In any discussion of the greatest male tennis players of all time, the name Pete Sampras has to come up, or you’re just not serious. Records are important, after all, even if they’re broken. Sampras held the record for most singles titles overall until 2009, when Roger Federer won his 15th, and in 2016 he remains one of the few male players with the most singles titles at the U.S. Open (tied with Federer and Jimmy Connors) and at Wimbledon (tied, again, with Federer). The air at the top is rarified, and Sampras breathes it.
At this year’s U.S. Open, the historically shy player is more out and about than usual. He’s part of the American Express Pro Walk, a virtual reality experience that shows participants what it’s like for a professional about to play in the newly-renovated Arthur Ashe Stadium. Fans are given virtual encouragement by both Sampras and Monica Seles, another tennis legend with U.S. Open memories. We talked to Sampras about why he decided to be part of an interactive experience, what gear he’s held onto, and what it’s like to tell your favorite band what songs you want them to play that night.
Why did you decide to do this for the U.S. Open? You’ve been pretty low profile ever since you retired, and you don’t really go to matches. This seems like a different thing for you.
Basically the goal was to give fans an idea of what it was like to walk out on the court and feel the emotions that I felt playing. Just what it was like for me. It’s like, if you’re… Eddie Vedder, you know, if you’re in Pearl Jam, what’s it like to be walking out on stage?
I didn’t know you liked Pearl Jam.
Oh God, yeah. I’ve been a fan since they came out in ’92, ’93? Anyway, I’m just trying to share what it was like for me, so a 10-year-old can say, “Oh, he got nervous! We all get nervous.” I just wanted to explain my emotions. I think we did a good job. I hope the fans come back many times and see what it’s like, tell their friends.
When you talk to your kids, do you talk to them about tennis?
I pick my battles. With my kids, you know, I try to explain to them that these trophies weren’t handed to me. I had to go work for them. I had to practice every day. I had to get through stresses and anxiety and just feeling all that pressure. I got nervous before every match I played, but you get through it. Sometimes they don’t want to hear it, but I just hope that one day they’ll understand that I was trying to help them, not trying to criticize them.
What do you think about the recent doping scandals that have been happening in the last year? Like the decision to suspend Maria Sharapova for taking unapproved medication.
All I’m going to say about that is there was a time when I took some nutrients, some vitamins, and the first thing I did was take all those bottles and give them to the drug testing guy. I said, “I just want to be 100 percent sure that we’re good.” And he said, “Yeah, you’re fine.” Every athlete has responsibilities, they know what they’re taking, and if you’re not sure, you ask someone, or you see the list, you ask the drug testing guy, “Are we good here?” Before you take anything. It’s irresponsible for someone to take something not knowing if it’s 100 percent clean. It’s a very black and white issue for me.
Would you ever take a shot at being a commentator?
Well, that requires traveling, you know. I’ve talked to John McEnroe quite a bit, and I’m just not sure that’s for me. I don’t look at commentary. I don’t look at coaching… at the moment, I don’t see myself doing either one of them.
Is that because you’re kind of sick of tennis?
I’m not sick of tennis. I love watching, and I love watching the [U.S.] Open and Wimbledon, but just being in a hotel room… you know, I just don’t travel well. When you travel 30 weeks a year for 16 years, to sit in a hotel more than I want to is not something I care to do anymore. I travel a little bit here and there to play exhibitions, but I like being home.
Is there anything in your closet at home that you’ve held onto from a particularly memorable win? Like shoes or gear?
I got a couple of wood rackets. I got a couple of my rackets that I actually played with. I got a couple pairs of obsolete Nike shoes. Just a little bit of gear that I used to play with, just to have for my kids. I don’t have a ton of stuff, just a few things here and there.
Why the wood rackets?
I played with a wood racket until I was about 14. Honestly that’s what made me a great player. I was starting with a wood racket.
I have to go back to Pearl Jam…
Oh, yeah! I’ve seen them live many, many times. I met the guys. Stone Gossard was a big tennis fan. He came to the Open. And Eddie Vedder signed a guitar for me, which unfortunately got stolen. I had a signed Eddie Vedder guitar that got stolen out of storage unit. He had signed it for my birthday because I was such a huge fan. I mean, we all have that one group, right?
They were always that one group for me. You know, my biggest thrill… Ready for this one? It’s all about interactive experience. I was sitting with Eddie and Stone and the band, and Stone goes, to me, “What do you want us to play tonight?” I’m here as a huge Pearl Jam fan, and he’s asking me, “What songs do you want us to play tonight?” So I was like, okay, let’s play “Better Man,” let’s play “Given to Fly,” and Eddie’s like, yes to some, no to some. I mean, can you imagine that experience for me? Sitting with your all-time favorite band, telling them what songs you want. Or one time, I was in Las Vegas, and we’re all hanging out in a big group, and Eddie was warming up his voice, like in the bathroom, he’s just belting it out. You know, a bathroom gets real loud. And I’m a huge fan of his voice, so I’m just sitting there like, “This is pretty cool.” That’s the interactive experience I wanted to show for tennis. I was excited just to be there. I wanted the fans to experience, you know, Eddie explaining to me, “Hey, this is what it feels like for me to step out there.” That was the goal.
Does Eddie Vedder get nervous?
Since you’re the expert.
You know, I don’t know. They always seem to have a little wine with them. I mean, he’s out there, he’s very into it, and he’s got screams, but before the show, it’s different. He’s shy. He’s shy like me.