View Full Version : sampras interview

03-08-2009, 10:56 PM
this interview is bit old

From The Sunday Times
November 16, 2008

Pete Sampras: Return of the king
The outstanding Grand Slam haul Pete Sampras amassed is only one aspect of a remarkable man

Paul Kimmage
To reach Pete Sampras you take a flight to Los Angeles and drive north from the city towards the Santa Monica Mountains and this incredibly posh country club with huge iron gates where you submit your fingerprints and a swab of DNA before being directed to the lobby of the golf club where a secretary awaits.

“Mister Sampras hasn’t arrived yet, please take a seat.” It’s a long way to travel for an interview with a tennis player but one thought sustains you through the hassle and the tedium. This guy was extraordinary. Forget the seven Wimbledon titles, the five US Opens, the two Australian Opens and his seat in the pantheon with the greatest of all time. No, I’m talking about the stuff we never read about, the internal wiring of the man behind the mask.

Take his legendary modesty. The year is 1996 and Sampras has just boarded the first-class cabin on a flight from Los Angeles to Tampa when the baseball player Barry Bonds arrives and is shown the adjoining seat. Bonds glances at Sampras but does not recognise the world No1 tennis player. He is accompanied by a friend who has been allotted the seat behind. “If this kid gets out you can move here,” Bonds announces, glaring at Sampras. The “kid” moves without saying a word.

Take his fear of communal showers.

The year is 1991 and Sampras is in Paris preparing for the French Open on the manicured clay of Roland Garros. Training has ended for the day. He discards his sweat-stained kit, takes a towel and heads for the showers where - nom de dieu! — a French player is relieving himself on the tiles! Sampras is disgusted and traumatised. He changes quickly, returns to his hotel and avoids showering in changing rooms for the rest of his career.

Take his neurotic sleeping habits.

The year is 2001; Sampras has married the drop-dead-gorgeous actress, Bridgette Wilson and is preparing for the season in Florida. It’s late. He’s tired.

It’s time to introduce his wife to the facts of life. She would like to sleep with the world’s best tennis player? These are the terms and conditions. 1: She must ratchet up the air conditioning in the bedroom every night until the temperature is almost freezing. 2: Any light coming under the door or the small red lights on cable boxes or phone chargers must be covered so that the room is totally dark. 3: The sheets must always be perfectly smooth, without a wrinkle. 4: Under absolutely no circumstances is she to touch him in bed.

Take his South African chef at Wimbledon.

The year is 1998; Sampras has rented the usual house on Clifton Road for Wimbledon and is doing everything to win the championship. He has bought an air conditioning unit for the bedroom and hired a South African chef, Kirsten, to prepare all his meals. It’s simple fare, waffles, scrambled eggs and one cup of coffee for breakfast; a packed sandwich for lunch; and chicken and fresh vegetables or pasta with homemade sauce for dinner. And she must adhere to the golden rule: “Don’t bring any magazines or newspapers into the house while I’m here,” he informs her. “I don’t want to read or see anything that will distract me.”

Take his life-long terror of dogs. Take his obsession with the tension of his racket strings. Take his enduring fascination with sports cars, his temperamental stomach and his extremely troublesome and tender feet. Take Pete Sampras, the Howard Hughes of sport.

“Mister Sampras can see you now,” the secretary announces. She leads the way up elegant wooden stairs to a beautifully furnished dining room, where the great man is sitting at a table with a copy of the Los Angeles Times. He’s wearing jeans and a matching Nike top and looks as fit as the day he retired in September 2002.

A waiter arrives with coffee. He introduces Grant, his personal assistant, and we retire to the boardroom to chat. Has he played golf this morning, I wonder? “No, too cold,” he smiles.

“So you live here?” I surmise.

“Yes, this is where I live. There’s a house being built on top of the hill, you can see it when you drive around here.”

“You can see it?” I ask, surprised.


“It’s just that I’ve been reading that you live like Howard Hughes in a house that nobody can see?”

He laughs. “Yeah, well the second house my wife and I had was very private. I like my privacy. When I was single and living in LA, I told a friend who was helping me find a place, I don’t want any neighbours to see me and I don’t want to see any neighbours, it has to be quiet with lots of trees.’ He used to call me anti-social. He was always calling me to go out but I liked being home. 'You’re Howard Hughes,’ he said.

“Was he right?”

“Well, Howard Hughes is a bit of a stretch but there’s a little of that in me. You know, when you’re travelling and playing you feel very exposed with the media, doing interviews, and you just want to get home and get back in your shell for a couple of weeks.”

“What else are you prepared to admit?” I ask. “What about your sleep, and dark and cool rooms, and being touched?”

“True,” he smiles, “I liked it cold and I liked it dark and I can’t have my wife touching me but I’m a lot more relaxed with that now. It used to be mental. I was neurotic about it. In Europe, they never had air conditioning and I’d arrive at the hotel and it was like [takes a deep breath], ‘How are we going to deal with this?’”

“You have always liked fast cars?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a couple of sports cars, a Porsche turbo and a BMW Z8. I’ll give you a good story. About two years ago I’m in Palm Desert; it’s about nine o’clock at night and I’m going about 110mph on this wide-open street when this guy police officer pulls me over, handcuffs me and puts me in the back seat of the car. It scared the s*** out of me. I said, ‘You don’t have to spend the night in jail do you?’ because that was my biggest fear. ‘No, no,’ he says. He looks at the licence, sees who it is and lets me off. God, that scared me! I’ve never done that again.”

“You never cared much for sightseeing,” I suggest.

“No, it was a job. You get to the city, go to the hotel from the airport and go to the courts; you go back to your room, get a massage, go to dinner. When I lost, I was gone. When I won, I was gone. I didn’t hang around to sightsee.”

“You had no time for politics, celebrity or cash?”

“No, money was taken care of after I won a couple of majors; politics I keep quiet and I don’t see myself as a celebrity. I see myself as an athlete, a tennis player, just a reclusive champion.”

TO FIND the reclusive champion, we need to turn back time to Los Angeles in the early Eighties, where the boy with the prodigious gift for tennis is lying on the couch of his home in Palos Verdes, lost in the pages of The Catcher In The Rye. Pete Sampras, the third of four kids born to his parents, Sam and Georgia, is no Holden Caulfield.

A shy, introverted kid, nurtured on love and stability, Sampras has been raised to say “please” and “thank you”, never throw his racket and always to keep his emotions in check. But the book absolutely enthrals him, especially the bottom line: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything.” At age 19, he rockets to fame at the US Open and adopts it as his mantra.

“Everything I did in my life was to be the best player in the world,” he says. “I was pretty sheltered, I kept things close to the vest, and that was kind of the secret of my success. When I played my majors, I didn’t want to say much. My goal, especially at Wimbledon was, ‘Don’t say anything that’s going to be a distraction’.”

03-08-2009, 10:56 PM
There was one problem. Distraction was good box office. Fans had grown up with distraction; Jimmy Connors fighting with John McEnroe; McEnroe fighting with everyone; they wanted more from the new boy wonder than “shucks”. The press labelled him boring — he was Pete Samprazzzz. Jimbo and Mac waded in. But Sampras wasn’t prepared to trade his reserve for understanding.

“I stayed true to how I was raised and who I am,” he explains. “I was never going to sell out for more money, or marketing or Nike. I wasn’t going to do things on the court or say things in my press conferences to make controversy. I was a sportsman. I didn’t see myself as an entertainer. I was this humble, quiet champion, reclusive in an era when it was more about image and personality and soundbites.”

For the four years that followed his first Wimbledon triumph in 1993, Sampras was admired but unloved. It hurt. I quote him an observation from the gifted Sports Illustrated writer SL Price, from 1997: “Even now, he can’t escape the feeling that his biggest opponent is not on the other side of the net. It’s Jimbo and all those colourful, maniacal egos of the 70s and 80s — McEnroe and Ilie Nastase and the late Vitas Gerulaitis — who still own the heart of the US fan.”

“The timing was tough for me,” he acknowledges. “They were controversial and exciting and I was this quiet guy and a lot of the media wanted me to act in a certain way. The thing that baffled me was.... I could go out and act like the biggest ******* in the world. Is that what they wanted? Is that what they were looking for? They wanted me to be more expressive — my expressive was with my racket, not my mouth.”

“McEnroe and Connors didn’t make it easy for you,” I suggest.

“Not early on,” he agrees. “I was closer to John than I was to Jimmy; John and I got to be friendly through Davis Cup, but Jimmy and I were a bit like oil and water with some things. I had a big [breakthrough] in 1990 at the US Open and I think [pauses] How do I want to say this? I think it took time for him to respect me as a player.”

“What about John?” I ask.

“Didn’t you have a go at him once in a locker room for something he wrote in a column?”

“Yeah, I think it was the London Times. The problem I had with John was... He’d thrash me [in the press] and come into the locker room and it would be, ‘Hey Pete. How you doin? What you been up to?’ And that doesn’t work for me. You can’t thrash me in the press and all of a sudden be my best friend and so we had a little moment.”

“I’d have paid money to watch that,” I smile.

“Well, you know how it is with John. He put his arm around me and brought his head real close and says, ‘Hey, you know, I was just having a little fun.’ We had this up-anddown relationship throughout the years. He has always been a competitor, even today, the way he talks and the things he says... he still feels he can go out there and win.”

“The chemistry when you played together in the Davis Cup must have been fascinating,” I observe.

“I was fascinated by it,” he concurs. “I was still young at the time [the Davis Cup final against Switzerland in 1992] but it was interesting how different we were. I’d be thinking about what was going on ahead. He’d be thinking about what was going on behind. I remember we were sitting in the changing room and he starts on Tom Gorman [the US captain), ‘Do something! Yell at the umpire!’ He was *****ing about some line call that had happened 10 minutes ago. It was exhausting. I was exhausted. I looked at him and said, ‘John, it’s over!’”

Nothing succeeds like success. Sampras had more than anyone. During his final years the applause grew louder and the perception of him changed.

The most important thing for Sampras was that he didn’t change, no sir, right to the end he did it his way. The end, his 14th major title, was the 2002 US Open. He returned to the house in the hills with his wife and new-born son, closed the front door and announced his retirement 12 months later.

The plan was to play lots of golf and live happily ever after and for the next three years that’s mostly how it was. He played almost every day and reduced his handicap to two. He went to poker tournaments, Lakers games and played basketball with friends. He devoted himself to Bridgette and their two sons. He didn’t play tennis. He didn’t watch tennis. He didn’t need tennis. It was the perfect ending.

But life is never perfect.

“After two and a half years it starts wearing thin,” he explains. “You’re playing golf every day, you’ve put on some weight and you wake up in the morning and feel unfulfilled. I talked to my wife about it. She could see I was restless. I said to her, ‘I just feel a little bit empty. I need more than this’.”

“Unfulfilled is a strong word,” I suggest.

“It’s a hard word,” he says, “but it’s an honest word. I thought, ‘This is what people do when they are 60. I’m 34! Can I spend the next 15 years doing this?’ It’s tricky. The life I had was so focused and scheduled and disciplined... and then, cold turkey, you’re done. At first you like it but after a while you feel restless. ‘What’s next with my life? What am I going to do next?’ That’s hard.

“I can understand why athletes come back. It was very clear to me. Some miss the limelight but for me it was the focus, I miss having a schedule, I miss being in shape. I thought, ’Okay, let’s look into playing a little bit’.”

He started training again and in April 2006, three and half years after retiring, he returned to the court to face Robby Ginepri in an exhibition in Houston and then signed up for some Team Tennis events.

“Then I took it a step further,” he says, “and played in a couple of senior events. I thought, ‘Let’s do this. I’m not going to take it seriously or come out of retirement but if I play every three or four months it will be good for me.’ It keeps me in shape. I have a schedule.It actually makes me a better husband and a better father. I come home feeling better about everything.”

He has played Roger Federer four times in the past 12 months (winning once), beaten Tommy Haas in Germany and, when he arrives next month for the Blackrock Masters at the Albert Hall, it will be his first return to London since Wimbledon in 2002.

“People ask, ‘Are you going to go back to Wimbledon? Are you going to go back to the US Open? Why would I go back? What would I do there? Do I want to sit with some sponsors and make some money? Not for me. Do I want to watch tennis and do some interviews? Not really. I’d like to be there when Roger [Federer] breaks the [majors] record and that could very well be at Wimbledon.”

“You played against him earlier this year in New York?”

“Yeah, at Madison Square Garden in front of 17,000. It was a thrill. I really appreciated him. He didn’t have much to gain but did it more out of respect for me.”

“What did you learn?”

“That I can still be competitive against anyone in the world. I’m not saying I can beat these guys but I can make it competitive. I’m not in as good a shape and don’t move as well but for one set I’ll go up against anybody.”

“It didn’t tempt you to come back?”

“No. The competition is not what I’m looking for. I’m not looking to go to London to beat someone up. It gives me a schedule, the focus to go to the gym and hit a few balls. The process is what I’m looking for.”

“John McEnroe is playing.”


“Are you looking forward to that?”

“Yeah,” he laughs.

“What about the showmanship?” I ask. “Mac throwing his racket, [Henri] Leconte playing the clown... Is that really your scene? You were never a showman?”

“No, but I’m not going to play with my head all the way down. I’ll smile and have some fun but I’m not going to say, ‘Here’s the new Pete. You thought you knew me for the last 14 years but I’m coming out of my shell’.”

The interview has ended. We chat for a while about the pleasures and perils of life in LA and I tell him about my daughter’s shopping list. “Where’s the nearest Nordstrom,” I ask.

He shakes his head, clearly befuddled. “I’ll have to get Grant to help you with that.”

“You’ve no idea?” I ask.

“No, I’m Howard Hughes, remember?” he smiles.

03-09-2009, 04:45 PM
thank you.

03-09-2009, 05:26 PM
Thank you so much!

That's what a sportsman should be... Don't get me wrong, I was a fan of Agassi ever since I was a teen. But Sampras is just... different... His attitude inside and outside the court is just unmatchable by any other players on the tour.

03-09-2009, 08:50 PM
“No, money was taken care of after I won a couple of majors; politics I keep quiet and I don’t see myself as a celebrity. I see myself as an athlete, a tennis player"

just a classy guy, and a perfect rolemodel of what a champion should be

I'd like to read an interview with Nadal in like 15 years.... maybe he'll say something similar

they're both classy guys

03-09-2009, 09:16 PM
Thanks for posting this up. Was a good read.

03-10-2009, 12:04 AM
A very good read indeed. Pet's one of my all-time favorites, and to this day I still enjoy taking a trip down memory lane by watching some of his greatest matches, which includes that Davis Cup final against Switzerland (Anders Jarryd and Stefan Edberg) - awesome doubles match!

03-10-2009, 03:24 AM
Pete is my all time favourite I really liked his character and his tennis spoke volumes. Shame he had such a hard time by the press.

I like that he seems to have alot of respect for Roger too.