Pete's to blame for dulling down men's tennis?
from the New York Times
Sampras Searching for Perfect Sunset
By 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 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. One-two-three, one-two-three.
"It was workmanlike," Sampras said in an interview last week. "I wasn't showing emotion. I'd play a two-week tournament, and hold that trophy up."
During this monotony of the 1990's, 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 toward a sunset on parallel lines. In two weeks, they will arrive at the United States Open having experienced an unexpected flip-flop in terms of 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 at the Open, the magic spell on Sampras's strings outlasted the gantlet of Pat Rafter, Agassi and Marat Safin before it expired in front of Lleyton Hewitt, a 20-year-old Australian 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 Sampras 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 favorite, but his midcareer 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. He has also won one major and seven titles in the last two years, and is still ranked in the top 10.
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," he said.
"We're very happy," added Sampras, whose wife, the actress Bridgette Wilson, is due to give birth in late fall. "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 United States Open and for 8 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.
José Higueras never quite clicked with Sampras. Hired by Sampras during the spring, 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."
Annacone is not known as a tough-love kind of coach, a trait that left some to wonder if he was Sampras's yes man for too many years. But if so, so be it. After Wimbledon, Sampras needed some fortune-cookie optimism during what he called one of "the lowest points."
"Paul told me, `You're in a position to do something you've never had to do, and that's come back,' " said Sampras, who is ranked No. 17 and is scheduled to play on Long Island next week. "Just when Paul said that, it kind of got me inspired. This is the toughest challenge of my career."
Failure may make Sampras more human, but he does not want to end as a sympathetic has-been.
"He's the all-time Grand Slam record-holder," John McEnroe said after playing a World Team Tennis match recently. "But he can't go on indefinitely where he goes out and keeps on losing."
Sampras wants one more major. One more, and tennis's oft-cited statistic will vanish: since he won Wimbledon in 2000, he has not captured a single Tour event.
He has not been the same since the day he won No. 13. 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 the fall of 2000. Of all the criticism he has absorbed, he cannot tolerate those who whisper, "Marriage has ruined Sampras's career." Wilson has devoted herself more to Sampras's career than her own, guiding him on some professional choices this past year ? including his decision to switch agents.
"If I'm going to get any criticism of my game, it should be aimed at me, not my wife," Sampras said. "I'm the one who hit a crossroads in my game after No. 13. Don't blame my wife or my marriage for me not winning. It's not fair. Blame me for not playing well."
This kind of visceral reaction was rarely revealed during Sampras's years as the most dominant player. While he mechanically amassed $42 million in prize money, he drew heat for dulling down the sport. For some observers, that image lingers.
"Pete is a guy who is one of the greatest players of all time," said Murphy Jensen, the colorful 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, a city that has never embraced him, Sampras received a standing ovation this year after he whacked his racket 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.
The Tennis Refuge
You will be missed, Michel Kratochvil!