New York: For one final time Pete Sampras held a Centre Court crowd spellbound on Monday as he finally walked away from the sport which turned him into one of America’s all-time greats.
Blinding banks of camera flashes bathed the Flushing Meadows Centre Court in a suitably surreal light as more than 20,000 fans bade an emotional farewell to the man who won more Grand Slams than anyone else in history.
That same Centre Court had been the scene of his first Grand Slam triumph 13 years ago and it was also the stage for his 14th and final one last year.
Perhaps only Wimbledon’s magical turf which Sampras ruled for the best part of a decade would have provided a more fitting backdrop for his departure from tennis.
But Sampras saved his farewell for his own people on his home arena.“Wow, this is the last time I’m going to be here. It is hard to say goodbye but I know it is time,” he told Centre Court crowd, tears glistening in his eyes.
“I am going to miss playing here. I love playing in New York, in front of you guys, but I know in my heart it is time to say goodbye,” he added as calls of ‘we love you Pete’ rang out around the arena. Twelve months ago Sampras took apart his great rival Andre Agassi for a final time in a championship match which encapsulated Sampras’s style and his mastery of the serve-and-volley game.
He had not played competitively since that landmark match and the 32-year-old’s decision to turn his back on professional tennis came as no surprise.Still, though, the formal stamp on his decision to retire marked an emotional and poignant end of an era.
“I am content. I am 100 per cent content with what I have done,” Sampras said. “Now I am going to watch my boy grow up, be a good husband. I know in my heart I am 100 per cent done. I am not coming back and I am at peace with it.
“Tennis is a lot of work, a lot of focus and I have been doing this for a long time — I am not going to play to say goodbye, if I play I am going to play to win.
“It is something that has to be in your blood and after winning here last year I felt it go away. I am at peace with that.”
Sampras said he had missed playing at Wimbledon — where he won a record-equalling seven titles — this year but he would return to the tournament as a visitor.“I missed it. But it is another tournament, it is a grind. To be honest, there were times I was glad I was at home.But I will go back there and have a cup of tea up top. I will definitely be back there, I miss it a lot.”
Modest as ever, Sampras rejected suggestions he can be called the greatest player of all time.“I will not sit here and say I am the greatest ever. That will never happen. I have won a number of things and that speaks for itself.
“I have played perfect tennis in my mind on occasion and I feel my game will match up to anyones. But to say I am the greatest ever, I won’t say that. It is hard to compare but I think my game will match up to anyones.
Since winning his first major title here in 1990, Sampras has ruled the world of tennis with a style and modesty seldom seen on the sporting stage.
Much more than the seven Wimbledon crowns, five US Opens and two Australian Open titles he won, the manner of his victories and the memories and legacy he leaves behind will last in the memory. Never one for histrionics or on-court emotion, Sampras’ mask slipped only briefly during his career.
But on those few occasions it did, the world was treated to a fascinating insight into the mind of one of the most dominant sportsmen of all time.