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Sampras To Play World Team Tennis

By Richard Pagliaro / Tennis Week

Pete Sampras wants to get busy and will seek to satisfy his tennis urge by taking on the World. The 14-time Grand Slam champion will return to competitive tennis when he makes his World TeamTennis debut this summer, the WTT announced on March 1, 2006.

The 34-year-old Sampras has not played a professional match since he defeated archrival Andre Agassi to capture the 2002 U.S. Open championship, snap a two-year title drought and claim his fifth U.S. Open crown. He is scheduled to play an exhibition match at River Oaks Country Club on April 6th.

Sampras is expected to play about six matches during the July 6-26th WTT regular season.

“This is more about just getting myself a little busier and focused on something I used to be good at,” Sampras told Associated Press tennis writer Howard Fendrich in an interview today. “It’s time this year to do a little more. Last year, I was kind of floating along.” Since his retirement, Sampras has occupied much of his time raising his family at his Los Angeles home, playing golf and taking the occasional trip to Vegas to play poker. Sampras and wife Bridgette Wilson-Sampras have two sons: three-year-old Christian Charles Sampras and seven-month-old Ryan Nikolaos Sampras.

Taking time to decompress from the demands of devoting much of his adult life to the professional tour, Sampras spoke like a man who has come to grips with his decision to call it quits from tennis, concluding a career that saw him set an ATP record with his streak of six successive seasons as the year-end No. 1.

Conceding he misses competing, Sampras stressed he is not interested in pursuing a return to the pressures of the pro circuit, but is excited by the opportunity to play World TeamTennis in a more relaxed setting where the emphasis is on enjoyment for both fans and players.

“I miss playing the game. I miss the majors. I miss competing. But to play at the level I used to play is a whole other animal. I’ve done that, and I know what it takes,” Sampras told the AP. “Me playing a little tennis this year is something I can control; there isn’t any pressure. I can relax and have a little fun. Coming back is not something that crossed my mind.”

Playing WTT for the first time, Sampras may well cross paths with some of former Grand Slam opponents including Agassi, Patrick Rafter, John McEnroe and Andy Roddick. Though Agassi did not play WTT last year as he continued recovery from sciatic nerve pain that reduced him to a hobble in a first-round Roland Garros loss to Jarkko Nieminen and prevented him from playing Wimbledon, the ageless Agassi has been an ambassador of sorts for WTT in recent years and given the fact wife Steffi Graf made her WTT debut last year, it’s quite conceivable an Agassi-Sampras rematch could be in the works this summer.

Sampras’ commitment to play is the latest coup for WTT founder Billie Jean King, who has been friendly with Sampras for years. A year ago, both Graf and Martina Hingis made highly-successful WTT debuts with Hingis playing Martina Navratilova in her first match, partnering John McEnroe in a memorable mixed doubles victory and eventually leading the New York Sportimes to the WTT championship. King has been actively recruiting Sampras since his years on the ATP Tour and her persistence has paid off.

“He’s definitely someone that we wanted,” WTT commissioner Ilana Kloss said. “We’re just thrilled that Pete’s going to be back out there, and fans will get an opportunity to see him again.”

Breaking the boredom also played a part in Sampras’ decision to return.

“When you retire, you take time away, you don’t want to have anything to do with tennis. After two years of having fun and not doing much in the sport, you get a little bored and want to know what’s the next chapter in your life,” Sampras told the AP. “Last year was a turning point — ‘What am I going to do next?’ — and I had to make a decision. Playing in front of some people — you kind of look forward to it a little bit.”

Victory at the 2002 U.S. Open offered vindication for Sampras as well as the opportunity to script a storybook conclusion to his career by retiring as a champion. The man whose drive to excel in the latter stages of his career was fueled by his desire to break Roy Emerson’s record for most career major singles titles is now hoping to reconnect with the reason why he picked up a racquet in the first place: fun.

“Of all the majors, that was the sweetest,” Sampras said of his U.S. Open victory. “It was just hard to top that. There were many moments when I seriously talked about stopping. Once I won, I felt like I had wiped out two years of criticism in two weeks of tennis.”