Re: What makes "true champions"
What makes a champion?
September 12, 2002, Times UK. by Simon Barnes
There are few truly great champions, but Pete Sampras has just proved himself one by conquering his demons to win his 14th Grand Slam event. Our correspondent says genuine sporting greatness defies analysis - but we know it when we see it
Pete Sampras is one of the greatest athletes in history and the most successful tennis player who ever drew breath. He came to Wimbledon this year as a man who had won 13 Grand Slam events, more than anyone in history. He has won Wimbledon seven times. There is nowhere in the world where he plays better, where he feels stronger. It is his place. How could he fall so low, then? How could he be reduced to a morose, hunched, troubled, brooding figure ?a sort of Rodin statue entitled Self-Doubt? There he was on Wimbledon Court Two ?that the one they call he graveyard of champions??slumped in his chair, like a schoolboy punished for something the other fellow did, a picture of bewilderment, a lost soul.
Icarus without his wings, Samson without his hair, Superman beset by green Kryptonite: a man gelded by self-doubt and by Time. It was but the second round of the tournament, and there, incomprehensibly, Sampras was losing.
He was losing to a chap named George Bastl, who was ranked 145 in the world. It was an afternoon of piercing sadness.
All through the match, Sampras sought to stem the tide and put Time into reverse gear. He did so by means of a piece of paper, which he carried in his pocket like a holy relic. He drew it out at each change of ends to read and re-read. It was nothing less than an act of prayer.
It was a letter from his wife, Bridgette. It was the written version of a full-on marital hug: the kind of hug you need when you wake in the night and the demons come. y husband, seven times Wimbledon champion Pete . . .?Gill Allen, the Times photographer at the match, took the Picture that Said It All. The letter was plainly legible: full of urgent sweetness and shared trouble, things that are part of every marriage. A good marriage makes every bad day at the office bearable: this was the self-doubt, the despair, of one of the great champions. emember this. You are truly the best tennis player ever to pick up a tennis racket.?
The only snag about the letter was that it didn actually work. Bastl held his nerve, and Sampras failed to locate his own. Bastl won 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4. It was an epic of despair. And all of us who have a good understanding of these things knew then that Sampras would never be a champion again. With that 13th Grand Slam success he had reached a peak that no one else had climbed: and was sated. Age, marriage, content, achievement: these things had unmanned him. No wonder he needed the letter: no wonder it didn work. Goodbye, Pete. It has been a joy and a privilege watching you.
Please don hang about too long losing, because those of us who knew you as a champion find it painful. Retire, go gently into that good night, leave the arena of pain. Goodnight, sweet Pete, and flights of Bridgettes sing thee to thy rest.
We didn run the picture of the letter in The Times, it being a piece of private correspondence. But Sampras gave us permission to run it today, so thanks, Pete. And why the hell shouldn he give us permission to reveal his moment of weakness in such detail? He is a champion again. Remember those 13 Grand Slam successes I mentioned earlier? Erase that from your mind.
Make it 14.
On Sunday evening in New York he won the US Open. He beat the great Andre Agassi in the final, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. It was pretty agonising stuff: Sampras was masterful initially, then Agassi came steaming back in and found Sampras once again a victim of self-doubt. His serve is not just his weapon, it is his fortress: but the walls cracked and crumbled and he began to double-fault on big points: never a good sign.
In the last two sets Agassi was all over him. Sampras was doing his bewildered-bear walk again. No letter: just occasionally mute glances up at the seating where a pretty blonde woman sat nursing a bump and anxiety.
And he won. Just like that. Speaking as someone not inexperienced in watching the pivotal moment of a big sporting occasion, I have simply no idea at all what happened. It was as if Sampras just decided to win: and that decision was irrevocable. Bang: Agassi broken. Double-bang: Pete serving like a tsunami. In an eye blink or two, it was all over, Agassi washed away.
In those two games we saw the Sampras of old: there was music in the air again and all the old powers were there intact. He is not that ancient ?at 31 he is a year younger than Agassi ?but he has travelled, he has climbed peaks, and he has known little rest. He won his first Grand Slam event at 19 and went into a decline for a full year: he confessed, with an honesty that shocked many, that the esponsibility?of being a champion was too much for him. Old tennis hands scoffed and said he lacked the mettle of a real champion. Being a champion tends to demand that little bit of insensitivity ?after all, the only way to become a champion is by destroying lots of other people as you go ?but Sampras has always had a touch of sensitivity, a touch of vulnerability. He doesn work by naked aggression and demonic, obsessional motivation.
There is something a little mystical about him. His trademark is the second-serve ace: the ultimate piece of high-speed, high-power nerve-holding in tennis poker game. It is a shattering ploy when it comes off: showing your greatest strength at the moment of greatest weakness.
Sampras was asked what was going through his mind when he had played such a shot at the turning point of a game. After a moment thought, he said: here was absolutely nothing going through my mind at the time.?
This is nothing less than pure Zen: and it has been recognised as such by the Zen master Sister Elaine McInnes in her book Zen Contemplation: n action, Sampras lets go, and gives over to that inner momentum . . . in the Orient, not-knowing is highest wisdom.?It is one further mystery in sport greatest of all mysteries. All elite athletes are very good, but only some of them are serial winners, champions for all time. Why has Sampras won 14 Grand Slam events and Tim Henman none? Sampras has shown that he is as prone to fits of self-doubt as any of us. Yet he is a champion. What is still greater is that he lost whatever it is that makes people champions, and then found it again.
Muhammad Ali was also washed up and defeated for ever on more than one occasion. He came back not once but twice. In all he won the world heavyweight championship three times. There was always a feeling of destiny about Ali: and it had nothing to do with the civil rights movement, for all that this is an inextricable part of his story. It was about his desire to win: to be the best. ing of the World!?he shouted after he had beaten Sonny Liston for his first championship.
ing of the World!?Steve Redgrave, the oarsman, went into the Sydney Olympics two years ago as the weak link of a defeated crew. He had set off in pursuit of an impossible fifth gold medal, having famously told the world that anyone who saw him in a boat again had full permission to shoot him. He then contracted diabetes. He had more than enough excuses to give up: or at least lose.
But he didn. A man with a strange obsession who sought to turn pain into gold, and did it again and again. An aspect of his greatness is that he never got bored. But why? Don ask him. That sort of thing is always as much a mystery to the athlete as to the spectator.
Sebastian Coe won his first Olympic medal in Moscow in 1980. Partly he did it for his father, Peter, who was his coach. Four years on and coaching himself, he had been written off for the Los Angeles Olympics after disastrous preparation. In Moscow he won like a gazelle, all pure, beautiful talent and naivety. In Los Angeles he won by means of wild storming aggression that should have got him locked up. ho says I ++++ing finished??he raged at the press afterwards, eyes like organ stops.
Calm down, Seb, youe won. ho says I ++++ing finished??Many athletes use hatred, often hatred of the press, as a motivation.
Others use their loyalty to a coach, or even to a marriage partner. Others work some personal mythology of greatness and destiny. Lord knows what Sampras?uses: he is pretty close with his secrets (apart from his adoration of his wife) and, Zen-like, avoids too-close analysis.
But all the great champions, the very few for whom the word reat?can be used without embarrassment, have something beyond these common motivational forces. They may use various mental tricks to trigger it ?love, hatred, lust for glory ?but the real motivation for greatness is subtle and elusive of analysis.
There have been oarsmen as strong as Redgrave, runners as fast as Coe, boxers who punch as hard as Ali. There have been tennis players who hit the ball as hard and as accurately as Sampras: but only one man has won 14 Grand Slam events. It is not because of his tennis ?nor even because of his wife ?that Sampras is truly the best tennis player ever to pick up a tennis racket. He, like the other few genuine greats, has that within that passes show and defies analysis.
But we know it when we see it all right: and it is high and rare and beautiful. And terrible.