After his retirement Pete Sampras wasn't sure if he would play tennis again.
This week, Sampras will play a senior tour event on a surface that haunted him throughout his record-breaking career.
"I didn't think I'd ever play on clay again," Sampras said. "But here I am."
Sampras faces Mikael Pernfors on Wednesday to open The Championships at The Palisades, the third and final event of the year for Sampras in the Outback Champions Series.
And while the surface is green clay - a bit quicker than the red dirt that always stymied Sampras at the French Open - it reminds him of the one trophy missing from a brilliant career that included a record 14 Grand Slam titles.
"It was always a tough surface for me and it definitely diminished my serve and volley game," Sampras said in a phone interview this week. "It was a tougher surface to move on, especially at the net. I didn't cover the net quite as well. You've got to be patient. You've got to play with a lot of spin and take your time."
The 36-year-old Sampras is clearly enjoying his return to tennis. He retired after winning the 2002 U.S. Open and barely picked up a racket for three years, trading his intense competitive nature for a role as a full-time dad to his two children.
But Sampras slowly started playing again, playing the past two years in World Team Tennis, an 11-team, month-long circuit in the United States that's existed for for much of the past 33 years.
He decided to return on a limited basis this year on the senior circuit formed by former rival Jim Courier. Sampras committed to play in Boston, Athens and Charlotte, and has enjoyed it so much he's agreed to play a handful of exhibitions, including a November match in Malaysia against top-ranked Roger Federer.
"I've got Federer in the back of my mind in November, so I've been spending a little bit more time in the gym, trying to get in shape," Sampras said. "I've been hitting the ball pretty good."
Federer, after winning the U.S. Open earlier this month, is only two Grand Slam titles shy of Sampras' record. And like Sampras, Federer has never been able to win on clay at the French Open.
Sampras already has conceded Federer will eclipse his Grand Slam title - and he believes the 26-year-old Swiss eventually will win at Roland Garros.
"I really think Roger can do it," Sampras said. "I think things need to fall into place. And the next two or three years are going to be the key years for him to win that French. I think once he gets to 29, 30, these younger guys are going to be in their prime. But I think he can win there. He grew up playing on clay. I wouldn't be surprised if he can do it."
Sampras, who beat Todd Martin in the final of the other two senior events he's played, is using a bigger racket than his competitive days and enjoying the camaraderie with his former rivals.
He will face Wayne Ferreira on Friday and Anders Jarryd on Saturday in the round robin event. A matchup with Courier or Martin could loom in Sunday's final.
"I don't want to do six or seven events, but a couple of events a year is plenty for me," Sampras said. "I've enjoyed it and I've played pretty good tennis. It keeps you sharp. It's not quite the intensity it used to be, but we all take pride in playing well."
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