Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is Sampras the Brett Favre of tennis?

When Pete Sampras retired in 2002, after spanking Agassi for the umpteenth time, he gave the impression that he was done with tennis. In interviews he indicated that his career was over. He was going to turn into a homebody, taking care of his wife and helping her to pop out some kids. As evidence that he was done for good, his training team packed up and found other jobs, most famously Paul Annacone who found a lead job with the Lawn Tennis Association.

I can’t honestly say that I ever missed Pete Sampras. While I always appreciated his talent, it was Agassi’s lively personality and sexy ass that were always more my style. Pete with his grandfather pants and his heavy tongue hanging out of his mouth as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with an index finger -- just didn’t stir me in the nether region. But I always appreciated his spectacular tennis. And always I admired his serve. The American Beauty.

So when he popped up in 2006 to play an exhibition match against Robby bore-me-to-tears-why-don’t-ya Ginepri, I didn’t half mind. I figured that between the two of them they would create half a personality and one-third of an exciting match. When Robby sent Pete packing 6–3, 7–6, I figured that that would be the last I would see of Sampras. Surely he would return to his baby-making.

Then he upped and announced that he was going to play World Team Tennis. I don’t know if Anna Kournikova talked him out of it but I never saw him on the multi-colored courts. Which was fine with me because I don’t watch WTT anyway. It’s too foolishly contrived for my taste. Although the less churlish side of me can of course appreciate whatever breaks some of those no-name players hopefully manage to attract.

2007 came around and there was Mr. Retiree challenging the world’s #1 player to a series of exhibition matches. I sucked my teeth and wondered if losing to Robby I-am-so-boring-I-put-myself-to-sleep Ginepri hadn’t done the trick. And when Sampras won the last of the initial three exos, I thought, oh Lord, here we go. Sampras is about to become the Brett Favre of tennis. As in a player who keeps retiring and then coming back. And then retiring some more and then coming back. And then crying long-assed tears as he takes his absolutely final curtain call, and then coming back to play some more.

I would give anything to have Brett Favre on my couch. Yes I have a couch. I have found that it makes for more genuine and emotionally honest self-disclosure. Except that, to be fair to Favre, he really seems to mean it each time he quits. And then he really seems to mean it when he starts new contract negotiations. So I don’t want him on my couch just for the honesty, but because I would love to get a chance to see up close what a thoroughly confused (or manipulative, or narcissistic, or simply tormented) mind looks like. Frankly I would pay him for the experience of a close-up view. It would be educational.

So when Sampras announced recently that at his prime he could have taken Roger on grass, I flinched inside. Not because I have forgotten the images of Federer spanking him hard back in the day, but because I started dreading a serious comeback. Not of the excruciatingly arranged exhibition matches kind. Not the Geriatric Tour where he can continue to beat old nemeses like Todd Martin, Patrick Rafter, and Jim Courier. No, I began to fear that he would try to return to the ATP. Here we go, I thought, it’s tennis’ Brett Favre. He’s not going to be satisfied until he fully comes back and tries to win back his record. And I do think that if Sampras believed that he had any chance of enduring seven consecutive matches to win another Slam or two, he would be back tomorrow. But he must know that he cannot. He cannot be so lacking in Favrian insight as to delude himself that he can.

And to be fair, I can’t imagine Sampras ever dissing the surface where he accrued his best wins. I can’t imagine him suddenly extolling the virtues of the dirt and implying that Wimbledon was suddenly less than. Or that true fans would support him if he elected to roll around in the clay of Roland Garros instead of inhaling the grass of Wimbledon. To be fair, Sampras would never be that disloyal. Nor do I believe that he would ever seriously try to come back. Because at the end of the day, talk is cheap.

LA Tennis Open Day 1

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