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Sampras, Agassi renew old rivalry

Pete Sampras, right, hugs Andre Agassi after defeating Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in the men's final at the U.S. Open on Sept. 8, 2002 in New York. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — What does someone do with his time after retiring at age 31?

Meet up with an old friend and rival for a little tennis at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs.

That is exactly what former world No. 1 and one of the tennis’ all-time greats, Pete Sampras, is doing on Saturday, June 20.

Sampras will play his old rival, another former world number one, Andre Agassi, in an exhibition match as part of the grand opening ceremonies for the 2,500-seat Center Court at Creekside near Howard’s Creek and across an access road behind the Greenbrier Golf Club.

“Getting me and Andre here is a big deal,” said Sampras, whose match with Agassi is scheduled for 2 p.m. “We don’t play too many exhibitions.”

Additionally, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Earth, Wind, and Fire will perform at 9 p.m. Sampras will conduct clinics the next two days. Charleston native and former touring pro Anne White will serve as guest umpire.

“I’m excited to be involved,” Sampras said.

His relationship with the resort and its owner, gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice, began about four years ago and has grown steadily. Sampras, in fact, is the resort’s tennis pro emeritus. The hope is to eventually provide some events for tennis fans similar to what the Greenbrier Classic has become to golf fans.

“I’ve put myself out there to be the touring pro at the Greenbrier and spend a few extra days there doing some clinics at the resort,” Sampras said. “After seeing the golf tournament on TV and it’s one of the best tournaments and, of course, the hotel, I just said to myself ‘This is the kind of place I want to associate myself with.’ I’m a fan of the resort.”

Sampras retired from the pro tour after winning the 2002 U.S. Open, defeated Agassi.

Sampras’ victory left him with a 20-14 edge in one of the best rivalries in the history of pro tennis.

Overall, Sampras retired with a then-record 14 Grand Slam titles — Roger Federer now has 17 and Rafael Nadal is tied with Sampras with 14 — and a total of 64 tournament championships. Sampras was No. 1 in the world for a record six consecutive years (1993-1998) and a total of 286 weeks.

Agassi took over at the top in 1999 and has eight grand slam championships.

That Sampras and Agassi can get together for a friendly, competitive, exhibition match separates it from some of the other rivalries such as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.

“He had his way of doing things and I had mine and I guess that is what people liked so much,” Sampras said. “But for two people competing for the same thing for so long we came out of it with a lot of respect for each other, we like each other.”

Though he left the tour at a relatively young age Sampras says he has never had any second thoughts.

Traveling the world as a professional tennis player is not as glamorous as many believe.

“That’s a fantasy,” Sampras said. “From airports to hotels right to the courts, there really is no time for anything else but getting ready for your matches, it really is a job.”

That is especially true when you are constantly striving to stay at the top.

“Cincinnati or Paris, it is all the same to me in a way,” he said. “It takes a lot of work and time to be the best in the world.”

Sampras began playing at age seven and turned pro at 16 so post-retirement withdrawal was inevitable.

“After enough rounds of golf you start to want to wake up in the morning and have something to look forward to, to go to work and feel you’ve accomplished something,” Sampras said. “I didn’t miss the tour, I didn’t miss the traveling, but I did miss the focus and the structure.”

He tries to get to the gym “four or five days a week” and plays tennis two or three times a week “just to try and stay in shape” and to avoid injuries.

“It’s a work in progress,” Sampras said. “There’s no book on retirement at 31.”

He says he generally plays about 10 matches a year, picking and choosing his spots. Facing Agassi is even more rare.

“There’s a lot of benefit to it,” Sampras said. “It keeps me focused, hitting some tennis balls, keeps me in shape,” even if he has lost a step.

“It gets frustrating, I don’t play as much and I’m not as sharp as I used to be. You hit your 40s and tennis is quite a tough sport and I’ve seen the last couple of years I’m not as agile.”

Clay — the surface at the Greenbrier — had never been his favorite, but admits it’s easier on the body.

Agassi holds a 3-2 career professional advantage over Sampras on tour.

His touring, keeping in shape and maintaining a lifestyle that includes tennis has challenged Sampras, who is married to actress and former Miss Teen USA Bridgette Wilson. They have two sons — 12-year-old Christian and 9-year-old Ryan.

His boys play basketball, soccer, tennis, and golf but fatherhood isn’t much different for Sampras than it is for others.

“These kids today have so any distractions with technology,” Sampras said. “It’s hard for any of these kids to focus on something.”

He says he is careful not to push them “too hard” but just “really want them to be passionate about something.”

Sampras still follows the sport and takes note of how American players fare.

“Sam Querry is doing the best he can,” Sampras said. “American tennis is not what we want it to be but at the same time the competition has gotten better, tennis has become more global, the world has gotten better.”

Terry Deremer, the director of Tennis at the Greenbrier, hopes the new stadium will attract some of that talent from the rest of the world to the Mountain State.

“We’re looking to host Davis Cup, Federation Cup, those sorts of events,” he said. “The stadium is breathtaking.”

Tickets are still available for the June 20 exhibition and concert.

They may be purchased online at www.greenbrier.com/centercourthome2 or by contacting Victoria Matheson at 304-536-1110 extension 7508.

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