News Clips – Sept. 22, 2011
Sampras gets back into the tennis swing as Champions Tour hits Verizon Center
After 15 years as tennis pro and a record 286 consecutive weeks at No. 1, the 31-year-old Sampras gladly channeled his newfound spare time into golf, hung out with his wife and their two young boys and didn’t stress over the paunch that sprouted in his midsection.
“I didn’t want to feel any pressure; I’d had enough of that,” said Sampras, now 40, in a telephone interview. “I was cold-turkey for three years. I sort of wanted to be lazy for a couple years, quite honestly.”
But even a contented life, he learned, had its limits. And after a time, Sampras found the balance he was seeking in the same place he had celebrated his life’s triumphs and suffered gut-wrenching defeats: On a tennis court.
“How much golf can you play in a day?’ Sampras asked. “After a while of that, I wondered, ‘What’s next in my life?’ ”
Along with the best of a brilliant generation of American tennis players — Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang — Sampras is parlaying his slightly rusty but still formidable strokes into a part-time career on the sport’s Champions tour, which visits Washington’s Verizon Center for the HSBC Tennis Cup on Friday. The headliners share 27 major singles titles among them.
Washington is the second stop on the 12-city Champions tour that also includes, in other cities, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander.
Friday’s format calls for Sampras to face Chang, 39; and Agassi, 41, to play Courier, 41, in back-to-back, one-set semifinals. The winners will advance to an eight-game pro-set championship match, with players collecting points toward the series standings. The top three finishers after five weeks share $1 million in prize money.
“It shows my kids that I do work a little,” Sampras joked. “And it’s a good balance for me.”
Balance is an elusive quality in the lives of many world-class athletes. Excellence almost invariably demands total commitment at the expense of all other challenges and rewards.
In his 2008 autobiography, “A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis,” Sampras reflected on the pressure and expectations that immediately followed his first major — the 1992 U.S. Open, which he won at 19 by toppling the wildly charismatic and favored Agassi, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.
Sampras recalls the fairy-tale aspects of that magical day — pumping out aces on command; the ball looming ever larger; Agassi seeming to shrink before his eyes; and the sense that he was moving toward victory “in a fog of inevitability and invincibility.”
But in retrospect, he regrets that he was so young and naive at the time.
“I honestly wish I had been a little older. I wish I had been a little better developed, both as a player and a person, a little wiser to the ways of the world and what it expects of you and how it judges you,” Sampras writes. “I didn’t know it then, but that win was a one-way portal; once I went through it, there would be no turning back.”
Becoming a champion, Sampras explains today, is a progression. And success is tricky to handle when it comes before the progression is completed.
He had grown up on the junior circuit with Courier, Chang and, to a lesser extent Agassi, who was based in Florida. But as pros, they all quickly realized that friendships take a back seat to the pursuit of Grand Slam titles and the No. 1 ranking in tennis.
“You can’t be all that close, at least in tennis,” Sampras said. “You don’t really practice with one another — especially during a major. You don’t have dinner together. Your talk in the locker room is cordial, but that’s as far as it goes. That’s the way it has to be. It’s part of the rules when you’re competing for the same titles.”
The competition on the Champions tour, which Courier helped launch in 2005, is far more relaxed. Like the players, it also unfolds at a slower place.
A native of Potomac, Sampras is counting on plenty of aunts, uncles and relatives from his extended Greek family to cheer him on at the Verizon Center. To give himself an edge, Sampras uses a bigger racket these days. And though the serve that struck such fear into his opponents still has considerable pop, he confesses he doesn’t move at 40 quite like he did at 25.
“The people who are paying good money want to see good tennis and competitive tennis, so it’s not a dog and pony show,” Sampras said. “When people think of me, they want to see me serve 130 miles an hour; they still want to see the fastball.”
Tennis legends turn back the clock at Verizon Center for Champions Series event
Many tennis fans bemoan American players’ back-seat status in the professional ranks, longing for the days when Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and Jim Courier were dominating the sport. Such nostalgia will be briefly satisfied Friday, when those very players descend on Verizon Center in a one-night, four-player format that will give fans a chance to revisit some of their favorite tennis legends.
The star-studded evening will mark the second event of the 2011 Champions League Circuit, a five-week tour featuring seven of the game’s most recognizable Grand Slam champions. In addition to Agassi, Sampras, Chang and Courier, the tour will include fellow champions John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander. Players will visit 12 cities in a one-night tournament format that will pit four champions against each other in one-set semifinals, followed by an eight-game championship match. At stake is a prize pool totaling $1 million to be shared by the top three finishers at the conclusion of the season.
The newly expanded and reformatted circuit was orchestrated by Courier, a former world No. 1 player who runs InsideOut Sports + Entertainment, the company sponsoring the event. Courier said that convincing such big names to participate was easier than people might imagine, since the format allows players to maintain continuity in their lives away from the tennis courts.
“That’s the beauty of this concept of the one-night format,” Courier said. “It really worked for everyone. The guys like to compete, but they also all have families and children, and it’s important for them to be able to spend quality time at home. They’re able to get out and travel on a limited basis and play in these tournaments but not have to be away from home too much.”
While Friday’s event is sure to create light-hearted banter on the court, fans can expect to see the same competitive fire that burned among the athletes during their Grand Slam years. After all, more than bragging rights are on the line.
“I think the competitive aspect of it is about 65 to 70 percent of it for us as players,” Courier said. “But there is a piece of it where we are relaxed enough in between points where we’ll interact with the fans, interact with each other and be aware that our personalities are important for people to see. But when the ball’s in play, we’re going to be going full tilt.”
Courier eagerly anticipates his return to D.C., where he has competed in ATP events and the Davis Cup. With the arena’s size and impermeability to foul weather, he suggested Verizon Center would provide an ideal venue for the event.
“Tennis fans in Washington, D.C., are very rabid fans,” Courier said. “They love their tennis, and I’m excited to get back there and play. I’ve never played in the Verizon Center, so that will be a new and fun experience.”
Even with a 41-year-old body that isn’t quite what it used to be, Courier said he has been playing tennis four days per week in preparation for the circuit, leaving him fit and ready for battle. And he’s not the only one ready for action. Thousands of tennis fans have taken positively to the idea of seeing Sampras and Agassi square off again – even if they’re over the hill.
“People are fired up. I think this concept has really struck a chord with the fans because we’re all so busy these days,” Courier said. “So for them to be able to come out and spend three hours with us, and to be able to see four great players every night on this tour has really struck a chord with them. All the players are really excited to get out and play and engage with the fans.”