Courtly Love

UPDATED 09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

As they munched their pizza one evening last September, Pete Sampras and his pals were bemoaning the lack of women in their lives. So perhaps it wasn't too surprising that the flick the L.A. bachelors picked to catch that night was the black comedy Love Stinks. But one look at the film's stunning blonde star Bridgette Wilson and Sampras's interest was piqued. "As we were leaving the theater, Pete was joking around that because of my job, I can just make a phone call and get whatever I want," recalls Sampras's close friend John Black, director of public relations for the L.A. Lakers (whose access to great seats makes him a very popular guy). "He said sarcastically, 'You've got to fix me up with that girl. We'll see how powerful you really are now.' "

Black's magic worked, and subsequently so did Sampras's. Nine months after the couple's first date—a meeting for drinks that stretched into dinner—Lakers fan Sampras decided to skip the opening game of the NBA finals for a more pressing engagement. After calling Wilson's parents to ask for their blessing, he proposed at his home. The next day the pair flew off to England, where Sampras, 29, would defend his Wimbledon title and, on June 20, announce his personal love match. His friends weren't surprised. "He was crazy about her right from the beginning," says Black, who reports that after only a few weeks of dating, Sampras told him, "Not only is she beautiful but she is so sweet, nice and smart, and she's funny and she's fun to be with." Adds Sampras's brother Gus, 32: "He'd been checking out my wife's ring, so I kind of got the idea he was getting close."

The woman of Sampras's dreams grew up in Gold Beach, a coast town of 2,200 in Oregon. The younger of two sisters, Bridgette, now 26, was an athletic tomboy who would fish and chop wood with her father, a manager with the local power company. Even while maintaining a 4.0 average in high school, she played basketball and volleyball and ran track—but was never interested in tennis. She won the Miss Teen USA contest in 1990 and went to Hollywood the following year.

Wilson got her first showcase on the NBC soap Santa Barbara in the early '90s—about the same time that Sampras became the youngest player ever to win a U.S. Open—and made her feature film debut in 1993 as Arnold Schwarzenegger's daughter in The Last Action Hero. But despite a string of subsequent roles, in movies including I Know What You. Did Last Summer and Billy Madison (as Adam Sandler's love interest), Wilson's fondest aspirations apparently remained closer to home. "I know I want to have a family and be a housewife," Wilson, whose mother is a full-time homemaker, told a reporter in 1993. "That's really the most important thing with me."

Clearly that outlook struck a chord with Sampras, whose last serious romance was a two-year relationship with actress Kimberly Williams. The second-youngest of four children in a close Greek-American family, Sampras, who grew up in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., still prefers a backyard barbecue at his Benedict Canyon home to the party circuit. (Bridgette continues to share a Brentwood condo with her sister and good friend Tracy, 28, also an actress.) "Him seeing how important her family is to her really attracted him," says brother Gus. "I think Pete and Bridgette clicked because they both enjoy doing similar things—such as movies, dinners and hanging out at the house," observes Sampras's sister Stella, 31, women's tennis coach at UCLA. "They are comfortable with each other. They want to have a family, and she has the qualities that will make her a good wife and mother."

Although the couple have yet to make wedding plans—"when the kids tell us what they want, then we'll begin that process," says Wilson's mother, Kathy—Bridgette already looked very much at home at Wimbledon as she cheered her fiancé on to his record 13th Grand Slam singles championship. "Obviously I'm very happy and very excited with what's happened," said Sampras. "I'm ready for the next chapter in my life to begin."

Pam Lambert
Lyndon Stambler, Lorenzo Benet and Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles and Alexandra Hardy in Portland

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