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February 6, 2008

Pete Sampras

GREG SHARKO: Good morning and thanks for joining in for today's call with International Tennis Hall of Famer Pete Sampras, who joins us from his home in Beverly Hills.
Pete will be making his San Jose return Monday night February 18th when he plays an exhibition match at the HP Pavilion. During his career, Pete won 64 career titles on the ATP Circuit, including two in San Jose in 1996/'97, and an all-time record 14 Grand Slam titles. He also finished No. 1 in the ATP rankings a record six straight years from 1993 to '98.
Following San Jose, Pete will be busy with a couple of exhibitions with Todd Martin and then with Roger Federer March 10th at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Before we begin, I want to turn it over to tournament director Bill Rapp.
BILL RAPP: Thanks, Greg. Pete, thank you so much for joining us this morning.
PETE SAMPRAS: No problem.
BILL RAPP: Pete, I wanted to share something with you and with the other folks in the media before we get started. It was a bit of a surprise to me. About two and a half hours ago I was on the phone with Marat Safin's agent from Moscow. Yesterday, while practicing for the Davis Cup tie against Serbia, Marat tweaked his toe and has had an MRI. In a few hours, the Russian team will announce that he will pull out of that Davis Cup tie.
He still is planning to play against you, Pete, here at the exhibition at the SAP Open, but we're going to daily monitor that situation. I wanted to get that out immediately to let you know, Pete, and also the members of the media know that information.
I remember watching you up here in San Jose, Pete, play against Andre Agassi in 1996 in the final. I believe that day you played for the No. 1 ranking in the world. Maybe talk about that match, Pete, and also talk about your fondest memory or memories of playing here in San Jose.
PETE SAMPRAS: I've always enjoyed playing in San Jose. It was close to home. I always enjoyed the stadium, the crowds. Really an intimate sort of setting, but could hold a lot of people at the same time. The court speed I loved. It was a nice, medium pace. You could come in, stay back. I played really well.
I played Andre there one year. I played him a few times. He got me one year. When we were battling for the No. 1 ranking, kind of got in the zone in that match and beat him in straight sets. So that was a pretty high level of tennis.
But I love the event. Great locker room. It wasn't a big draw, so you had a lot of space there, which I've always been a big fan of. I enjoyed the court, enjoyed the City of San Jose. Had good restaurants, a few things to do at night. I always enjoyed my time there.
BILL RAPP: Thanks, Pete.
GREG SHARKO: We'll open it up for questions.

Q. The three exhibitions you had with Roger back in the fall and winter, how did those go for you and how important was winning that last one? Did it mean a lot to you?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, it was a bonus. My goal going over to play Roger was to make it competitive. If I could pull off a set, I'd be ecstatic. As we went on through the week, I started getting a little bit better, I starting gaining some confidence, just got used to Roger's game a little bit.
By the end, I felt really good. We were playing on really fast courts, which obviously helps out my game. And so to beat him was a shock to me. The Macau court was very fast. It was actually tough to play on. A few shots here and there, I was able to escape with a win.
But for me, I just want to play good tennis, make it competitive. I wouldn't have signed on for these XO's if I was going to embarrass myself.
It was fun hanging out with Roger. We really got along extremely well, traveled together. So that was fun to get to know him a little bit better.
But for the tennis, the level was pretty good. I was happy I can still serve and volley with the best of them and had some fun doing it.

Q. Did beating him make you think, Maybe I should try to make a comeback?
PETE SAMPRAS: Not at all. You know, I could still play a little bit, still play at a pretty high level, but coming back is a whole different ballgame, whole different lifestyle, a lot of work. Even in my prime, it was a lot of work staying on top. The day-in, day-out grind of tennis isn't in me any more.
I still enjoy playing a few XO's here and there, but to come back, I don't really necessarily play just for the limelight or for the money, I play to win. It's not worth sort of the work getting a few wins here and there if I came back. So I'm not coming back.

Q. You've been able to hang out with Roger a bit. Obviously I think it was probably difficult when you were competing at the top to really stay close to guys like Andre. I'm wondering if Roger seems like the kind of guy you could actually be friends with and also compete for Grand Slam titles with?
PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah, we have actually gotten to be pretty close. He was in L.A. over the last couple days and he came over and we had some lunch, just hung out and talked. We had a great time in Asia, really had a lot of fun. There's a side to Roger that a lot of people don't see. I think he likes to keep that separate and focused on the tennis.
But there's sort of a kid in him. He likes to have fun, likes to joke around. He's a bit of a prankster. We're actually quite similar: dry, sarcastic humor. Really enjoyed each other's company. We just have kind of kept in contact through text messaging. It's been fun.
I hope to obviously play well in New York here and hopefully do some more with him in the future. I think he enjoys it. When you play exhibitions, it's tricky for him. Dealing with the Nadal or Roddick, there's a certain competitive edge. Obviously with me, I'm retired, so it's a different sort of feeling. I think it relaxes him and I think he sort of enjoys it.

Q. Do you ever think sometimes maybe you retired too soon?
PETE SAMPRAS: No. I was done. The last sort of fuel in the tank was that last run at the US Open. After I was able to win there, I really had nothing left in the tank. Most importantly, I had nothing left to prove to myself. I always had numbers or records in my head. Once I got to be No. 1 for years, that was enough for me. Once I won that 14th major, I thought I would continue after the US Open win, but after the next four or five months, pulling out of all these events, and when Wimbledon came and went, that's when I knew it just wasn't in my blood any more. I had nothing left to prove to myself. Once I realized that, it was time for me to move on.

Q. Assuming you do play Marat, can you retell some of the memories of playing him over the years?
PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah, Marat is a great, great player and a friend. I mean, we got along really well on tour. He's had some injury problems. But I felt he and Roger there in early 2000 were going to carry this game. But I think he's dealt with some injuries.
You know, it's tough staying on top of the game. He tagged me pretty good at that US Open final, played a great match, really was the start of something. Was able to get him the next year. He was defending champion, so he was dealing with a little bit more pressure.
But he's a great player. He's a great guy. I've always enjoyed hanging out with him. Hopefully he can get back to his winning ways and get some confidence going. I think the game certainly needs someone like Marat. I think he's a great guy and he brings a lot to the table.

Q. Now that you are well into retirement, I was wondering, is it everything you expected, even though you are playing quite a bit of tennis?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, it's a work in progress, retirement. I will say I have my moments. I had those moments happen a couple years back where I was getting a little bit bored, a little bit restless. I was playing a lot of golf, not really doing much. After a while of doing that, I just felt a little bit, you know, 'what's next' sort of stuff.
There's no book on retirement at 31. It's sort of a tricky one. But I think playing tennis, again, on my terms has been fun. It's kept me in shape. It's not anything I need to do every day. But when I have an exhibition coming up, like I do in San Jose, I start hitting, and it gives me a bit of a focus, which is great.
But it's a work in progress. There's certain days that I'm, you know, a little bit home a lot, so I get a little bit cabin feverish. It's nice to play a little bit. Gets me out of the house, work out.

Q. What do you do more of now that tennis isn't at the forefront as much?
PETE SAMPRAS: Well, you know, I hop in the gym just about every day to do some exercise. Makes me feel good. I play golf probably two, three days a week. I've got two little boys that I take to school and pick them up and do some things with them. Started a little company with my brother Gus. He's managing me. We're going to get into a few other things which I'm interested in. You know, just trying to do some things that I enjoy. I don't have to work for the money, but I certainly need to work just for some sanity.
Playing is something I'm good at. I can still entertain, and people still seem to want to come out and watch.

Q. What kind of shape are you in versus your prime?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, not obviously as good. I do a lot of treadmill and lifting. And playing tennis is a completely different sort of muscle group. I'm in pretty good shape, but three-out-of-five might be tough. I can still go out and play two hard sets, maybe three. I play basketball twice a week, three-on-three halfcourt. That gets my legs and lungs burning. I try to keep active and doing some fun things along the way.
It's not anywhere near where I was 25. When you hit 36, I don't feel quite as fresh in the morning. I've got those sore spots. But my weight's down, which is nice. I can still go out and play and be competitive.

Q. What is the mindset with maybe less at stake in an exhibition versus preparing for a regular match or even a major?
PETE SAMPRAS: Well, it's different.

Q. Is it more fun?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, it's more fun. Maybe less stressful. But at the same time, every time I step out on the court, I want to win. I want to play well. I want to be sharp. So it takes some focus.
But I think the anxiety, the sort of, I don't know if I'd say pressure before you play a major, but you're trying to find your game, dealing with the expectations that I put on myself, was sort of the hardest thing. The tennis itself was actually -- sort of being out there was the easy part. I think it was the preparation, all the work you had to do at times wasn't easy.
But I got through some of those tough times, and now, you know, you can kind of have a lighter side out on the court. You still want to win and play well, but you're not holding on quite as tight.

Q. I know Roger has become your good friend and all, but I thought maybe you could just step back and contemplate why Roddick and Blake have had such little success against him and whether or not you think they'll ever be able to successfully contend with him for major titles?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, it's a tough matchup for both James and Andy. You look at the guys that have competed really well and have beaten Roger: Nadal and now Djokovic. What both guys can do is they move really well and they can hit the ball really well on the run and they're great athletes, whereas Andy's got the power but maybe doesn't have the athletic ability, and someone like James, who has the athletic ability, but doesn't have the power. It's kind of a tough matchup for them, for both those guys.
Seems like James can stay with Roger. I just think they play similar games and Roger is a little bit better than James at it. And Roddick can overpower Roger at times, but at the same time doesn't move well enough from the back court to really get into these exchanges, that someone like Djokovic can. So it's a tough matchup for both those guys.
You know, they can maybe pull off a win here and there, but consistently I'd still see Roger at a level or two a little bit better than James and Andy.

Q. I'm sure you watched some of the Djokovic/Federer match. You said you spent time with Roger there in L.A. I'm sure you clearly remember when you were chasing Emerson, you were a couple slams back. I think there was an assumption maybe that Roger would just kind of race through this year and tie you, maybe break it. Now Djokovic stops him at one slam. Are those last two going to be particularly tough because there's more pressure mentally?
PETE SAMPRAS: I don't think so. I think Roger has a pretty good perspective on the record and his game. I don't think he gets too overwhelmed, too worked up. I think what happened in Australia just happened. He went into the event with a bit of an illness and probably wasn't on top of his game.
But at the same time he knows he's got work ahead of him. It's not a shoo-in. But over the next year, I think when it comes to Wimbledon especially, US Open, he's the clear favorite. He's young enough. He's fresh enough. He's not 30. Having a few years left, he's 26 or whatever, I see him doing it.
But there are going to be a few guys that are going to push him. It's just inevitable that he's going to do it here in the next probably year.

Q. What was tougher for you, to tie the record at Wimbledon or break the record at the US Open?
PETE SAMPRAS: Well, I'm trying to think.

Q. Excuse me, to break the record or then the last one.
PETE SAMPRAS: I would probably say break it. I think I was on the number, dealing with an injury at Wimbledon, I had a pretty good draw. I sort of had this record in the back of my mind. I will say when I played, I wasn't thinking about the record. I think it was all sort of prematch feelings.
After I won it, I finally achieved this great record. That was more difficult than the 14th. I kind of went through those last couple years trying to win one more and I did it. I think that was the time where I had enough.

Q. I wanted to ask you about some young American players. Among Sam Querrey, Isner, Young and McClune, do you think any or all have the potential to be top 10 and Grand Slam title contenders?
PETE SAMPRAS: It's hard to say. I've hit with Sam quite a bit here in L.A. I think he's got a really good game, has a lot of power and has a good attitude. I think we've got to take little baby steps for these kids, you know, and break into the top 40 and 30. To win majors, you have to be pretty special. To stay in the top 10, you've got to be really good for a long period of time.
Isner has the big game. It's a question of him staying healthy and just trying to figure it out. Young, I haven't seen him play much. McClune, I've only hit with him one time.
I really don't know. I'm not probably great at predicting these things. I think you just sort of need to be a special athlete and a great mover out there. We have a good crew, but we'll see if someone can break through and break into the top 10 and contend for some of these majors.

Q. Do you think Sam Querrey or any of the others have that athletic moving ability?
PETE SAMPRAS: It's hard to say. These guys are going up against some legends at the moment in Roger and Nadal and now Djokovic. Right now, I don't see it happening in the next year or so. Give these guys another two, three, four more years of experience of being out on the road and seeing what they have to do to win some of these matches.
We'll see. It's hard to predict. When I was 18 years old, 19, no one saw me doing anything really special in the game. Even I didn't know what I was going to be doing. It all happened. So it's hard to predict. It's hard to see it. But we're going to know shortly.

Q. You've had some pretty decent contact with Roger. What surprised you the most about him as a man off court? And on court, what element of his game surprised you the most?
PETE SAMPRAS: Well, nothing really surprised me on court. I played Roger that one time. He's obviously gotten better since then. I practiced with him a little bit here in L.A. before the Asia trip. What I see on TV is pretty much what I thought I was going to see in Asia.
He's got a big first serve. He's a great mover. One shot that he pulls off, which is spectacular, is the little backhand flick, kind of cross-court. Hit some good volleys deep to his backhand and he has this little flick shot that kind of caught me off guard.
Other than that, his game is based on his movement. It's based on basically his heavy forehand and he's got a solid backhand, he can hit it low with the backhand slice. He can come in if he wants. But nothing surprised me on the court.
Off the court, I think when we got to Asia, I got to Asia, we had a dinner, kind of corporate stuff. He called me the first night and asked me if I wanted to come up and hang out. I was a little bit on jetlag, so I went up there and we just sort of talked. A few of his friends were up there. We just kind of talked for two, three hours about the game, about his generation, about my generation. Then, you know, just became really pretty comfortable around each other, had some fun, had some laughs.
There's a sort of a kid in Roger that I don't know if a lot of people see. Like I said, he's a bit of a prankster. He likes to sort of do these sort of little I don't think tricks, but just being a kid, you know. There's a kid in him that you see. Before I play him in Asia, like he was bouncing up and down, sort of doing this. But once he gets out on the court, you sort of see this different side to him, sort of more serious side.
I knew he was pretty relaxed, easygoing, nothing really fazes him. Seems likes he's got a really good foundation, good relationship with his girlfriend Mirka, and really has got the whole package when it comes to the tennis. You know, he's really a great player. He's got a good perspective. Doesn't get too high or low on losses or wins. You know, just sort of has that attitude that I had: single-minded focus. He just goes out there and wins.

Q. In the discussion among fans, there's a lot of back and forth about you and Roger. One argument for you is that you had such a tougher field. At least that's the argument. Would you go into that? Do you think your generation was a little tougher, a little more depth than Federer's?
PETE SAMPRAS: You know, it's hard to say which generation was stronger. What I had to deal with that Roger is not dealing with is a different style of play. Everyone pretty much plays the same; he's just better at it. Whereas my generation, I had to deal with not only great baseliners in Andre, but I had to deal with serve-and-volleyers, Krajicek, Ivanisevic, Becker, Edberg, Stich. I was playing these guys that were multiple Grand Slam winners. There's only a handful of guys that have won Grand Slams playing today.
It's hard to say. But probably the player today ranked 40 is probably better than the guy that was ranked 40 in my generation strictly because of technology.

Q. Is it mostly the strings or the frame?
PETE SAMPRAS: I think it's both. I mean, I'm using this Luxilon sort of racquet, bigger racquet. I'm telling you, it's like cheating. The amount of power you get and control, I wish I picked this up 10 years ago.
But, you know, it is hard to say which generation was better. I mean, I think players today are great players. Might be a little less of them than, say, in the '90s where I was up against Jim, Michael, Stich, Boris - just go down the list. Obviously now we have great, great players playing today, but, like I said, there's only a handful of Grand Slam winners.

Q. You're going to be playing in the Garden against Roger. There's such a tremendous sports history and pretty good tennis history there, the Masters. What are your thoughts about playing in the Garden, the sports mecca of our country?
PETE SAMPRAS: Yeah, I'm excited. I remember as a kid watching the Masters in New York. It was an historic event. The people loved it. I remember staying at Lendl's house when I was 16 years old. Saw him play that week. Lost to Becker in a five-set loss. That was a thrill for me. The crowd was into it. Such an historic building.
I'm looking forward to it. I know the ticket sales are going great. It's exciting. It's exciting for me at this stage of my life to go out and play in front of a packed house in New York. A lot of great matches. I just missed the Masters by a year. They moved it to Frankfurt in '90.
So to be back there, I played there one time in the Nike Cup somewhere in the mid '90s. I'm looking forward to playing it. I was even telling Roger when he was here, he plays in the States four times a year, this gives the American fans a chance to see both of us, him a little bit more, the lighter side, a fun side, but also a competitive side.

Q. How did you survive Lendl's German shepherds?
PETE SAMPRAS: Well, it was the bike rides in December. These 25-mile bike rides with his trainer in a car following me. I was like, Do I really want to be doing this? Six German shepherds. It was an eye-opening experience, something I'll never forget, seeing what it takes to be a champion, if you are a champion, the sort of home you can live in. Pretty impressive. It's an experience I'll never forget. Opened my eyes to seeing the greatest player in the world at the time. It was fun.
GREG SHARKO: Pete, we appreciate your time.
PETE SAMPRAS: No problem.

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