Pete Sampras Returns to Royalty

Elvis played a sold-out Cotton Bowl in 1956. Pavarotti serenaded Reunion Arena in 1995, and at the 2004 Byron Nelson Classic, Tiger Woods received a standing ovation—upon exiting a portable toilet.

And there he was last Saturday night, the latest star near his career's apex to pass through Dallas. But far removed from his record 14 Grand Slams and his cherished Centre Court Wimbledon, Pete Sampras performed in Frisco. At something called Deja Blue Arena.

"Well, I'm in Dallas now," Sampras told the quaint sellout of 4,000. "So I guess, Go Cowboys?"

Nestled between the Adolphus Hotel's regular pampering of Michael Jordan and the rude reception bestowed upon JFK, Sampras' welcome hardly befitted the greatest tennis player of all time. His entrance to Pearl Jam's "Alive" for his exhibition match against Robby Ginepri generated polite, borderline robust applause.

But there was no sentimental victory lap. No video montage. No flesh-pressing meet 'n' greet. No tears.

This was Pete Sampras. Simple Sampras. Super Sampras.

Un-retired Sampras?

"I've still got some tools in my shed," Sampras said after his 7-5, 6-2 elegant dismantling of Ginepri. "But this isn't about going back on tour full-time. I just want to see if I can still compete and have some fun."

Translation: Prepare for a Re-Pete.

Because there's a bald spot atop Sampras' head, but a bigger void in his heart.

Last time we saw Pistol Pete he was accomplishing what proved impossible to Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Roger Clemens and Bill Parcells—acing his retirement. After whipping Andre Agassi to win the 2002 U.S. Open as an unseeded 31-year-old, Sampras retired on top. For good. For great. Forever.

Or, turns out, for the time being.

Two kids and leisurely days lounging with actress wife Bridgette Wilson in a multimillion-dollar Beverly Hills mansion isn't enough after all. Sampras put down his racket cold turkey for two years. He picked up golf. Played poker. Polished his trophies. And, eventually, got bored. Very, very bored.

"I've got to find some things that motivate me and get me out of the house," Sampras told Los Angeles reporters before a similar exhibition last month. "I'm a man, and men go out and work. I need a little more structure. Something to get my competitive juices flowing again. To train as hard and to be as focused as I was for all that time and then, boom, to quit just like that. I mean, I won't lie, it's been a really tough adjustment."

So Sampras started hitting with friend Justin Gimelstob and the UCLA tennis team and—presto—we've got ignition. Team tennis. Exhibitions. Then one day as Rocky is half-assing his way through another set of one-armed push-ups, he looks up at the TV and sees Ivan Drago, better known as Roger Federer.

The world's reigning No. 1 player will soon break Sampras' records. Privately, he's already stung Pete's pride.

Just a blink ago considered the sport's all-time best player, Sampras is now barely clinging to the conversation. Federer waltzed to the U.S. Open last month for his 12th Grand Slam. At next year's Wimbledon he'll likely tie Sampras' 14 and win his record 15th in New York next September.

Given Federer's dominance, the only things that interest us in tennis these days are Maria Sharapova's short skirts, the French Open's red clay or a time machine. Hop in.

Lonely on his peerless island, Federer called Sampras last spring while in Los Angeles for a tournament. The two hit together at Sampras' house. How'd it go?

"He played very good, surprisingly," Federer said. "But not good enough to beat me."

Countered Sampras, "I was holding my serve pretty easily. And when I did that in my career I usually liked my chances."

Drago to Rocky: "I must break you."

Rocky to Drago: "To beat me, you'll have to kill me."

The offspring of that encounter is a four-match exhibition between Sampras and Federer, tennis' two dominant players over the last 20 years. They played only once as pros, Federer winning a classic 7-5 fifth set at the fourth round of Wimbledon '01. They'll play three indoor matches on fast carpet this November in Asia and one next March in New York's Madison Square Garden.

Exhibitions my ass. Sampras' reputation and retirement will be on the line.

"Roger's not the kind of guy who can lose to me and not care," Sampras said. "I'm the same."

Yes, it's an insult to current Federer fodder like Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick, but who wouldn't watch a quartet of 18-hole grudge matches between Tiger and Jack Nicklaus? We're all in a hullabaloo about a one-night Led Zeppelin reunion, for crying out loud.

If his one-night stand in Dallas is any indication, Sampras won't embarrass himself. After American Idol's Celina Ray belted out the national anthem and the kids and wheelchair players and local pros provided the appetizers, the 36-year-old Sampras showed Britney Spears what a re-entry is supposed to look like.

In a baggy, generic white T-shirt, gray shorts and trademark bed head, Sampras looked more Carl Spackler than Rod Laver. But then he served, and five years and Federer's gap instantly vanished.

Knighted as an "Honorary Texan" by Governor Rick Perry earlier in the day, Sampras tried to appeal to a crowd that paid up to $100, but he's no more natural showman than Wade Phillips is GQ model. He tossed his racket to a ball boy, swatted balls in the stands and traded quips with fans. But mostly, he served notice by serving.

On par with Nolan Ryan's fastball or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook, Sampras' serve is one of the most singularly successful weapons in the history of sports. Against Ginepri, a '05 U.S. Open semifinalist who wasn't exactly auditioning for the Washington Generals, Sampras produced 130 mph aces with all the bother of a senior citizen massaging soft-serve ice cream at Luby's. At 6-5, 30-all in the first set, Sampras defused the night's only hint of tension with consecutive aces.

Said Ginepri, "I think we're all glad he retired when he did."

Rarely villain or hero but routinely champion, the one label stout enough to jolt Sampras out of retirement: underdog.

"Roger's the Pete of his era, and I'm not as sharp as I used to be," Sampras told Deja Blue Arena. "I just hope I can hold my own."

Congratulations Dallas, you experienced an icon in the twilight of his career. Or was it the dawn of a comeback?

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt