Pete Sampras seemingly has little in common with Dirk Nowitzki.
But at about the time Sampras began carving out a legacy as one of the greatest tennis players of all time in the early 1990s, Nowitzki was winning junior tennis tournaments in his native Germany.
Nowitzki eventually switched to basketball and won his first NBA title Sunday night with the Dallas Mavericks. Sampras, a Los Angeles resident who can often be seen at Staples Center watching the Lakers, said he appreciated something else about the way Nowitzki finally won his ring.
"You know, I just like to see good basketball," Sampras said in a phone interview. "I don't have any preference for one team over another. You're just happy for Nowitzki. He's sort of a humble guy, and obviously he's a great player. It was a welcome result. Nothing against Miami, I was just happy for Nowitzki."
The word that stands out is "humble." It's a fitting adjective to describe Sampras as well, throughout his professional career that included a then-record 14 Grand Slam singles titles. But the word that would go through opponents' minds when Sampras unleashed a 140-plus mile-per-hour serve at them, that was probably more of the four-letter variety.
Sampras, who turns 40 in August, still has the big serve. He's coming back to World Team Tennis this summer, scheduled to play with the Newport Beach Breakers for a third year after a previous stint in 2006-07. Sampras is a marquee player at The Tennis Club Newport Beach on July 9, when the Breakers play host to the New York Sportimes. The Sportimes are scheduled to feature former world No. 1 Martina Hingis for that match as well.
Sampras won't mind splitting the bill. He's happy to get out and play in a competitive match. Most of the time when he hits a tennis ball nowadays, it's because one of his two sons, 8-year-old Christian or 5-year-old Ryan, wants some time with dad.
That's true now more than ever, since school is out for the summer.
"Yeah, they're into it," said Sampras, married to actress Bridgette Wilson-Sampras. "They're kids, you know. They last 15 or 20 minutes then they're off to something else. If they're into it, great. If not, I'm not going to push a sport on them. If they're into it they're going to want to hit the tennis balls, not because it's me forcing them."
The Breakers will be happy to see Sampras come back to Newport Beach. He said he's in better shape than he was in the first stint with the team in 2006. At the time, Sampras had hardly picked up a racquet since his retirement years earlier.
"[Sampras] shouldn't have [played this season]," then-Coach Dick Leach told the Daily Pilot after one match. "You can't put down your racquet in 2003, then pick it up three months before you play a match. That's too hard. He's a great guy, great to his teammates and the fans love him. But [with him in the lineup] we can't win."
"Pistol Pete" played a more extensive schedule that year. The Breakers made the WTT Finals though, as unthinkable as it might sound, they succeeded despite the rusty Sampras. At one point they were 0-6 in matches in which he played. But he came back stronger the next year in Trevor Kronemann's first year as coach.
Now Kronemann is entering his fifth year. Sampras obviously has nothing to prove to anyone, but he said he's still competitive and wants to win. He didn't look rusty Feb. 28, when he beat longtime rival Andre Agassi, 6-3, 7-5, in a nationally televised exhibition match at New York City's Madison Square Garden.
"I feel like I'm in good shape and I'm going to prepare a little bit more," Sampras said. "I'll see if I can find my range and rhythm a little sooner. It's a format where you don't have a lot of time to mess around."
Sampras didn't mess around during his playing career, especially on the grass courts at the All England Club. Wimbledon starts again next week, and Sampras is fully aware of the statistics. Roger Federer has already passed Sampras' career Grand Slam mark, but if he wins Wimbledon this year he'll tie Sampras' mark of seven titles at the most prestigious major.
Federer is another humble guy. Sampras showed his humility again when talking about the Swiss player, who many now consider the greatest player ever.
"Roger, it seems like he's breaking all my records," Sampras said. "He could very well finish with more Wimbledons than me. I'm fortunate that I got my seven. Little did I know that [Rafael] Nadal will probably pass me [in total majors] at some stage. These guys have really taken the tour and dominated incredibly well."
Sampras won his last major in what turned out to be his last match, the 2002 U.S. Open final over Agassi. He was 31 then; Federer will turn 30 in August. But Sampras thinks Federer won't need to change things up too drastically as he gets older.
"Against everyone except two or three guys, he can do what he's always done," Sampras said. "At the French he came in a little bit, served and volleyed some, mixed it up. He tried to be aggressive and take the initiative. I think he does that very well. Against the rest of the guys, he can just play like he's always played. He's better than 98% of the guys … He's still going to win majors. I'll be surprised if he doesn't win one of the next two. We'll see how it all unfolds."
Sampras could say the same about his date with the Breakers on July 9. There are worse places for him to be than back in Southern California in front of a packed house, playing the sport he's always loved.
The professional landscape has changed since his retirement. Tennis has become more international since Americans dominated the 1990s. In this week's ATP rankings, there are just two American men — Mardy Fish (No. 9) and Andy Roddick (No. 10) in the top 10, and no others in the top 35.
Sampras also has signed on to play on the Champions Series circuit this fall, as have Agassi, Jim Courier and John McEnroe.
"I think it gives some younger fans a chance to see us," Sampras said. "Now these kids can only watch us on Youtube. If we can inspire some young kids to play tennis in some way, that's great. Is that the magic formula for getting young American players playing? I don't know, but it can only help.
"To see Roger and Novak [Djokovic] play, and Roger and Nadal, to see those guys go toe-to-toe is great tennis. Not a lot separates those guys. The margin is so small, anything can happen. Their tennis is so strong, like we used to be in the U.S., but in fairness you can't put that on Andy and Mardy. You've got to be somewhat sympathetic and fair to them. You know, tennis is doing really, really well around the world and in the U.S. … we need that American presence."
Sampras will provide it again in Newport Beach for at least one night, as a certain German basketball star continues to celebrate in Texas.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times