By Ray Parrillo
Inquirer Staff Writer
As his flight descended on Philadelphia International Airport the other night, Pete Sampras looked down on the city and his mind flashed back nearly two decades.
Philly, he thought to himself, is where his life changed.
“It’s definitely a lot of good memories here,” Sampras said last night. “You never forget your first win.”
Sampras was at Cabrini College in Radnor with the Newport Beach Breakers, whose World Team Tennis match against the Freedoms was postponed by a thunderstorm during the third game of the first match, which was men’s doubles.
For the 2,500 spectators who had squeezed into the stands surrounding the multicolored court, the chance to get an up-close look at perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game was brief. Sampras rocketed a 123-m.p.h. serve for an ace, then sought cover like everyone else.
The match was rescheduled for tomorrow night. Last night’s ticket stubs will be honored, and Sampras, who was making his third WTT appearance, will return.
For Sampras, who retired after defeating his old rival, Andre Agassi, to win the 2002 U.S. Open, the WTT offers a chance to end the boredom that he said began to grip him. First, though, there was the memory of his first victory on the tour, at the Spectrum 16 years ago.
“When I flew in here and looked at downtown, there’s no question I thought about my first win here,” said Sampras, who will turn 35 next month. “It’s where my life changed.” Ranked 32d in the world, he won $137,250.
Smiling, he added: “I was nervous to fly after that. It’s a lot of money.”
Sampras recalled defeating Agassi in the round of 16 and a veteran Ecuadoran, Andres Gomez, for the championship “in front of a packed crowd at the Spectrum. Tennis was really hopping here. It’s nice to be back and playing again in Philly.”
Sampras went on to win a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, including seven at Wimbledon. When he set down his racket after the '02 U.S. Open, he didn’t pick it up again until a couple of months ago, when he answered Billie Jean King’s call to add some star power to the league she cofounded 30 years ago.
Although Sampras has no designs on returning to the ATP Tour, he said he missed the structure and focus it brought to his life.
“Your first year, you enjoy it [retirement],” he said. "You get to do some things you weren’t able to do. You have some fun. You play some golf. The second year, it’s, what’s next? And the third year, you get a little bored and restless. So I told myself if I had some tennis opportunities, I would maybe play again. And I’ve always had a lot of respect for Billie for what she’s done for the game. So I thought I’d give it a try.
“It’s certainly a shock to the system when you retire, from being so structured and so focused. After a while, you miss hitting balls and getting sore. This is more for fun. It’s not that I’m trying to hold on. But I want to win. I want to help my team win.”
For the United States, tennis hasn’t been quite the same since Sampras retired. No American has remotely come close to taking his place. The rivalry between Roger Federer of Switzerland, who has won four consecutive Wimbledon titles, and Rafael Nadal of Spain promises to have a run as long as Sampras-Agassi.
But, as Sampras said, American tennis needs a resurgence to rekindle interest in the sport.
“It [Federer-Nadal] is good for the game,” Sampras said. "The unfortunate part is that, over the history of the game, there’s been an American in the rivalry for the fans to cling on to. Borg-McEnroe. Chris [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova]. Me and Andre.
“I don’t really see anyone really challenging Federer. I just think he’s going to go on and really dominate even more so.”
With Agassi planning to retire after the U.S. Open, Sampras sees the end of an era for American tennis.
“You might not see a group of four guys - Andre, myself, Jim [Courier] and Michael [Chang] - maybe ever in the U.S.,” he said.