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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August, 2003, 22:22 GMT 23:22 UK
Sampras - the absent king
By Piers Newbery

Pete Sampras
Born: 12/8/1971 in Washington
Turned pro: 1988
Singles titles: 64
Grand Slam titles: 14
Prize money: 27.5m
Flushing Meadows will be a different place this year with the towering presence of defending champion Pete Sampras absent, seemingly never to return.

It was at the US Open, 12 months ago, that the American played his last competitive match, beating Andre Agassi to claim one of the most extraordinary Grand Slam wins ever.

And after a year of increasingly tentative statements regarding his future, Sampras will officially retire on Monday.

While Michael Chang completes a year-long farewell tour with a wild card appearance at his home Grand Slam, the greatest player of all looks like slipping out of the game with little or no fuss.

The likes of Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker were happy to play out their final tournaments more as one final chance to play at the great arenas than with any realistic thoughts of winning titles.

But Sampras made it clear that he would only return to competition if he felt capable of claiming a 15th Grand Slam crown.

With players like Roger Federer, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andy Roddick and Guillermo Coria in their early 20s and hungry for titles, the chances for Sampras appeared slim.

However, no one would have been foolish enough to write him off completely after last year.

Sampras arrived in New York last August without a title in over two years and having lost to lowly George Bastl in the second round at Wimbledon.

I feel like if I wasn't going to play Wimbledon then that was probably it for me
Pete Sampras
With fans and critics alike calling for him to retire, rather than further humiliate himself, the four-time US Open champion somehow found his very best form.

Victory over Agassi in the final was special, but it was the demolition of rising star Andy Roddick in the quarter-finals that reminded everyone just how unplayable Sampras is at his best.

Having claimed the first of his 13 Grand Slams at Flushing Meadows in 1990, he was well aware that his fifth US Open win made the perfect book-end to his career.

Sampras immediately withdrew from all tournaments for the rest of 2002, saying: "To beat a rival like Andre at the US Open - a storybook ending - it might be a nice way to stop.

"I'll see where I'm at in the next couple of months, where my heart's at and my mind."

In the months that followed Sampras was clearly struggling to find the motivation to get back out and practise - much to the frustration of tournament organisers across the world.

At the turn of the year he seemed to be ready to return for the Grand Slams.

Pete Sampras loses to George Bastl at Wimbledon 2002
Sampras was humiliated against Bastl at Wimbledon 2002
"I understand that, week in and week out, I don't have what I had when I was number one in the world," he said.

"To do that, to stay there, it has to be your total life, you have to live and breathe it. But that doesn't mean I can't still win the big ones. That's why I play."

He even decided at one stage to play the French Open, chasing the one major title that had always eluded him, saying: "I believe I can win."

But reality clearly dawned and the long-awaited comeback never materialised.

And Sampras admitted when he withdrew from Wimbledon that if he could not motivate himself for a crack at an eighth title in SW19, he was unlikely ever to return.

"It tells me it's a sign to say, 'It's probably time'," Sampras said in July.

"I feel like if I wasn't going to play Wimbledon then that was probably it for me, so that's the way it goes."

There is certainly something unsatisfactory about the indecisive way this most clinical of players has wound down his career, but it is in keeping with the low profile he has always enjoyed.

Sampras always looked to Rod Laver as his role model, repeatedly referring to the "class" with which the Australian handled himself.

Laver would no doubt be impressed with the lack of fanfare or fuss Sampras has sought in choosing to end his playing days.

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