampras' considerable accomplishments -- the U.S. Open win at age 19, the 14 Grand Slam titles, the seven Wimbledons, the exhausting effort he invested to help win a Davis Cup championship in Russia.

Because Sampras was usually so controlled on the court, his demonstrative moments stand out almost as much as the trophies. He wept during a wearing Australian Open quarterfinal against Courier, stricken by thoughts of his coach, Tim Gullickson, who was fighting a losing battle against cancer.

Because Sampras was so often so dominant, people tend to fixate on the times he played through trouble, like the five-set U.S. Open quarterfinals match against Alex Corretja when a dehydrated Sampras managed to win despite twice vomiting on the court.

But you probably know all that. His résumé has been documented elsewhere. Instead, let's salute the way Sampras is navigating this interesting limbo he's in.

Sure, he gets paid handsomely for those high-profile exhibitions against Roger Federer, and there's darn good prize money in Courier's Outback tour as well. But it still takes nerve to put yourself out there when your records, your style and your presence are still a huge part of the conversation in tennis, thanks to Federer's ardent pursuit of Sampras' landmark 14 Grand Slam titles.

Every time Sampras ducks his head and ambles back to the baseline in that deceivingly casual way, or leaps to volley at the net, he grafts those familiar mannerisms onto a now nearly 37-year-old body, and invites risky and inevitably unflattering comparison with his not-that-much younger self. His willingness to do that speaks to his utter confidence that his legacy is secure.

As McEnroe pointed out, "He doesn't have a whole lot to gain playing me," and more to lose against most opponents except Federer, when even an exhibition win raises eyebrows. "I can see where he's gonna have to pick and choose," McEnroe said. "Hopefully he continues, because I think it would be good for tennis and ultimately good for him."

When Sampras bested Federer in one of their three exhibitions in Asia last fall and looked on the verge of taking him in their Madison Square Garden gala (and anyone who thinks Sampras didn't want that one is demented), he kicked off another round of speculation about whether he could or should return to the ATP tour for a cameo appearance.

Blah, blah, blah. One of the reasons Sampras left the game was to be done with the constant, tiresome scrutiny that trails any player of his stature.

"We've had some very candid talks, and he's been very frank and forthright about the fact that he quit because of all the emotional stress," said Justin Gimelstob, Sampras' outgoing contemporary, who also played in the recent Outback event. "It wasn't like he couldn't do it [physically].

"He could still be a force in certain situations on the tour, but five sets, two weeks in a row is a different ballgame."

During the two barren years that led up to Sampras' final, glorious run at the 2002 U.S. Open, people clamored for him to retire. Now some yearn for him to come back. The chatter must fall somewhere between amusing and annoying for him.

"In the public's mind, I understand that me playing again and me playing OK and playing Roger pretty tight, they say 'Why don't you come back,' but there's a lot more to it than that," Sampras said in Boston. "The day-in, day-out grind of the sport is something I don't have in me anymore.

"You're playing and you want to be competitive and enjoy it, and you're right, it might seem like one foot in, one foot out, but I know in my heart I have two feet out. It's not even a consideration. I never ever thought I would ever come back. You get older, your body doesn't feel that good. I still play OK, but I don't miss that lifestyle."

What he did miss, however, was not only the adrenaline of competition but the discipline that had become second nature to him. Sampras disputes the notion that he's playing out of boredom, but concedes he felt "restless" with his life of leisure. "It gives you something to prepare for, get in shape for, focus for," he said of his part-time playing schedule.

Sampras has been very consistent about what he wants out of this passage, ever since he dipped his sneaker in the pond two years ago by playing an exhibition in Houston and a short season of World Team Tennis.

"I just want to make this clear that me playing some exhibitions is in no way an indication that I'm coming out of retirement," he firmly informed reporters on a conference call back then while his interrogators were still dancing around the topic. And later, "I felt like I had a bull's-eye on my chest for most of my career, so just kind of fending people off is not something I miss."

But something else happened. Those of us on the call remarked afterward how loose and open Sampras sounded, how easily he bantered with us. Things had shifted since his playing days, when he installed deflector shields, funneled everything into his game and didn't leave a lot of room for us to get to know him.

Now, the player some too glibly labeled a tepid personality during his career has written a book (due out later this spring and coauthored by Tennis Magazine's Peter Bodo.) Sampras understands the curiosity about himself and how he did what he did, and he's not resisting it. It's an old, old story -- the great athlete who becomes more accessible once he can do it on his own terms.

"I was guarded and closed like him, too," Chris Evert said in a recent interview. "I opened up towards the end of my career, but you need to save a lot of emotions. You have to reserve it for your matches."

Sampras said that playing occasionally gives him balance, but he also recognizes he might not be able to keep things in equilibrium this way forever.

"There's no rush for any decision to play a ton of these or not play any of these," he said at the Outback Series. "I'll just kind of see how it goes each month and see how I feel. I still enjoy hitting the tennis ball. It's just hard to say how much more I want to play. Whether I'll be doing this for five years, I don't know."

Why do we like senior tours, old-timer's days and encores by former greats? It's about more than just seeing them strike the ball with a ghost of their past authority. We got used to watching them in person. We're accustomed to being able to judge for ourselves how they're doing. If we liked them, it's as simple as this: We want to know that they're OK.

The planet is teeming with "legends" who could pull off anything on the playing field, but can't quite figure out how to manage the rest of their lives. Sampras may have had the most perfect final match of any tennis player in history. Now comes the tricky part -- having a retirement worthy of his career. For Sampras, we'd have to say so far so good.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.