There had to be a way to finish this electric night with grace and elegance, a charming touch that wasn't some forced gesture. Surely there was something to punctuate this celebration of Pete Sampras' marvelous career, a pitch-perfect memory to be cherished.
One last victory lap, emcee Dick Enberg gently suggested.
And so, Pete Sampras shared himself — for one last time — with the crowded house in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open on Monday night. He walked around the court, a proud champion and proud father, holding his 9-month-old son Christian Charles in his arms, giving the crowd a farewell wave.
This night was never going to be easy for Sampras, not when the trail of tears started in the interview room with the media about three hours before the retirement ceremony, and certainly not when the standing ovation from the crowd of 21,853 brought his emotions bubbling over barely 30 seconds after walking out on the court. He cried for more than a minute, wiping his eyes, and his discomfort was palpable.
"I'm going to miss playing here," Sampras told the crowd. "I really loved playing in New York, loved playing in front of you guys. But I know in my heart, it's time to say goodbye."
This was where Pete Sampras was born as a tennis champion, thrived as a tennis champion and was reborn as a tennis champion. He won his first U.S. Open, the youngest male champion in tournament history at 19, in 1990, and won his final Grand Slam, a record 14th, at the Open last year, beating longtime rival Andre Agassi in the final match of his career.
It made sense that this was the scene of the retirement party. Farewells are often messy affairs. For one thing, the guest list is always an issue. The wrong person gets invited and the right guest misplaces his invitation.
Agassi wasn't there. But the three legends on the court, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Jim Courier, were individuals Sampras has had issues with over the years. This was equal parts class reunion, retirement party and banquet roast. Luckily, Enberg, the Sampras of television commentators, was on hand to pull it all together after the night had started off looking like a bad Broadway show hijacking a farewell party.
Courier, the closest to Sampras of the three, described going to a junior Davis Cup camp in Santa Barbara with Sampras when he was 14.
"He would never get out of bed, ever," Courier said, addressing the crowd and Sampras. "He refused to get out of bed and somehow you managed to climb out of bed for 14 titles. It's an amazing career. I was privileged to play with you as a doubles partner, a Davis Cup teammate and I won't forget it."
Becker, the three-time Wimbledon champion, used that tournament as his frame of reference.
"Remember, before you were around, I used to own that place. I called it my house," he said. "Now seven titles later, you stole my keys."
McEnroe talked about Sampras and, of course, himself.
"Do you want to see Pete play again?" he asked the crowd, and teased Sampras as to whether he was really sure about leaving.
He told the 32-year-old Sampras that half the players in the locker room idolized him, and the other half tried to play like him.
"I tried to serve like you, couldn't do that," McEnroe said. "I tried to hit the big forehand like you and couldn't do that. I tried to act like Pete" The crowd burst out laughing at that one.
Sampras paid tribute to his siblings, his parents, his coach Paul Annacone and late coach Tim Gullikson, and his wife, Bridgette Wilson Sampras, who was on the court during the ceremony, holding their son. Earlier, in the news conference, he spoke about his young family.
"I adore this little boy, I really do," he said. "He's starting to crawl now. I'm having to work a little more. I love being home with him and taking care of him, taking care of my wife. It has changed my life. It's made me pretty complete. Looking forward to seeing him grow up and being a good role model for him."
The decision to retire may have taken almost a year after his last match, but it crystallized a couple of months before Wimbledon. Sampras began to prepare with Annacone for a bid to win an eighth Wimbledon and didn't even make it past a week.
"After three days, I was done," he said. "I just didn't want to practice. I didn't want to train. I didn't want to do everything you have to do. I feel like I did it all. I think that's when it hit me."
He leaves the sport with few disappointments. Not winning the French Open on clay is one, but he hardly seems haunted by it. He mentioned a more unsettling memory, losing to George Bastl of Switzerland in the second round at Wimbledon last year.
"That was one of the lowest points — maybe the biggest," Sampras said. "I was really down in the dumps after that."
Sampras managed to stay true to himself, saying he was proud he hadn't changed much over the years: "I didn't sell out for the press or anybody."
Those who have known him were hardly surprised he was so emotional on the court. After all, this was the same man who broke down on the court during the Australian Open in 1995 when Gullikson became ill, the same man who became emotional during TV interviews earlier this summer, simply talking about his family.
Some thought the long goodbye was, well, a little long. But perfect endings are in the eye of the beholder. It simply took Sampras a little longer to reach a state of closure.
"I never realistically thought I was going to win and stop," he said. "But once I did, it's a process, retirement. It's not like you wake up one day and say, 'I'm retired.' You need to go through all the emotions and I did that."
And in case there might be any doubts
"The process is now over. I'm 100% retired," he said. "I'm at peace with it. It's time to call it a career."
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