Pistol Pete takes new aim (c/p)
Pistol Pete takes fresh aim
August 14 2002 (New York Times)
A more emotional Pete Sampras turns to an old friend to rediscover his game, writes Selena Roberts.
All those years, Pete Sampras ambled around the court with his head in a full-blown droop, staring down at the gritty surface below in the kind of solitude reserved for beachcombers.
All those years, he did not see anyone, only the familiar choreography. It was as if paint-on footprints laid out his path to 13 major titles: big serve, step to the net, volley winner.
"It was workmanlike," Sampras said. "I wasn't showing emotion. I'd play a two-week tournament and hold that trophy up."
During this monotony of the 1990s, the public became more intrigued with the reincarnations of Andre Agassi than the numbing greatness of Sampras.
"If either of us woke up as the other one, we would probably go back to sleep, praying it was a dream," Agassi said last week.
"Just two different people."
They cannot even walk towards a sunset on parallel lines. In two weeks, they will arrive at the US Open having experienced an unexpected flip-flop in public sentiment.
If Agassi's introspective personality made him complex, his stable existence at age 32 has made him a simpler soul.
"I consider myself quite boring, to be honest," Agassi said.
If winning provided Sampras with a layer of invincibility, losing at age 31 has given him an appealing vulnerability. One year ago, the magic spell on Sampras's strings outlasted the gauntlet of Pat Rafter, Agassi and Marat Safin before it expired in front of Lleyton Hewitt, a 20-year-old who raced across the court as if running over hot coals.
For the title, Hewitt beat Sampras with the energy of youth. In the year since, Sampras has been a car on cinderblocks. With his game in a constant state of repair, Sampras has revealed uncharacteristic anxiety and
self-doubt during his weekly struggles to win.
But out of these human frailties, the once-detached man has also developed a long-awaited connection with the public.
"You know, it's like when you see Jack Nicklaus walk up the 18th, not knowing if it's the last time," Sampras said with a smile.
"Not that I'm putting myself in that class, no, but it's a chilling feeling. You can step out of what you're doing, appreciate the support and actually look into the stands. There's a little eye contact here or there. You lift up your head a little bit. I've never done that before.
"It's not that they cheered against me in the past, it was just different. It's been a good feeling but it's ironic how I've turned the corner in that way."
Agassi has always been the emotional favourite but his midlife success does not make for many dramas. Agassi has a marriage to Steffi Graf that has elicited no criticism and a baby boy to round out his life.
Sampras is the one searching for a happy ending, the one whose marriage has been blamed for his demise, the one who views his approaching fatherhood with a joyful smile and some self-deprecation. "I did something
right this year.
"We're very happy," said Sampras, whose wife, the actress Bridgette Wilson, is due to give birth later this year. "I guess I've got to grow up, be responsible."
This is one life change Sampras can embrace. Trying to reinvigorate his inspiration this year, he turned his professional routine upside down, hoping for a snow-globe effect.
But the scene was the same. He was still
losing. Back to square one.
Desperate to take control of his career's final stages, Sampras reached out last month to Paul Annacone, the coach who was by his side at the 2001 US Open and for eight of his 13 major titles.
In June, Annacone was just another spectator at Wimbledon when Sampras vowed to play on, tearfully refusing to be remembered as the seven-time champion who crumbled to a lucky loser in the second round.
Days later, Sampras knew he needed more than a cameo coach. Jose Higueras never quite clicked with Sampras. Higueras often hinted that his legendary student did not work hard enough.
Then again, Higueras was not available to push him as much as Sampras wanted, either.
"I needed more one-on-one," Sampras
said. "Once he wasn't able to do that, I just flat-out asked Paul how he felt about helping a friend. He knows what makes me tick. That knowingness has been kind of lacking all year."
Failure may make Sampras more human, but he does not want to end as a sympathetic has-been.
Sampras wants one more major. One more to put a stop to the oft-cited statistic: that he has not won a single tour event since he won Wimbledon in 2000.
He has not been the same since the day he won No13. All at once, he felt relief, joy and one annoying thought in his head: "What now?"
The timing of that question coincided with his marriage in 2000. Of all the criticism he has absorbed, he cannot tolerate those who whisper: "Marriage has ruined Sampras's career."
While she has guided him on some professional choices this past year - including his decision to switch agents - Wilson has devoted herself more to Sampras's career than her own.
"If I'm going to get any criticism of my game, it should be aimed at me, not my wife," Sampras said.
Such a reaction was rarely revealed during Sampras's best years. While he mechanically amassed $42 million in prizemoney, he drew heat for dulling down the sport.
"Pete is a guy who is one of the greatest players of all time," said Murphy Jensen, the colourful niche star of doubles play.
"But he is leaving the game in a worse state than when he started."
Maybe Sampras's burst of personality is too late to save tennis, but some fans are fond of the late-bloomer. In Paris, Sampras received a standing ovation this year after he whacked his racquet and cursed himself during a first-round loss at Roland Garros.
Out of nowhere, the French began chanting his name. Before he disappeared into the tunnel, he lifted his head to acknowledge the act of kindness.
I have never been a huge fan of his, but I hope he does turn this thing around.