It's hard to think it's a time warp when the subject at hand is merely 36 years old and announced his retirement in 2003. But in many ways, that was the case Monday night in San Jose, Calif., when Pete Sampras took the court at the SAP Open for an exhibition versus Tommy Haas.
In front of 8,812 fans who naturally greeted him with a standing ovation, Sampras tidily won 6-4, 6-2 in just under an hour, showcasing his array of signature shots -- the crackling forehand, the leaping overhead, forceful and deft volleys and, of course, likely emphatic until he draws his last breath, the classic but distinctive service motion that's likely the best in tennis history. Even though Sampras says he barely hit a ball for three years after retiring from the pro tour, stroke mechanics never leave world-class players.
"I felt pretty good to hit out there," Sampras said. "I play so sporadically, so it was interesting to toss it up and see what happens. I still really enjoying playing. It's good for me, playing a few exhibitions now and then is what I'm looking for, to stay in shape, to be competitive, to focus on something."
But don't read any more into this. Spotted in the hallways three hours before Monday night's match, a blue-jean clad Sampras ambled with his trademark loose-limbed, carefree stride, exchanging a few quips with SAP Open tournament director Bill Rapp and several others Sampras recalled from his fairly recent playing days. As Sampras headed up toward an elevator to attend a corporate reception, an observer spoofed a classic piece of advice from Sampras' former coach, Paul Annacone: "Use your athleticism, Pete." Joked Sampras, "That's all I've got."
This was an exquisitely relaxed Sampras, well aware that within minutes of his match ending Monday night he and his brother/business partner Gus would be whisked off in a plane that would take merely an hour to get back home to his family in Beverly Hills. It was a far cry from the Sampras who admitted, "It nearly killed me" to spend the fall of 1998 competing vigorously in Europe so that he would finish the year ranked No. 1 for a record sixth consecutive year.
Teasing the crowd following the win over Haas, Sampras said, "I'll tell you what I'll do: For the fans, I'll come back." But then, pausing like a ruler about to announce his abdication, Sampras added, "For me, I'm happy being retired. It's a lot of work to come out of retirement."
Asking what that meant, Sampras said, "There's got to be a reason to come out of retirement. Some miss the limelight. Some need the money. I don't miss it. I've got money. I stopped because it was an emotional decision."
The final comment was exceptionally revealing. Beneath his tranquil on-court demeanor, Sampras is a man of deep and powerful emotion. His highlight reel is filled with moments that give truth to the premise that still waters run deep. "It takes more passion than people think to play this game," he once said. "I've seen tapes of me playing and it looks so easy. If people only knew how much work it took to make it look that easy."
These days, Sampras' desire to work is light years removed from what it was in the days when, as he put it, "tennis would consume me." Many is the day when the last thing he wants to do is play tennis, opting instead for golf, basketball, possibly repeated viewings of "SportsCenter" and time with his wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, and two boys, ages 5 and 2.
And yet for all of Sampras' calm, like most pro athletes, he still relishes the chance to strut his stuff -- to do the only thing in which he will likely ever demonstrate tremendous skill and generate massive acknowledgment (and a few bucks, too). "When I get in the arena," Sampras said, "I still want to play."
For reasons good and bad having to do with everything from technology to teaching styles to financial opportunities, Sampras' attacking style is largely nonexistent in contemporary tennis. Certainly Sampras' willingness to charge forward helped him compete well versus Roger Federer during last fall's three-match exhibition tour of Asia (albeit on a court Sampras said was "faster than just about anything I've ever played on, probably too fast"). In this sense, even if Sampras is just about certain never to compete again as a main tour pro, his aptitude for aggression could surely help author a blueprint for current and future players hoping to make a run to the top of tennis -- that is, if they're willing to devote the visionary energies required for honing a style that takes longer to assemble than current baseline tennis.
Spending more time with Federer these says, Sampras recently asked the Swiss why he didn't come to the net more -- as Federer had when he beat Sampras in their only meeting at Wimbledon in 2001. "He said he didn't need to," Sampras said. But Sampras also added that today's players are "not used to seeing someone serve and volley and put pressure on them." Beneath the statement was an unspoken assertion: The lion still roars. At least once in a while.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.