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April 4, 2006

Pete Sampras

CHRIS WIDMAIER: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us on today's conference call to discuss Pete Sampras' return to tennis in the live internet broadcast on USTA.com of his match against Robby Ginepri on Thursday, April 6th, at the River Oaks Invitational in Houston, Texas.
The live internet broadcast will begin with a short prematch show at 8:15 p.m. eastern time, followed by complete live match coverage beginning at 8:30 p.m. eastern time.
The live webcast is free to all visitors coming to USTA.com. The match will not be broadcast on television, so USTA.com will be the only outlet where fans will be able to watch live match coverage.
On today's call, we will hear brief remarks from Jeff Volk, Director of Advanced Media at the USTA, who will talk about the production. Then we will hear from Van Barry, who will wear two hats. Van is the River Oaks Tournament Director, the site of the match, but Van will also serve as the commentator during the live internet broadcast. Finally, we will hear a short introductory statement from Pete Sampras.
I'd like to thank the three speakers for joining us on today's call. Following Pete's introductory statement, we will open it up to media Q and A.
Without further ado, I will turn it over to Jeff Volk.
JEFF VOLK: Thanks, Chris. Thank you, everyone, for joining the call.
Last week the USTA relaunched our website, which we believe will be more fan-friendly to our users. Our goal is to be the one-stop destination for the game of tennis. We are proud to introduce several new interactive features designed to bring users closer to the game.
This live internet broadcast that features Pete Sampras' return to the court on Thursday, April 6th, 8:15, fits with our strategy for USTA.com, the US Open Series and USOpen.org to remain on the cutting edge of sports and technology.
This will be the first time that a high-profile tennis match will be available live and exclusively on the web. We want to bring the game of tennis closer to our fans, and seeing the legendary Pete Sampras in his first match since winning the 2002 US Open will help us achieve that objective.
Fans that visit USTA.com on Thursday 8:15 will see exclusive player interviews with Pete Sampras and Robby Ginepri followed by the live internet broadcast. We are working with IMG Media, our technology hosting partner, to create a four-camera live broadband production of the highest quality. The entire broadcast will be available on USTA.com on demand following the match.
With that, I'd like to turn it over to Van Barry, the River Oaks Tournament Director.
VAN BARRY: Thank you, Jeff, and thank you, everyone, for joining us.
A brief history of the tournament, the River Oaks International is in its 72nd year. It was founded in 1931. We have complete tournament information on our website if you'd like to review that further at RiverOaksInternational.com.
We have a 24-player field as part of our regular tournament. Robby Ginepri is the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
In addition to that, Pete and Robby will be playing the exhibition match, which is not part of the regular tournament. Pete is not in the draw. He's playing one match on Thursday evening against Robby. So Robby will be playing two events this week: He'll play our regular tournament, his first match will be tomorrow, and then he will be playing the match with Pete on Thursday evening.
Also, in addition to that, I am pleased to be doing the co-commentary with my friend, John Granado (phonetic spelling). We've worked before off the telecast here at River Oaks in the past. We're expecting a wonderful show for everyone. We're just excited that Pete will be joining us for this event. Pete played here once, his first time here in 1988, two years before he won the US Open, and he lost to Richey Reneberg, just for a little historical fact there.
I'd like to now turn it over to Mr. Pete Sampras.
PETE SAMPRAS: Thank you, Van, and everyone for joining the call.
I just want to say that I'm looking forward to playing again in front of people instead of my fun, so I'm going to be a little more nervous. Excited to play Robby, who's a good, young American player, to be able to play online. People have asked me the last couple weeks that I've been practicing where I'm playing, and I said it wasn't on TV, so they're able to see a little tennis online. Looking forward to seeing how that comes across.
This is kind of a year for me to kind of come out and play some tennis and do some more in the sport. That being said, anyone have any questions, please shoot.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Pete, I'd like to thank you for joining us on this call. It's great to have you. I'm sure all the fans are going to be very fired up to get to USTA.com to see how you're doing. It's fun that you're playing Robby, who's playing so well.
So, Doug, if you would give those directions one more time, and we'll open it up to the media Q and A now.
Q. Pete, I guess probably everybody wants to know - and you've been asked this before - you had a departure from the sport that was very enviable the moment that you won it. When you say that it was "time to come back," what factored into that decision? How much time did you want to elapse? Are you at all worried that coming out and playing here and also at World Team Tennis will sort of in any way change that retirement moment that you had?
PETE SAMPRAS: I don't think it's going to change. I know it's not going to change. I know playing this sport and coming out of retirement is a whole other animal. It really is your life, and I've already experienced, you know, life on the road. Now, having a wife and a couple kids, you know, this is a schedule that for me playing again that I can dictate, and I can play as much as I want or as little as I want.
Basically, after I retired I took some time to have some fun, play some golf, and do some fun things. After a few years of that, I kind of asked myself what was next. I need to kind of keep myself busier doing more, fulfilling things. The end of last year, I kind of opened myself up to playing this year if the right thing came to me. Basically, Van came to me about a month ago, asked how I felt about playing in Houston. We worked out a deal, so here I go. I've been hitting some balls for the past month. Hope I won't embarrass myself out there.
Looking forward to playing. But I was ready to start doing something more than I had been doing. It's almost like you retire, you want to get as far away from the sport as possible for a couple years, then want to kind of get back into it at your own pace. This is kind of the pace that I'm starting at. It's an easy match in Houston, and hopefully it can entertain some people and have some fun.
Q. Two questions. Where have you practiced, and who have you hit with to kind of get yourself ready for this? Obviously, Robby is a serious player so you've got to be able to play some serious tennis. The other half of it is, I know you're coming out here to play golf. What handicap do you play to?
PETE SAMPRAS: I play to a five. Yeah, it's okay, compared with some of the other athletes that I (compete with?) Not great.
I've been hitting basically a little bit with Justin Gimelstob, when I first kind of started hitting some balls. I've been hitting with the UCLA men's team, some of their top players. They're not Robby's level, but it's the best I can find. I've been hitting on clay for the last couple days just to kind of get used to that.
It won't be an easy match my first match out, being on clay. You know, I'm a little anxious, but I think I'm excited to get out there and hit a few balls for the people.
Q. I was curious if you had followed Andre Agassi's performance in last year's US Open and in the same vain paid any attention to Martina Hingis' comeback, and I'm wondering your impressions of both, if you have any to share, and whether in the Agassi case that had any role in stirring your thoughts about maybe playing again?
PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah, I just want to make this clear that me playing some exhibitions is in no way an indication that I'm coming out of retirement.
Q. Sure.
PETE SAMPRAS: This is more just to have a little focus, get myself in shape, and have some fun.
As far as Andre's US Open run, I think it's one of the better runs we've seen in the game. I think he ran into, obviously, the best player in the world and had some chances in the match but couldn't come through.
Martina, I'm not surprised that she is able to come back. When she had stopped, she was quite young so she had some fuel left in the tank. The ladies' game isn't quite so deep, so with her game and her drive now, I think it's not surprising to me that she's able to have a very healthy return.
Q. I'm wondering, what do you miss about tennis, I mean, about professional, competitive tennis, and what do you not miss? That's the first question. The second question is did you go any period of time without playing any tennis at all, or has it been part of your life for the last few years just even on a recreational basis?
PETE SAMPRAS: To answer your first question, which was...
Q. What do you miss and not miss?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, I miss the focus. I miss the structured life. I miss the preparation. I miss that part of it. I really miss the majors. I mean, those events, the second week of Wimbledon, the US Open and the others, I mean, that was a time where this is what you play for. I miss that final day. And, you know, come 2 o'clock on Wimbledon final Sunday, I, you know, miss it. There's no question about it.
What I don't miss is the travel, is the pressure, the stress of staying on top of the game. I feel like I had a bull's eye on my chest for most of my career, so just kind of fending people off is something that I don't miss.
The work, you know, the constantly it's always on your mind. The eating and sleeping, it's basically your life. I don't miss that sort of part of the sport that really kind of stressed me out a little bit (laughing).
What was your second question?
Q. The second one was did you go a period where you didn't play at all, or have you been playing all along, even recreationally?
PETE SAMPRAS: Well, when this all happened, that's when I first picked up a racquet. So I didn't play with a racquet for -- pretty much after I retired. You know, it's been three years.
Q. Three years you didn't pick up a racquet? You didn't even play for fun? Nothing?
PETE SAMPRAS: No, no. I mean, just other than with my kid. But, no, I didn't. I mean, I hit a few balls here and there, but nothing too serious.
When it's been your life and it's taken over your life for a lot of years, I mean, I've talked to a lot of different athletes in different sports, they want to get as far away from it as possible. One day, you want to come back and hit a few balls. I don't think Joe Montana is throwing a football anymore when he retired. It's really you just shut it down for a while. Once you've shut it down long enough, you look forward to hitting a few balls.
The last month has been fun. Getting myself in shape, actually do something that I know I'm good at, I know where the ball's going, can let go.
Q. I'm wondering what you think about your style of play, your serve and volley style in today's game. Do you see a lot of changes out there since you retired? Do you think it will be a little more difficult?
PETE SAMPRAS: I missed the end of your question, but I got most of it.
I do miss the serve and volley game, but there's not really anyone that serves and volleys naturally. You have big servers that might come in, but the art of serve and volleying is pretty much extinct. You have some guys that do a little bit of it, but across the board everyone stays back and just trades groundies. I miss the contrast. I miss one guy coming in and the other guy defending. I think that's the best tennis.
But that's just a sign of the times. It's just the kind of direction it was at Wimbledon the last couple years. The part of the court that's worn out is the baseline, not the net. So, you know, if I'd be playing today, I'd be licking my chops on grass.
But it's just the way it is. It's unfortunate, but that's where the sport is going - or it has been.
Q. Can you give us an idea of how much time you're actually trying to put in now as you gear up.
PETE SAMPRAS: I've been probably hitting a couple hours a day probably four days a week, five days a week. I mean, I want to play well, and, you know, make sure my body holds up. I think I can get through one match. I'm not looking forward to how I'm going to feel the next day.
I've been in the gym. I've been running, do a little bit of lifting. I've been doing that for the past year. I'm not in the best tennis shape, but I'm in good enough shape to get through this match.
Been hitting the ball fine, and I'm trying a bigger racquet. Giving me a little more power and is a little easier on my arms. That's how that goes.
Q. I have a follow up. I don't want to draw you into any controversy, but I just wondered if you'd heard or had any reaction to I guess it was a comment by Sergi Bruguera sort of ranking Federer way, way up on the list, and basically saying that his game is superior to yours except for the serve, but in all the other facets. I don't know if you saw that?
I mean, everyone's got their opinion. The way Roger has been playing, the way he's dominating, you know, he looks very good. It's hard to say that he's the greatest player of all time. It's hard to compare, you know, this generation from, you know, Federer, myself, to Laver and those guys. No question Federer has the best game we've seen in a long time, but I felt like I did okay myself.
Well, Sergi has been around, he knows the game, but we all have our different opinions.
Q. Was there one moment where the light bulb sort of went off in your head where you said, "Hey, I want to get back in the game, I want to start playing"? Was there a match you saw or a moment?
PETE SAMPRAS: There wasn't any -- it was just a progressive feeling that I had pretty much all last year. Middle of the year I felt like I needed kind of a -- needed something more than I was doing. I just kind of made it a decision around Christmas time that if, you know, there was some tennis exhibitions or whatever that were available and that made sense for my travel and family that I would be open to it.
Once Van came to me a month ago, I made the commitment and, you know, started hitting balls the day after. It's a schedule that I can dictate. I'm playing some World Team Tennis. It's nothing too strenuous, just something that will keep me busy and active and in shape.
Q. Secondly, a friend of mine was telling me you might have another new hobby of playing poker. I was wondering if we're going to start seeing you on Bravo?
PETE SAMPRAS: (Laughing). No, no. I know my limitations. That's, like I said, something I got into watching it on the TV and playing a home game in LA once a week. That's just for fun. Get together with my friends and embarrass myself with what I play with.
It's fun, but nothing that I can get in too much trouble.
Q. I understand you're using an old man's racquet now?
PETE SAMPRAS: Well, used the Federer racquet, a little bit bigger than what I had. Had a little more power, but the control is not as good, especially when I hit it off the frame.
Q. And how do you feel about playing Team Tennis if you were to come up against a guy like McEnroe?
PETE SAMPRAS: I feel pretty good. You know, I'm playing fine. You know, playing tennis is like riding a bike; you don't forget it. It's just kind of something that I'm more concerned about my movement and my body than actually hitting backhands and forehands. I'm not really worried about playing anybody.
Q. Sounds like there's still a little bit of swagger left.
PETE SAMPRAS: There's always swagger when I step on the tennis court. Even when I'm practicing, you know, I still want to "wow" myself. It's something that I'm still pretty good at - not as good as I used to be, don't move as well, but I can still serve pretty hard and move well enough.
Q. Pete, I was wondering, when you see a guy like Andy Roddick struggling, or you see a young player like Donald Young come up through the ranks, is there ever part of you that wants to kind of share your knowledge and get into the coaching ranks?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, I'm not into coaching. I'm not into giving unsolicited advice. I mean, if Andy or anyone comes and asks for advice, I'm more than happy to give it to them, but I'm not going to call or e-mail Andy and say, "Listen, you got to start doing this," and blah, blah, blah. That's just not who I am or what I'm about.
But, you know, if need be, I'm always here for the guys. I don't know if any of them feel comfortable enough to ask me, but I certainly have opinions and thoughts on the game and what it takes.
Q. What roles, if any, do you envision for yourself beyond an on-court playing role in tennis? Is there anything you've thought about?
PETE SAMPRAS: Not much. I'm invested in the Indian Wells tournament. From the business side, I've gotten to be part owner of the event here in the desert. Other than that, playing this exhibition, maybe playing a little bit at the end of the year, a few more here and there.
That's the extent of it, but I am looking to kind of really busy myself and be active out there.
Q. I'm wondering if you could share any thoughts you have on the state of the sport's popularity in the U.S. right now, if you have any thoughts on whether that could be improved. If so, how? Along those lines, do you think when an era comes along where one player dominates so much like Federer - certainly, you in your day - is that for the good of tennis in terms of it creating excitement in the game, or does it work the other way?
PETE SAMPRAS: I think it can backfire when you have one person dominating, unless you're Tiger Woods. I mean, in tennis, I mean, rivalry does sell the sport. If you had a Federer and Roddick, who's an American, playing each other quite a bit, playing each other in the finals of majors, you would get non-tennis fans potentially watching it.
Tennis is still a very popular sport. I still think you have your hard-core fans. But I think for the popularity, I mean, Federer is dominating so kind of easily, and everyone's expecting him to win. I think him being a non American, I think, probably hurts the popularity maybe here, a little bit of the ratings. That's just kind of the nature of TV in the U.S. I mean, we're competing with a lot of other sports.
It was similar when I was dominating, even that I was American. I think when Andre and I had our thing there for a while, that's when really it captured American fans, especially non-tennis fans. I think that's what the sport needs. It's always needed that in every sport: Yankees-Red Sox, Lakers-Celtics. In tennis, you need something to cling on to, some sort of history and rivalry that hopefully will sell both sports. In tennis, you don't have that right now. You just have pretty much Roger beating everybody pretty easily. If someone can try to push him a little bit over the next year, I think it would help.
But, you know, I think American tennis is strong, but it's not quite to where, you know, Roger's at or anywhere at that level.
Q. I know you're probably not following the game real, real close. Could you reflect a little bit on James Blake's rise, cracking the top 10. Did you see that in him in an earlier stage? You played some Davis Cup with him. Also just talk about Robby and what you think of him as a player.
PETE SAMPRAS: Sure. James, I got to know pretty well. He's been parts of Davis Cup teams. One thing I liked about James is his athletic ability. He's a great mover and he can hit great shots from all ends of the court. The one thing I think he's learned is a little bit of maturity as far as where he is on the court, how hard to hit it, being a little more selective on when to go for his shots. I think he believes in himself more. I think the US Open run he had last year - he should have probably beaten Andre - I think that gave him a lot of confidence. He just continues to work hard. He's got a good attitude. His temperament is kind of in check. I think he's just going to get better and better and really stay in the top 10 for as long as he wants to be. So I think he's on the right track. He's improving.
As far as Robby, I don't know Robby as well. I know Robby, practiced with him a little bit. He's a strong, fit guy that stays back and just hits the ball pretty hard and serves well, moves well. He's a good athlete.
I'm going to have my hands full with him. Now that I know he's playing a match, I'm really coming in as a big underdog. Hopefully, the courts play a little quicker and I can get some serves to him, but it's...
Q. Pretty slow.
PETE SAMPRAS: I hear that. I know.
Q. I have two questions. One, I wanted to ask you, how do you think you'd play against Roger? Do you ever watch and wonder how your game would do against him, or kind of wish that you could just for a day, you know, be on the court and play against him? And my other question is if you could just comment on Andre. He's, you know, kind of struggling this year and sort of dealing with the idea that maybe it could be the end but he'd like to give it another run this summer. Just sort of where you see his career right now. Two-part question.
PETE SAMPRAS: Well, as far as Federer, yes, I have just seen him play and how I would play him. I think with Roger, I think the problem with competition today is that I don't see anyone with a big enough weapon to really hurt him, like a real attacking player. I think Roger and everyone, they're just kind of staying back, and Roger is able to dictate and move well enough and dictate the ball anywhere he wants to because he moves so well. You know, against Roger, you just have to beat him. You know, you just have to, you know, serve well and attack him, be selective.
But I put myself on the court against him and see the game and see there's no one out there that has a big enough game, a big enough serve that can back it up and really put pressure on him. The bigger server, Roddick, you know, stays back. That's an uphill struggle for him. I think I would stick to my game and hopefully be good enough to beat him.
As far as Andre, I think this is, you know, a pivotal year for him mentally; more importantly, physically, you know. To go through what he's gone through and to work so hard, I think he's got to be a little frustrated. I still think he's one guy that when he's fresh and feels good, he can push Federer. I just think these next four or five months are going to be a telling tale on what his future is. If he can't compete, if he can't move the way he wants to, I do see him hanging it up.
But I understand that he wants to keep going, and I think that's great. I think it is tough to come back after such a long layoff and, you know, you need to be honed in to really compete for these majors. You know, he's coming in with not a lot of matches under his belt. I think that could be tough for him. But he's a special player, and I think he'll be able to figure it out.
Q. I was just wondering, two questions. First one is just kind of can I get your take on this week's Davis Cup and will you be there. Second, just kind of your thoughts on Indian Wells after your first tournament.
PETE SAMPRAS: I was happy. Actually, came out on Monday and saw a little bit of Henman and saw the crowds, and it was packed. It made me feel good that I was part of a group that was able to keep the tournament in the desert. Such a popular event and brings a lot to the community here.
As far as the Davis Cup, I'm actually going to be in Houston on Thursday and probably, you know, maybe stay in Houston Friday to play golf and maybe just stick around in Texas to play a little golf with some friends of mine for a couple days, so I won't be out in the Davis Cup.
But I think the Americans look pretty good, being on grass. I like our chances, but you never know.
Q. Pete, I was wondering, now that TV seems to be moving online with live NCAA broadcasts, MLB video casts, etc., is this part of the future for sports, do you think, and can this be a big thing for tennis?
PETE SAMPRAS: Potentially. I mean, when I heard this was going to come about, I was excited. I mean, my wife and child can log on, and it's very easy and you can watch some tennis.
It could be. I mean, it could be for people that don't have access to a TV or just, you know, travel with their computer, laptop, whatever, and they can check things out. I think it's a sign of the future not only in tennis but in all sports just to be able to see some clips, see some interviews. I find myself doing that at times when I get online.
I would be just curious to see how it comes across and if we could actually see the ball and see the court and how clear it is. I'm sure it will come across good. I'm excited to be the first tennis match on there.
Q. Is your family coming to River Oaks, or will they be able to use the new technology from home?
PETE SAMPRAS: They'll be watching online. They won't be with me.
Q. Speaking of technology, I'd be curious about your thoughts on the use of HawkEye, the electronic line calling, in the NASDAQ and coming up in the US Open.
PETE SAMPRAS: I think, you know, I didn't see much of it. I heard some stats, there were maybe like 30% errors?
Q. Right.
Q. The players were right 30% of the time, if you want to look at it that way.
PETE SAMPRAS: I see (laughing).
Yeah, I'm not sure if that's a good percentage for a linesman. In any other sport, if a linesman is making -- I know the ball is going fast and you have the same kind of speed in baseball and all that and have to make quick decisions, it's not a great percentage. There are a lot of errors out there. When you're playing for major titles, you know, you want to make sure it's done right.
Does it add a little bit of popularity? Sure, I think it helps and makes it something that people will talk about, adds a little bit of color to the sport. I think it's a good thing. It's tricky, you have it on one court and not another court. I know it's expensive. Yeah, I like the game being fair. I think if you do it on one, you should do it on all.
Q. Could I just have one follow up regarding Andre. I'm sure you can empathize with that state of sort of wondering when to say "when."
Q. Can you describe what that's like a little bit, and have you spoken to him or e-mailed back and forth or anything about where he's at right now?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, I haven't spoken to him. Our roads are a little bit different. I mean, he's going through a very serious injury, and I was basically struggling for a couple years and going back and forth on what to do.
After I won the Open, I spent about six months trying to sort it all out, you know, a little bit like what Brett Favre is doing. You really want to make sure you really are done. That's what I wanted to do. I think Andre is trying to get himself ready to play, give it a push. If the push isn't good enough and he has a setback and if it's not going well, I think I do see him probably calling it a career.
You know, it is tough to accept, and especially really tough to accept when we can't control it, when physically you're not able to.
But I have not talked to him or e-mailed him. I'm sure he's got a lot of other things going on.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Okay, everybody. I really appreciate you being on the call. Thank you, Jeff, thank you, Van, and, of course, thank you, Pete, for taking the time.
Just to reiterate, Pete Sampras will be playing against Robby Ginepri on Thursday, April 6th, in Houston. The only place to see it if you're not in the stadium will be on USTA.com, which will be free to anybody visiting and logging on. It will be very easy. Just click on it and you'll be directed right to the live internet broadcast.
For members of the media, a press release on this will be forthcoming, as well as a transcript of this conference call. So at this time, I'd like to once again thank all the members of the media that joined us and thank you Pete, Van and Jeff, for participating in the call.
Bye, everybody.

End of FastScripts...

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