LONDON (Reuters) – "Did you guys miss me?" asked Pete Sampras when he faced the media at the Royal Albert Hall on his first visit to London in six years this week.
The 14-times grand slam champion is appearing in the final seniors tour event of the year, having recently rekindled his passion for the sport he dominated in the 1990s.
The American's vice-like grip on tennis was at its most destructive in London and especially Wimbledon, where he chalked up seven major titles between 1993-2000.
Sampras, 37, last played in the capital at Wimbledon in 2002, where he was infamously scheduled to play Swiss journeyman George Bastl in the second round on the 'graveyard of champions' Court Two.
It was his final match on the prestigious turf of SW19 and the start of the harsh realization that his career was over.
"Last time I was here was a major low point," said Sampras, who briefly contemplated a return to Wimbledon in 2003 to try to wipe out the memory of the five-set defeat to Bastl.
"Once Wimbledon came and went the year after I won the (2002) U.S. Open I knew it was time for me to move on."
As is common with many retiring athletes, Sampras found that moving on was not so easy.
"(For) three years I didn't do a thing," he said. "I put on some weight. I wasn't feeling too good about myself. Playing golf, playing poker.
"You wake up (and say) 'Okay, what am I going to do today?' To be 31, 32 and retired is great but at the same time I've always been a worker, since I was a teenager.
"So to say 'Cold turkey I'm done', at first it was great but after a few years it felt like I needed something more to do."
The past 18 months have been a rebirth for Sampras, featuring his best-of-three exhibition series against 13-time grand slam champion Roger Federer late in 2007, which the Swiss won 2-1.
More recently, Sampras has joined the seniors tour, something that during his playing days he always maintained he would never do.
In the end, his love of the game proved too strong.
"The last couple of years I've missed it more than when I first retired," he said.
"But it's a brutal sport this one and it took a lot out of me. I needed a few years to decompress and take a deep breath to get to a point where I'd like to play again."
Sampras now seems to be relishing life and that has shown in his tennis. In June he won the first seniors tour event he entered in Brazil, against former world number one Marcelo Rios of Chile.
He is hoping to notch up another victory in London and is not deterred that Alan Mills, the man behind the 2002 Wimbledon scheduling, is the tournament referee.
"I'm over it. But I'll remind him," he joked.
Sampras also said a visit to Wimbledon could be on the cards.
"I'd love to play on that court one more time. There's not a place like it in the world. I'll maybe ask the club if they would let me play a practice set," he said.
While all is good in the life of Sampras, the same cannot be said for American tennis.
The United States has not had a male grand slam winner since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open.
"It's a tricky time," said Sampras. "Knowing the American fans and the media we expect some Wimbledon champions and our guys to be number one and when you don't have that people start complaining.
"It's a tough comparison for Andy (Roddick) and James (Blake) to be compared to myself and Andre (Agassi), Jim (Courier) and Michael (Chang). That's a pretty unique crew but we need some sort of American presence at the top of the game."
The "unique crew" won 27 of 56 majors between the 1989 French Open and the 2003 Australian Open.
It has been 40 years since the U.S. last had to wait more than five years for a male grand slam champion and Sampras believes it could be a while before his compatriots dominate tennis again.
"It's going to take some years, maybe five, 10 or 15 years for another crew of really good young Americans. It might not ever happen for 40 years. It's hard to say. But there's no doubt we need it," he said.
Despite their father's pedigree, Sampras's two sons, aged two and five, seem unlikely to help the situation in the future.
"My son holds it like this, and I say 'hold it like that', and he just does it his way," he said.
"These kids don't listen to me on the tennis court," he added, a wry smile breaking out on his face.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)
6 months ago