NEW YORK — NEW YORK - Pete Sampras controlled many opposing players during his career, but last night, the man so many said never showed emotion, could neither control his face nor hide the depth of his feelings.
He came to Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open to make his retirement official and say a final farewell. Before he could say a word, his face began to tremble and tears came. He raised a hand to brush them away.
The smile returned when he saw a picture of his wife and son on the big overhead screen. And the laugh came when Boris Becker accused him of "stealing" his keys to Wimbledon, the place Becker called his home before Sampras moved in and won seven titles.
"It's not a painful decision," Sampras said before the on-court ceremony in which he walked into retirement and history. "It's emotional. It's coming to terms with something that is a passion of mine that I love to do, that's been my life. To say goodbye to it, to say I'm not going to play again, not going to be out here on this court ... it's emotional. I'm also realistic in knowing that my time is done. I've done everything I can do. I'm at peace with stopping. It's time to move on."
He said he knew once Wimbledon had come and gone and he hadn't wanted to put in the work to get ready to play there that it was time to stop.
"It couldn't happen at a better place than here in New York where everything happened for me at 19, and ended for me last year here," said Sampras, 32. "But I'm going to miss playing here, in front of you guys."
He has always been about big events and big moments. His peer, Todd Martin, said yesterday the world does Sampras an injustice because it looks only at his record Grand Slam titles, his serve and his athleticism - who will forget his overhead sky hook? - and not at his ability to push himself to a higher level.
"I think Pete knew when to play, when to play better, how to play better - and more than anybody I've ever met," Martin said. "I think that's a skill and a talent that was too often veiled by the accolades that he got for his physical talents.
"But, you know, at 4-all deuce, he knew what to do and he did it, time after time. Boy, it would be nice to walk in those shoes once in a while."
Early in his career, Sampras said it was the Grand Slam tournaments that mattered most to him. He won his first one on the U.S. Open's center court in 1990, beating Andre Agassi. And last September, 12 years later, he beat Agassi again here for his record-extending 14th and last Grand Slam title.
"I can't say I knew after last year's match that I knew that was it," Sampras said. "I kept pulling out of events through the year, thinking I might play Wimbledon. But ... my heart wasn't in it. I didn't want to do it.
"Tennis needs to be in your blood, and after the Open last year, I felt like slowly it was going away. I'm really 100 percent done."
Done, with 14 Grand Slam titles, 64 titles overall (which rank fourth all-time), and with six consecutive years as No. 1-ranked player, the only man to do that in the 30-year history of computer rankings.
"I will never sit here and say I'm the greatest ever," said Sampras. "I just won't.
"It's hard to compare the '90s to the '60s and the '40s. I don't know if there's one best player of all time. But I feel like my game will match up against anybody. I played perfect tennis in my mind at times. I stayed No. 1 for many years, which is tough to do. I feel like when it was a big match that I was going to come through. But to say I'm the greatest ever, I won't say that."
He has had so many wonderful moments, thrilled audiences so many times. But he said the match that turned him into a champion was a loss, not a victory. It was when he lost here to Stefan Edberg in 1992.
"That loss made me change my career," he said. "It made me hate to lose. ... I gave in in that match and ever since that moment I became obsessed with being the best."
He says the best match he ever played was against Agassi in the 1999 Wimbledon final, "From 3-all, through the rest of the match, I played perfect. It's as good as I could play. I'll bottle that one up and save it."
Agassi, who had a private conversation with Sampras two weeks ago about his retirement, said at the Legg Mason Tournament in Washington last month that he is grateful for the rivalry he has had with Sampras.
"No matter how great you are or your career is," Agassi said, "no one is guaranteed a rival as great as Pete. And even though I don't think about him not being here every day, I will miss our rivalry. It's been my privilege to be challenged by him."
Sampras broke his childhood hero Roy Emerson's career Grand Slam record of 12 at Wimbledon in 2000. And then, he reached 14 after a two-year winless streak.
Tennis fans have watched him grow up. From the skinny 19-year-old in his first Open win to a married man and expectant father in his last.
Last night, with his wife, Bridgette Wilson, and their son, Christian, with him, Sampras made his emotional farewell.
What will he do now?
"Whatever I want really," he said. "I can watch my boy grow up, be a good husband, take care of my wife ..."
Last night, in front of a national TV audience, he told his wife he loved her and was looking forward "to spending my life with you and growing our family."
As the ceremony ended, Sampras took his son in his arms and walked around the stadium for one last, long goodbye.