|Monday, August 25
Sampras walking away in perfect form
By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com
It was just the longest, strangest, most drawn-out, least ultimately surprising thing in the world. It took a year to happen and had the distinct air of anticlimax when it finally did.
Pete Sampras' retirement Monday from world championship tennis, that is, was every bit as clumsy and lurching as the retirements of just about every elite athlete in the history of the world. Who knew? It may be one of the only times in Sampras' career that he came close to landing squarely on Average.
It won't matter in the long view, of course; Sampras' body of work is too strong for that. The fact that he spent the last 12 months in a sort of gradual fade from the tennis eye, occasionally checking his competitive fire as if to be sure it really was diminishing as much as he thought, will almost certainly be glossed over in any recounting of his career.
And deservedly so. The decision by Sampras to make his exit official at the U.S. Open is enough to underscore that; Flushing Meadow, after all, was the site of some of Sampras' greatest moments in the game, from the gut-wrenching to the gut-losing. When he yanked himself upright last summer after months in a seeming slouch and ran the table to win the Open, there was a body of thought that he ought to call it quits right then and there. It was as close to a perfect ending as any athlete ever gets.
Sampras did that, and he didn't. The Open remains his final championship, a fitting testament to the work of a player whose brilliance may never be fully appreciated because he generally brought so little public personality to go along with it. But it took Sampras a calendar year to get adjusted to the notion that Flushing really was the final hurrah.
And welcome to the human race, Elite Level. It's an old saw that I only repeat because of its essential truth: The only thing more difficult than crafting a truly memorable career in sports is knowing when to walk away from it.
It's hard to believe anymore in that perfect ending, if only because we're constantly barraged by examples to the contrary. The reality is that, even for the great ones, figuring out how to exit the stage can become just an excruciating process.
The Michael Jordan thing has been done to death, so, naturally, we'll revisit it here -- if only because Jordan really did have that magical ending in his hands, that shot over Bryon Russell to beat Utah and win the Bulls' sixth NBA championship of the Jordan era. Michael had the how and maybe even the why, but not the when; he simply wasn't ready to quit. And so he got what he got, and so did we, and you'll never convince me for even a minute that the Washington postscript was anything other than a bad pizza dream -- no lethal damage, maybe, but, heavens, what an odor.
You get a John Elway once in a while, but only that. Elway won his second Super Bowl for Denver, and then he and his wife climbed into a chopper and lifted up into the skies above Miami, and that was pretty much that. Oh, there were loose ends and such, and Elway did take as much time as he could before making anything official; but a great ending is a great ending.
Rare, too. While Sampras may have unintentionally teased his fans and the tennis public by flirting every now and again with a return to the court, he seemed to have a sure sense throughout the past 12 months of his own level of readiness. Give Pete credit: He did not, at any time, go out to play championship tennis just because. He never purposely walked his B game out onto the court. Watching Michael Chang struggle so much in his painful farewell tour after a career of genuine contribution to men's tennis, you figure Sampras had it right, straight down the line.
He's married. He is a father. He is content, or at least as content as any intensely competitive athlete can ever really be outside the arena. It just took Sampras a year to be sure of all that -- or, perhaps, to be sure he was ready to tell the world what he already knew.
I always loved the Ted Williams walkoff, but then so did the rest of sporting America. They wrote prose and poetry about it, the home run sailing through the Fenway Park air, Williams rounding the bases expressionlessly and going into the Boston dugout, essentially never to return. John Updike isn't generally moved to sportswriting, put it that way.
Less known, but of equal importance to the conversation here, is the idea that Williams understood a classic ending when he achieved it. The Red Sox actually had another series left that season, on the road against the Yankees. Ted Williams declined to travel to New York. He had had his last at-bat.
Seeing the sad turns the Williams saga has taken lately, one is struck by the thought that perhaps in this life nobody really gets away clean. That's a lament for another day. We come not to bury Pete Sampras, at any rate. What tennis history will record is that a great champion, an epic champion, won the U.S. Open as his final competitive act, then walked away.
Those 12 months in between might just as well not have happened, at least as Sampras' history matters. Good enough. This was maybe as awkward as any other exit in sports, but in the end Sampras got it right. Given the routine excellence of his career, it shouldn't be surprising.
Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com