One of game's best carried himself like a player should
By IAN O'CONNOR
Westchester Journal News
NEW YORK – Strangers are forever approaching him in airports, in hotel lobbies, on golf courses, and telling him what a United States Open crowd never could. They do not thank Pete Sampras for the memories that inspired an emotional ceremony last night, a ceremony that broke down Sampras the way no tennis player could.
They point to their sons and daughters and thank the greatest tennis player of all time for showing them that sport isn't the exclusive domain of divas, louts and clowns.
"The biggest compliment I could ever receive," Sampras said by phone in the hours before he wept and wept as the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd stood and roared, this as his 9-month-old son Christian held a tennis ball and bounced in his mother's arms.
"It means more now that I'm a father, because you want so much for your child. For parents to come up to me all the time and say, 'You've been a good representative for my kids,' and to feel like you've made a difference with people, I think that's worth the few extra Sports Illustrated covers I might've gotten had I acted a different way."
The Jeremy Shockey and Terrell Owens way. The John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors way.
"The older crowd," Sampras said, "people in their 40s and 50s, they tell me, 'Thank you for the way you handled yourself compared to the guys who came before you.'
"Throwing a racket never even crossed my mind. It's childish to me, and it would be embarrassing to myself and my family. I wouldn't sell out as a person, wouldn't change for sponsors or the money. In this day and age, people want more than tennis; they want drama. I always felt it was just about winning. I always let my racket do the talking."
Yes, Pete Sampras spoke softly and carried the biggest stick, a stick he officially put to bed in a news conference that left him teary-eyed and choked up when he said goodbye and talked about his mother and father, Georgia and Sam, who raised a gentleman and arrived for his retirement ceremony only after remaining grounded and invisible in a sport overrun by stage parents from hell.
Pete cried, we lost. Thank heavens for that '92 Open loss to Stefan Edberg, the one Sampras said "made me hate to lose" and left him "obsessed with being the best." Virtue would rise out of the rubble. After all the noise made by the village idiots who preceded him, Sampras slid Connors and McEnroe into his pocket as easily as he would a second-service ball.
Sampras won 14 majors. You'd have to add up the totals of Connors (eight) and McEnroe (seven) to find a champion with a bigger trophy case.
"If boring is when you dominate," Sampras said, "then yes, I was boring. When you make it look easy it's not fully appreciated."
On his way out the Open door and toward a life of recreational golf, leisurely travel and serious fatherhood, Sampras was allowed this first and final appreciation of himself. He's won as many big ones as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods combined, and yet he could still go unrecognized by the same shoppers in a mall who would do cartwheels over a fleeting glimpse of Jason Sehorn.
"I was flying from L.A. to Tampa once and sitting next to Barry Bonds," Sampras said. "I was 22 or 23, he had no idea who I was, and his friend behind us wanted to sit next to him. Barry said, 'Well, if this guy gets up you can sit there.' So I got up. I've seen Barry since and he couldn't be nicer."
Sampras had won three or four majors before that flight. Three or four more than Barry Bonds.
Only when he got older, slower and more vulnerable did Sampras become the people's choice. At last, the Open opened its heart to him when Sampras ended a 26-month drought and silenced a deafening chorus of critics begging him to retire, begging him to quit volleying his legacy into the net.
Those two weeks amounted to one open window on a champion's soul. Sampras was angered when he beat Albert Portas in the first round and received word that his first teacher, Pete Fischer, called the effort "atrocious." He was angered by the inane, Pete-is-washed-up ramblings of Greg Rusedski, yesterday's fitting first-round loser. Sampras was unimpressed by the muscle-beach attire of Tommy Haas, this before blowing away the It Boy, Andy Roddick, and ultimately facing the only opponent who could make the final right.
As a teen-ager, Sampras beat Andre Agassi at the Open for his first major title. As a 31-year-old man with a senior citizen's hobble, thinning hair and a killer cold sore, Sampras needed his image-is-everything antagonist to punctuate his last great run.
"I never felt so vindicated in my life," Sampras said after becoming the oldest Open champ in 32 years, after high-fiving all of New York on his rush into the stands to hug his pregnant, movie-star wife, Bridgette Wilson, who was given the Yoko Ono treatment across her husband's Grand Slam demise.
That vindication carried Sampras past Christian's birth and into a Christmastime phone call he used to tell a reporter he'd just watched a tape of his Roddick romp and was fired up to go for No. 15. "I didn't retire," he said, "because I still believe I can win majors."
Soon enough, that desire went out like a candle in the wind. Sampras was preparing for Wimbledon at his Los Angeles home, hitting with his coach, Paul Annacone, when the moment knocked him cold.
"It was my second or third practice," Sampras said, "and I realized I had nothing left to prove to myself. For the first time I felt content. A half-hour into that practice, I said, 'Paul, let's have a seat. We need to talk.' "
His racket was done talking. The champion who grew up idolizing Rod Laver, who ended up breaking Roy Emerson's record with Laver's grace and Ashe's dignity, wouldn't make it to Wimbledon or old Locker No. 163 at the Open, a locker that was as empty yesterday as the sport itself.
"I'm 100 percent done," Sampras said.
Say goodbye to decency, maturity and class. Send in the divas, louts and clowns.
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You can e-mail Ian O'Connor at email@example.com.