The day Pete Sampras' fire returned

NEW YORK -- As it turns out, Pete Sampras plays more golf these days than tennis.

Maybe that's why his handicap -- he's a member at the Bel Air and Riviera country clubs -- is down to a 3.

At 41, he's settled into the gentle, genteel life of a man of independent means. He and his wife, the actress and singer Bridgette Wilson, have two boys, Christian, 9, and Ryan, 7, and live in Brentwood, Calif.

"I have my slow days," Sampras said in a phone conversation with ESPN.com. "I spend a lot of time with our boys. I'm staying in shape, working out. It's nice not to deal with playing anymore, but, yeah, I miss the majors."

From 1990 to 2002, Sampras won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, the most of the Open era until Roger Federer surpassed him three years ago at Wimbledon. The first and the last major victories came here at the U.S. Open, both against Andre Agassi in the finals. The 2002 meeting was the final match Sampras ever played.

Later this month, Sampras will play John McEnroe on green clay in an exhibition in West Virginia. In October, he'll appear in several Champions Series events with Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and McEnroe.

On Sunday, when Agassi is scheduled to be inducted into the USTA's Court of Champions in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Sampras will be home in California. A tribute to Sampras' final match was discussed but never came to fruition.

"Ten years," Sampras said. "Yeah, I feel like it's been a while."

Serving notice

He was still a teenager when he broke through here, a study in sheer athleticism. His serve was both an irresistible force and immovable object. Sampras won all seven matches here in 1990, the last a straight-sets victory over Agassi. Suddenly, the era of Jimmy Connors (five U.S. Open titles) and John McEnroe (four) was over.

In some minds, Pete Sampras went on to become the greatest male player of the Open era. He won 64 singles titles, and even Federer couldn't match his six consecutive years as the year-end No. 1 player.

"All I cared about in tennis," Sampras said, "was winning."

He earned his last Wimbledon championship in 2000 and made the finals that year in New York but lost badly to a 20-year-old Russian named Marat Safin. Sampras could still compete in the majors, but the lesser events were a challenge.

"With all due respect to the other tournaments, it was hard for him to get really jacked up about winning in San Jose or even Indian Wells at that stage of his career," said his longtime coach Paul Annacone. "It's not that he didn't try, it's just that when you tell yourself something, it's another thing to get your mind and body to buy in."

Sampras' decline was duly noted in the media.

"You couldn't take a step without someone saying, 'You're not as dominant as you used to be. When are you going to retire?'" Sampras said. "Hey, it's a story. I get that.

"After a year or so, I was like, 'Am I being a fool here? Why am I not seeing the handwriting on wall?' You start believing it."

Roland Garros never suited Sampras' style; the red clay in Paris was the only major that eluded him. In 2002, he lost there in the first round to Italian Andrea Gaudenzi. At Wimbledon, his most cherished event, George Bastl of Switzerland bounced him in the second.

"The lowest point of my career," Sampras acknowledged.

Annacone, who had coached Sampras since 1995, left after the 2001 season to become the managing director of the USTA's High Performance program.

"I think he felt like his level was still there to win a major," Annacone said. "I think it was a matter of trying to figure out how to sustain the consistency."

A crisis of confidence

"I had lost the stability in my coaching situation," Sampras said. "You need that continuity. After I got back from Wimbledon, I called Paul at the USTA and said, 'Hey, I need a little bit of love here.'

"It wasn't about hitting the forehand or the backhand, it was about confidence. I wanted one more major, and I hoped I could put it all together again."

Annacone was not surprised. It had been 26 months since Sampras had won a tournament. When he was focused on being No. 1 and winning majors, Sampras said he was numb to the negative -- and even positive -- press. Losing made it harder to ignore.

"We had a long talk after the loss to Bastl," Annacone said. "When you haven't won a tournament in so long and you're Pete Sampras, every time you go into a press conference, it's negatively driven. And no matter how relentlessly optimistic you are or how much confidence you have, when 90 percent of the questions are negative, it plants a seed.

"And that might only diminish your self-belief by 2 percent, but at that level that's all it takes. Even as great as he was, 2 percent means vulnerability."

Annacone agreed to coach him through the U.S. Open.

"I did fall into that trap of questioning myself," Sampras agreed. "Talking to Paul, he said, 'You need to shut that stuff out, leave it on the side of road.' I needed to remember who I was and what I did in my career. At some point, you have to let it go.

"That summer, I sort of started over."

He lost in the second round at Cincinnati, to No. 70-ranked Wayne Arthurs. In Long Island, he went out in his first match to Paul-Henri Mathieu, a Frenchman ranked No. 85.

"I was totally, 100 percent convinced he'd win another major -- because I knew he wanted to do it," Annacone said. "I didn't know it was going to be six weeks later."

Still a tough out

Sampras had reached the U.S. Open the two previous years but had been beaten badly by a pair of 20-year-olds, first by Safin and then Australia's Lleyton Hewitt in 2001.

"I actually think this tournament is the most difficult for the older players to win, with the Saturday [semifinal], Sunday [final]," Annacone said. "It potentially, severely jeopardizes the integrity of Sunday's match because it's a best-of-five sets back-to-back."

Sampras beat Albert Portas in the first round and Kristian Pless in the second, both in straight sets. In the third, Greg Rusedski extended him to five sets -- the only time it happened during the fortnight.

"I was lucky to get by Rusedski," Sampras said. "I never liked big lefty serves. Rusedski was awkward to play. I got through that. My game was still good and I was moving well, serving well.

"I'm still a tough out."

After the match, Rusedski said Sampras was a half-step slow and would lose the match to Tommy Haas. The German took him to four sets in the fourth round, and in the quarterfinals, Sampras easily won against 20-year-old American Andy Roddick.

"That allowed me to get some rest," Sampras said. "In the last week, the passion that I had lost in the week-to-week grind came out of me. Every time I stepped on court, I felt I was the favorite. You win 13 majors, you should feel that way."

The raw, unquenchable desire that Annacone had seen in Sampras' brown eyes for more than seven years had returned.

"I thought, 'Wow, he's right there. He's in the right mind space right now,'" Annacone said. "People talk about pressure, but I feel like the pressure on Pete was more self-imposed. No one held him to a higher standard than him.

"But I felt like it was going to be challenging toward the end. At 31, to ask him to play five matches in seven days, three-of-five sets, well, that's a pretty big ask."

Sjeng Schalken, a surprise semifinalist, offered little resistance in a three-set match. Andre Agassi needed four sets to beat Hewitt.

Darren Cahill was Agassi's coach at the time.

"An amazing performance by Pete to get the final, to serve the way he did," Cahill said. "He struggled going in but really stormed back. I mean, none of us should have been surprised because we'd seen it time and time again."

A poetic matchup

A dozen years after playing Agassi in the U.S. Open final, Sampras met his great rival again, for the 34th time.

"I genuinely think it was such poetry to see them playing," Annacone said. "I felt like if Pete didn't win, there's no one he'd rather have win if it wasn't him, because of his respect for Andre.

"It was a perfect setup."

Sitting in the players' box with Annacone was Sampras' wife, Bridgette. She would give birth to their first son, Christian, in less than two months.

"Against Andre," Sampras said, "everything came full circle. Outside looking in, after losing at Wimbledon, it was a probably a complete shock how far I came. But I wasn't shocked at all."

Agassi was actually 15 months older than Sampras, but because he had taken a few sabbaticals from the top level of the game, he had fewer miles on his tires.

"Physically, Andre was a bit beaten up going into that match," Cahill said. "We knew it was going to be one of those tough battles. Pete served incredibly well for a couple of sets."

Sampras, who would strike 33 aces and unleash some ruthless second serves, won the first two sets comfortably.

"His game is able to raise itself at the right time," Agassi said after the match. "There's still a danger in the way he plays and how good he is. Anybody that says something different is really ignorant."

Agassi won the third set and began to pressure the fading Sampras in the fourth. Serving at 2-all, Sampras labored in a 12-minute game that saw seven deuces and 20 total points.

"Andre had a break point and ripped the return of serve at the toes of Pete," Cahill said. "And Pete hit this half-volley drop shot behind him to save a break point. It was a great shot, but from our perspective, we felt the wind get sucked out of our player box.

"Once Pete won that point and held on to that service game, the complexion of that set and match changed. He rode the wave, all the way to the end."

Playing in the fading sunlight, Sampras looked a lot like that frisky 19-year-old champion.

"There's a million clichés that the players all say," Annacone said. "You know, 'I can't wait to get on Center Court; can't wait to play the big match.' But there's very few guys who feel that in their essence. And Pete Sampras is one of those guys.

"I saw it in his eyes before walking onto Centre Court to play Wimbledon finals; heard it in his voice before playing Boris Becker in Germany in the ATP final with 15,000 screaming fans. Pete just loved that stage."

Sampras won, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, to became the oldest man to win the U.S. Open since Ken Rosewall in 1970.

"This one might take the cake," Sampras said.

"It's hard to say what the future is going to hold for us. This could be it for us. But maybe next year we'll do it again."

Retirement is forever

Sampras did not play another match in 2002.

"He didn't know for many months," Annacone said. "He'd say, 'Let's go practice.' Then after four days it was like, 'I don't feel like playing.'"

He discussed retirement constantly with his wife and friends. Then it got a little more serious. He didn't play in Australia at the beginning of the 2003 season. In February, he passed on one of his favorite events in San Jose.

"Once the aftermath of the Open went away, I wasn't sure what was next," Sampras said. "I'd hit balls every couple of weeks and I'd think, 'What am I doing out here? What am I getting ready for?'"

Said Cahill, "The longer you are out of the game, the tougher it is to come back. After a couple months, maybe he's saying, 'What a magical way to end a career.' You couldn't blame him if he was going to hang it up, because retirement is forever."

Annacone was patient; he knew Sampras wanted to be certain. They'd hit regularly at the tennis court outside his Lake Sherwood mansion in Ventura County.

One day in late March, Annacone walked down the stairs of Sampras' house on his way to the court.

"He was lacing his shoes up," Annacone said, "and he said, 'I'm done, I'm done playing.' Just like that."

Annacone smiled -- he knew it was coming -- and replied, "Perfect."

Sampras told him his rationale: "I realize why I played. I played to prove things -- to myself, no one else. The record books don't matter. I really don't need to prove anything to myself anymore.

"I've got a great wife, a great life. I just climbed a big mountain and I'm happy."

Actually, Sampras wasn't absolutely certain until July.

"I wanted to give myself a chance," he said, "but once I saw Wimbledon come and go and I didn't really miss it, I finally knew I was done."

The pinnacle

A few days ago, Annacone sat at a wrought iron table in the outdoor players' lounge at Arthur Ashe Stadium and remembered that magnificent run.

"I can't believe it's been a decade," he said, shaking his head. "It seems like yesterday. Such a cliché, but that's how it feels."

Annacone's current job keeps him busy. He's the coach for No. 1-ranked Roger Federer, whose fabulous career arc closely resembles Sampras'.

"The last match he ever played was in there," Annacone said, pointing. "It was against one of the greatest players of all time, his great rival. Being able to win, to be at the pinnacle of your game, and walk away?

"There's no more poetic way to hang up your racket than that.

Cahill was in the players' box at Ashe when Agassi played his final match four years later.

"Time has gone fast, obviously," said Cahill, now an ESPN analyst. "Both of those guys had the belief when the pressure was on. It's something you can't teach.

"It's hard for us normal guys who smack the ball around for a bit of fun to comprehend. But we see it so often from these people that we expect it. When it happens, we say, 'Wow, that happened again?'

"I should never have doubted it."

Sampras is not introspective by nature. When CBS ran a feature about the 2002 final last weekend, he was surprised how moving it was.

"Going out against Andre, it was very special," he said. "I say that now more than ever because of the respect I have for him. He was probably the best player I played against. There was a time in juniors when it was competitive, but we got along well."

"We pushed each other -- we needed each other."

Sampras watches today's game from afar. He applauded Roddick when he played his last match on Ashe.

"It's changed so much," he said. "You only have so much energy to deal with things. You can get bogged down. Twitter -- I couldn't handle it. I would throw my iPhone in middle of the ocean."

Looking back, he is proud of his effort those two weeks in New York.

"People wrote me off, but I believed in myself," Sampras said. "I got the confidence back, and it grew and grew. I won my first major and my last at the place that changed my life.

"It was a fitting way to end it."