Re: Out Of Bounds - Sampras
Posted May 26, 1997
The Passion Of Pete
By S.L. Price
PETE SAMPRAS MAY PRETEND THAT HE DOESN'T CARE, BUT HE FIERCELY WANTS TO BE REMEMBERED AS THE GREATEST EVER
It's time. Pete Sampras moves out of the tunnel and into the harsh light, his upper body swaying to its usual rocking rhythm, head craned forward, mouth slightly ajar. It is 8:48 on a Wednesday night in March, and the best tennis player in the world has come to Philadelphia to take his first shot at the only history that matters to him: the monumental record of Rod Laver.
The announcer booms out Sampras's name, and the sparse crowd applauds politely, but he gives no response. It is as if he is alone, and the place is tomb silent. He sits down in his courtside chair, looks up, stops. He can't believe what his eyes have done to him. Sampras wanted to be casual about this, look around, slowly get a feel for the new CoreStates Center. But he couldn't help himself. His glance flew like a dart to one face, there in the front row, the face of the man who set him off on this amazing run that has lasted 17 years.
Already Sampras can hear Pete Fischer's voice, always saying the same thing, no matter how many Grand Slam tournaments Sampras has won, no matter what time of year it is, no matter what city he's in: You don't want an asterisk next to your name, Pete. You've got to win the French. Sampras looks away, picks up his racket. A shiver passes through his stomach, and now he is nervous, more nervous than he has been in a long time. This is stupid. For four years Sampras has finished the season ranked No. 1, and his straight-set demolition of Spain's Carlos Moya in the 1997 Australian Open final gave him his ninth Grand Slam singles title. Sampras plays at a level far above that of anyone else in the game.
But now here's Fischer--not even a coach or much of a player, just a tennis-crazed retired Southern California pediatrician--sitting there, watching Sampras play in a pro tournament for the first time in eight years, and it is too much. Memories start floating through Sampras's mind: Fischer, the unpaid brains behind his game, insisting that 14-year-old Pete demolish his baseline game and become a serve-and-volleyer. Fischer ending all argument with a smug, "Trust me." Fischer refusing to console young Pete whenever he came off the court shattered by a loss and instead demanding to know only why Pete went with that backhand crosscourt at 4-4, 15-40. And, always, Fischer drilling into Sampras--even when he was a gangly, unmotivated teen taking loss after loss in junior tournaments--Remember: Your competition is Laver. Laver?
Twenty-two years ago Laver, the only male to march to two Grand Slams (in 1962 and '69), won his 47th and last title. Tonight, against 79th-ranked Marcelo Filippini, Sampras begins the quest for his 47th. Just five wins in Philadelphia, and after a decade of chasing, Sampras can finally grab hold of Laver's shirttail. Sampras serves first, and, as always, his movement is a lesson in classic tennis form: ball bounced once, left toe lifted, left arm sweeping up as easily and inevitably as the second hand on a clock. Ace down the T, 117 mph, unreadable, untouched.
Fifteen-love. Fischer taught him that. It's impossible to see in his play, but Sampras is something of a mess. He can't stop thinking about Fischer: always pushing, never satisfied, the only person whose approval Sampras still needs. Once or twice Sampras glances over at him; Fischer looks the other way. Understand: Early in his career the best quality Sampras possessed was the ability to do what he was told. He is devoted to his parents, but he still refers to "the way Pete raised me." "Listen: I didn't plan this," Sampras says. "Pete Fischer planned this for me." The first set is too easy. Sampras holds his serve while probing Filippini's for four games; then, after blasting three service winners and an ace to go up 5-4, he breaks Filippini with a series of punishing forehands, a patient rally from the baseline and, finally, a whipping forehand crosscourt winner.
Sampras isn't winded, and in the next set he is simply crushing. With his usual deadpan demeanor, he covers the court quickly and gracefully, fires 120-mph serves and produces a moment of beauty: Up 4-1, 0-30, he takes a ball at his ankles, skips sideways and blasts a forehand down the line; Filippini gets it, only to set Sampras up for an overhead smash.
Sampras ends the game with a backhand volley flipped lightly crosscourt, where Filippini isn't. It is, in short, a masterly display of all-court tennis, but Sampras knows better than to think that Fischer is satisfied. "I expect him to be perfect," Fischer says later with a laugh. "When he isn't, I know it, and he knows I know it." In 1989 Fischer traveled with the 18-year-old Sampras to the U.S. Open. The two separated a few weeks afterward because of a bitter dispute over Fischer's role and compensation, and they hardly spoke for more than three years.
After Sampras won his first Wimbledon, in 1993, Fischer finally buckled and called him. The relationship warmed, but Sampras wouldn't allow Fischer near his matches. Last year Fischer, in New York during the U.S. Open, asked Sampras for permission to come to one of his matches and watch. Sampras said no. "Just the fact that he'd be there would be a distraction," Sampras says. "Pete's so honest with me. Almost too honest."
The CoreStates Center is half empty. There are no TV cameras. Sampras's rivalry with Andre Agassi has sputtered, along with Agassi's game, but while fans might be losing interest in tennis, Sampras is anything but bored. "To the surprise of everyone who knew Pete as a junior, he's got an insatiable desire to win," says former No. 1 Jim Courier, who once had a strong rivalry with Sampras but has lost eight of their last 10 matches. "There are 18-year-olds around the world scrambling to get a piece of the pie, and they're good. If you don't watch your ass, they're going to take some of your pie. Pete's not giving away any of his."
The night after beating Filippini, Sampras disposes of Jonas Bjorkman. Then, over the weekend, he puts away Sjeng Schalken, Doug Flach and hungry, aggressive Patrick Rafter. The field is weak, and though Sampras loses two sets during the tournament, there's never cause for panic.
Between last November and early March, Sampras went on a roll that began with a win over No. 6 Boris Becker at the ATP World Championship in Hannover, Germany, and included a victory over No. 5 Thomas Muster in Melbourne in January. Sampras has won the last two Grand Slam titles--the 1996 U.S. Open and the '97 Australian. In the former he erased No. 3 Michael Chang in straight sets in the final to pass John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl on the alltime Grand Slam singles victory list and come within two titles of Laver and Bjorn Borg, who both have 11, and three of Roy Emerson, who holds the record.
Only the clay in Paris continues to bedevil him. If Sampras wins the French Open in June, his place as the best player of the Open era will be secure. "He's one of the great players of all time," says Borg, a six-time winner in Paris. "He has a very good chance to win a few more Grand Slam tournaments." Becker's praise is even less qualified. "I have played him on different surfaces, and I've experienced something I didn't experience with the likes of McEnroe or Lendl or even Borg," he said in Australia. "He's able to adapt on different surfaces in a way no one has done before. He's able to play very aggressive tennis even on a clay court or a slow hard court. And his tennis doesn't have any flaws. He's probably better than anybody who ever played the game."
But comparing Sampras with players who competed 30 or more years ago is tough. The difference in racket technology alone makes it nearly impossible; then there was the battle over professionalism that locked many greats out of Grand Slam events before the Open era began in 1968. In his prime, between the years he won his two Slams, Laver was barred from 21 Slam tournaments. But he believes that today the game is more competitive, if less refined, than ever.
And after naming fellow Aussies Emerson, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall--as well as Pancho Gonzales, Borg, Connors and McEnroe--as the best he ever saw, Laver says Sampras "is in the same group. And they're not that far apart. His temperament in big matches is phenomenal. And the look of his game is magical." Not that the world has taken much notice.
Sampras plays superb tennis, a fast and powerful game in a whiz-bang age, yet he inspires no rush to the turnstiles. In Philadelphia he was the marquee name in what once had been a prestigious event, but attendance during the week was 20,000 less than it had been just two years earlier; crowds of 4,500 and less were the norm, and even the final didn't come close to drawing a capacity crowd of 8,300. During Sampras's match with Bjorkman, one group of fans was so loud and unaware of what was happening on the court that Sampras drilled a ball up into their section to get their attention. "They quieted down after that," he said later. The fact is, men's tennis is rightly perceived as Sampras and a vanilla universe of second-raters. The 29-year-old Becker nurses one injury after another, Agassi is in one of his periodic flameouts, and young turks such as Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Mark Philippoussis have yet to impose themselves. There's no more telling comment on the state of the game--and of Sampras's image--than Agassi's latest commercial for Nike.
The ad, made after Sampras's dramatic, vomit-marred quarterfinal win over Alex Corretja in the U.S. Open and released during the Australian Open, celebrates a player who has won one third as many Grand Slam titles as Sampras and hasn't won a major in two years. Sampras is a Nike client too, not to mention one of the few alltime greats playing in his prime in any sport. But he is oddly invisible. "People don't follow tennis with a tennis player's eye," Fischer says. "They look at persona. They look at dollars. It's not Pete's fault. It's everybody else's." It's a matter of style. A lot has changed since Sampras won his first pro tournament, in Philadelphia in 1990, an 18-year-old pocketing the $137,250 check and flying home scared that a blazing plane crash would stop him from spending his first real money.
Since then Sampras has won $26 million more and earned at least that much from endorsements. But he has always oozed the laid-back ease of a kid raised in the milds of suburban Los Angeles, and his apparent nonchalance is a quality fans and opponents can't quite figure out. During the Australian Open in January, other players complained repeatedly about the balls, the courts, the heat. Sampras expressed displeasure once and thereafter just gave his mocking half smile.
"He doesn't complain about anything," says fellow pro Richey Reneberg. "I'm on the players' council, and a couple of years ago there was all this talk about how there were too many tournaments. I asked Pete how he'd feel if he had more of an off-season. He said, 'I'm happy the way it is now.' That's how it always is with him. You ask, and he says, 'I don't care.'" Sampras says that a lot. It is his stock response to charges that he is boring, to the reality that every opponent is burning to take him down, to the fact that he has no rival to push him. "I just...I don't care," he says, holding up his hands as if releasing a pigeon. "I really don't." That is his public face too. When Sampras ambles into his press conference after having beaten Filippini, he wears a dirty gray sweatshirt and pants that seem to have been lifted from a high school gym class in 1977. He looks so relaxed that he might nod off.
He answers each question with a few sentences, in a polite monotone, as if he were reciting from a manual: Yes, he is disappointed by the small crowds. Yes, he'd like to win the French. "It's the only thing missing in my career," he says, as if speaking about a lost sock. Sampras doesn't say how oddly important the Filippini match became, nerve-racking mentor and all. When Fischer, on the East Coast for personal and professional reasons, asked Sampras if he could come to Philly, Sampras finally relented. This isn't the U.S. Open, he figured, I can handle it. But he doesn't tell the press about this, or about the guidelines he laid down: Fischer could give no advice, instruction or criticism unless asked. And, for god's sake, he was not allowed to mention the French. Sampras doesn't reveal that Fischer went into the locker room after the match and that the two had a conversation unlike any they'd had before. "Well, you got through it," Fischer blurted. But then they traded small talk, normal-people talk, with nothing said about greatness, Laver or Paris.
No, the press doesn't know a thing. The next night is the same. And the next and the next. Someone asks Sampras a question, and he shrugs. Someone asks him to sign some posters, and he sits down and scribbles his name over and over--a portrait of monotony. If you took only a quick glance at him, you wouldn't notice that under his hooded eyes Sampras is looking all over the room as he signs, listening to everything being said.
You would believe Sampras when someone asks him a question and he looks up, eyes wide, and says, "You're talking to a guy who just doesn't give a damn." On the day after Sampras beats Rafter in a thrilling three-set final in Philadelphia, 44-year-old Jimmy Connors stands in a country-club ballroom in Naples, Fla. Both his calves are bound in white tape, a bandage is on his right thigh, and his left wrist is wrapped; he looks a wreck. It is the first day of the season-ending championship tournament of the Nuveen Tour, for players 35 and over, and this is the opening press conference. Borg, Andres Gomez, Guillermo Vilas and Johan Kriek are there too.
Oldsters are tennis's growth industry, and Connors has made it happen: Feeding off the momentum of his run to the semifinals at the 1991 U.S. Open, Connors has carried the senior tour for four years, winning most of the events, filling seats. Every year has produced more tour stops, more interest. The world still can't get enough of Jimbo's flying circus. "It's what this same group of players did in the '70s and early '80s," Connors says after the Nuveen press conference. "We made tennis a big business for these young guys today, and we're doing that again."
These young guys today. They are a favorite target for Connors; he doesn't like their high-octane game, their monochromatic personalities, the fact that they're not...well, like him. It all began in 1991, when Connors put on one of the best and hokiest shows in tennis history at Flushing Meadows, raging around the court, pumping his arms, wiggling his butt--opening his chest, he said then, and showing the people his heart. He provided a startling contrast to young U.S. players like Sampras, Chang and Courier, who felt their job description began and ended with "play hard." With soaring TV ratings to boost his case, Connors flayed the younger men mercilessly. No one took a worse beating than Sampras, who, after being upset in the quarterfinals, called the pressure of defending his '90 Open title a "bag of bricks." Connors pounced. "What? Don't tell me that," he fumed. "That's the biggest crock of dump.
Being the U.S. Open champ is what I've lived for. If these guys are relieved at losing, something is wrong with the game...and wrong with them." Connors still uses the same rant to his advantage: His tour sells personalities, fun, contact with the fans. The new players? "It's more important to them to play the tennis," Connors says in Naples. "It is a big business. I'm a tennis player, don't bother me for anything else. But going back, it was important not only to play but to create excitement for the game any way you could." Connors never names names, but one young guy takes it personally. "See what Connors said?" someone asks Sampras the next morning, during a break in his workout at the Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa.
He has seen it, all right. Arthur Ashe once said Connors was "everyone's favorite a------," and Sampras now spits out the same sentiment--without the "favorite." It puzzles him. All his life Sampras was told to keep his emotions in check, never throw a racket, play like Laver, and he learned his lesson so well that, whenever he and his parents saw McEnroe on television in a frothy-mouthed tirade, Sampras was embarrassed.
Growing up, he heard how the world was sickened by tennis brats. He was raised to be the opposite, to erase his personality. His is the antimystique. "Half the time he looks dead, like he's not trying--that's one thing about his aura that's so hard to grasp," says Paul Annacone, Sampras's coach. "Watch him walk down the street. He's like this." Annacone hunches his back and drops his head. "He never looks like Superman." Which was fine for the year after Sampras won his first U.S. Open, and the 39-year-old Connors hadn't yet rocketed through Flushing Meadows.
But when Sampras won Wimbledon in 1993 and the British tabloids responded with snores, he began to suspect that someone had changed the rules on him. Even now he can't escape the feeling that his biggest opponent is not on the other side of the net. It's Jimbo and all those other colorful, maniacal egos of the '70s and '80s--McEnroe and Ilie Nastase and the late Vitas Gerulaitis--who still own the heart of the U.S. fan. "I shouldn't have to apologize for the way I am," Sampras says. "I walk into press conferences and people say, 'Pete, the sport's going down, racket sales are down, balls are going down, what do you think you should do?' Well, what do you think I'm going to do? Ever since I was eight, I've always wanted to just play and win. I could be a jerk and get a lot more publicity, but that's not who I am. "It baffled me at first. I didn't understand what I was doing wrong. But I'm not going to change for anybody. I think what I'm doing is fine. I really don't care. I don't."
He does. He cares so much that sometimes nothing--not the calm, balanced upbringing he got from his father, Sam, and his mother, Georgia; not the stern lessons on deportment drilled into him by Fischer for nine years; not the impassive facade he wears--can keep the caring contained. For someone who tries so hard to project insouciance, Sampras has provided tennis with some of its most emotional moments: Sampras crying on the court at the 1995 Australian Open for his dying coach, Tim Gullikson, and going on to win; Sampras collapsing with cramps at the '95 Davis Cup final in Russia and coming back to account for every point in a U.S. victory; the dehydrated Sampras throwing up in the fifth-set tiebreaker against Corretja last September, saving match point with a desperate volley, uncorking a second-serve ace at 7-7 and holding on to win. He is, in fact, so highly strung that at times his body simply can't take it. If anything, Sampras cares too much. This is nothing new.
When he was 13, he played what is believed to be the longest three-set match in juniors history, against T.J. Middleton in Kalamazoo, Mich., losing 18-16 in the third. Middleton lost his next match and was relegated, along with Sampras, to the consolation round. "Middleton defaulted because he couldn't move," Fischer says. "Pete played and won, but he noticed pain in his right wrist. We X-rayed it: He had won with a broken wrist. Can Pete be tough? Pete can be tough." Not that Sampras understands a bit of this. He has tried to figure out why his interior life often spills out before millions. "And I don't know what to think!" Sampras shouts. "As introverted as I am...in the arena, where I really want to be introverted, I open up. I don't know if everything builds up inside me and I'm overwhelmed by emotion, but these things show more than I want. I was embarrassed when I was carried off in Moscow. I was embarrassed in Australia. I've always had this shield in front of me that people couldn't get through. I thought I was pretty strong. Then I was embarrassed at the U.S. Open because people thought I planned the whole thing." That's right. There's a strain of thought in tennis that Sampras faked his condition against Corretja, that no one who said, "That's the worst I've ever felt on the tennis court," as Sampras later did, could have popped off supersonic serves.
At the 1996 French Open, Courier felt victimized by what he calls Sampras's "droopy-dog play." After falling behind 2-0 in sets in their quarterfinal match, a seemingly exhausted Sampras came back to beat Courier in five. As for the Corretja match, "that was an extremely gutsy effort," Courier says. "You can't fake throwing up. But if you're throwing up, how can you hit serves 120 miles an hour? That's a little contradictory. I don't know what to think." McEnroe does. "That was pretty tremendous acting," he says. "Very good. If you're that out of it, you don't serve 120 miles an hour. No one does that. He must know something I don't." Sampras insists he simply drank a soda during the match and paid for it.
As for Courier, Sampras says, "I think he's pissed that I beat him every time. I don't do any gamesmanship. I don't pretend I'm tired and all of a sudden have a burst of energy. I know Jim's said that. Sour grapes." There's an edge to his voice. Sampras cares about this because the topic is his tennis and the subtext is respect, and those are the only things worth worrying about. If Sampras were really the indifferent jock he pretends to be, he would be only a talented underachiever capable of astonishing moments; he would be Goran Ivanisevic.
But he is actually a dueling mix of drive and uninterest, and this combination may make him, before his career is done, the best ever. Why? Because he doesn't care about the things that make hell out of the lives of many tennis stars: sycophants, discos, celebrity, politics and cash. He didn't get tangled up in the usual tensions between tennis parents and management, because as soon as he turned pro, at 17, he told his father that his days as agent-scheduler-handler were over. "Pete fired him," Fischer says, and while this is only technically true--Sam, then a mechanical engineer with NASA, had neither the expertise nor the desire to run his son's ship long-term--it is a very cool boy who can tell his dad to step aside.
"There were too many cooks in the kitchen," Sampras says. "I told him he's better off when he's my father, not my agent. We get along much better when he's not involved in contracts and deals." Sampras doesn't sightsee. After eight years of globetrotting, he's no cosmopolitan. At heart he is still small-time. He is suspicious of anyone who doesn't, as he puts it, "know himself." He sees Courier, the product of small-town Florida, speaking Spanish and French in the locker room and finds it fraudulent. Sampras is simplicity: bowl of cereal, three hours of practice, round of golf, sleep. "He doesn't enjoy the things most other players enjoy," says Annacone. "He doesn't like to be pampered. He wants to be treated like me and you. He wants to go have a burger and watch the Sixers on TV. He doesn't want people to say yes-yes-yes. He's about substance, not about how well he can talk or how flamboyant he is. He's about what he can do when you put him in a competitive field with a tennis racket in his hand. That's what he wants."
That's all he's wanted since his father took him at age seven to meet Fischer at a racket club near their home in Palos Verdes, Calif. It took Fischer, the pediatrician, about 30 seconds to realize that Pete wasn't like other kids. "He walked different, he moved different," Fischer says. "Everything was smoother, more graceful, more coordinated. He had incredible accuracy. His good shots would go 18 inches inside the line, and his mishits would hit the line." Still, without Fischer, Sampras says, "I don't know what I would've done, I don't know what I would've been." Fischer farmed him out to Southern California tennis gurus--Robert Lansdorp for his forehand, Del Little for his footwork and Larry Easley for his volley. While other kids were stampeding to buy the latest tennis technology, Fischer insisted that Pete stay with a less forgiving wooden racket until he was 13, to help him develop perfect strokes. Even today his lead-weighted graphite is closer in character to Laver's lumber than to a high-powered wide-body; strung at 80 pounds, it has a sweet spot the size of a dime. And Sampras's serve, clocked at 120 mph even with a wooden racket, is as celebrated for its control as for its power.
Fischer may have delegated everything else, but he took full responsibility for teaching Pete how to serve. With no worry about racket-head speed, Fischer focused on deception: He would wait until Pete tossed the ball and only then yell where he wanted him to hit it. That's why nothing in Sampras's delivery gives his serve away, and that is the rock upon which his whole game stands. "Maybe the best serve I've ever seen," says McEnroe. After practice Pete would be shown grainy Super 8 films of the stone-faced Laver and Rosewall playing complete tennis.
The Australians didn't act like McEnroe or Connors or Becker; there was no ego, no look-at-me! in their games. Pete was taught: Only the sport matters. More: Winning Grand Slams matters most. This is, of course, a fallacy in our age. Connors knows better than anyone else that the tennis boom of the 1970s had less to do with great play than with outsized personalities; without that, the sport wouldn't have crossed over to the mainstream. For a long time Sampras didn't understand that, but he does now, and he feels like a man out of place, living in the wrong time. The understated Borg was never asked to carry the game or explain why he wasn't a spoiled terror. "I wish I was playing in the Connors-McEnroe-Borg era, when they had more personalities," Sampras says.
"They had the rivalries, and there are times I wish I was part of that. At other times I wish I was part of the Laver-Rosewall era, because image and society and media were different then. They just cared about the tennis." Sampras is rich. He has a great life, and he knows it. But he will also, if pressed, admit that his core beliefs have been challenged by the current age of image and spin. He believes in the past, but he came of age in the 1990s, and the fact that he knows, knows he possesses the most complete arsenal in tennis history doesn't help.
The sniping by Connors and others has left him with a small, hard nugget of insecurity, a feeling that outside tennis circles his achievements matter little. At a celebrity golf tournament last July he got shock after shock when, one by one, Michael Jordan, Dan Marino, John Elway and Mario Lemieux said hello. "I always looked at myself as if no one knew who I was," Sampras says. "And they...they knew." That nugget got hammered deep under his skin last fall when Sampras's own sneaker company, Nike, began filming that commercial with Agassi and offered Sampras a cameo. Sampras couldn't believe it.
He had watched Agassi's visibility skyrocket as his game declined. Meanwhile, Sampras had become the player of his era. A cameo? He took it as a slap and turned Nike down. It was as if his tennis didn't matter. Sampras interpreted Nike's attitude toward him as, to quote Agassi's parting line in the commercial, "Nice game. You suck." "It's about respect," Sampras says. "It said to me that Nike wasn't really sure what to do with me. I was disappointed." Recently Nike has made amends. This month Sampras began filming spots for a Nike campaign built around his passion for tennis. Even before that, however, he had perspective.
When he feels slighted, he thinks of Tim Gullikson's dying last May of brain cancer, and it hits him: He's gone. "To see someone die in front of you and to miss him.... Doing a Nike commercial isn't the most important thing in life," Sampras says. Or he sits in his living room and looks at the trophies lining the shelves. "Everything comes and goes," he says, waving a hand at the four U.S. Open, three Wimbledon and two Australian cups. "And those are what's going to be left." And when that's not enough, he has his car.
This is Sampras's one extravagance, a 1996 silver $80,000 Porsche 4S Carrera, the kind of machine that sounds like God humming. Sampras's house is no mansion, and he lives off sandwiches from Subway. But behind the wheel he indulges the big-timer impulse he squelches elsewhere. His ego is all over the road: Sampras drives the way Connors plays. He wears tiny black Ray-Bans. He doesn't steer so much as swagger: swerving onto the grass to make his own lane when there are too many cars ahead, drifting into the opposite lane and scaring the hell out of a school-bus driver. He looks right and swings left, and he's gone. Sampras pulls onto Country Road 581 outside Tampa, where he once pushed the Porsche to 135 mph, but today is different.
Today he's looming close behind a pickup, left wheels riding the yellow line like an ace down the T...waiting...now's his chance, he's out and cutting around the truck, passing the careful Previa and the banged-up Nissan in front of it, getting up to 90 in a 55 zone. Soon he will buy a faster, more powerful car, a turbo. But this one will do fine for now. This is ugly. It's 2:45 on a Florida afternoon and 87[degrees] in the shade--but Sampras isn't in the shade. He's pumping his legs high under a savage sun, running back and forth across a field. His tongue is out, sweat pours down his back. His breathing sounds like that of a horse on the homestretch. "Forty-five seconds," says Saddlebrook strength and conditioning coach Mike Nishihara. "Eight more of those." Sampras looks the way he looked at the end of his match with Corretja. "Eight?" he says.
Sampras is in the best shape of his life. Since October he has been working with Nishihara 60 to 90 minutes a day--after 90 to 150 minutes of rallying with Saddlebrook pro Jimmy Brown. Sampras needs this. Last year, he says, he hit the wall too many times, and he's determined that it not happen again. The long baseline rallies in Paris demand that he arrive primed, and his showing last year, when he reached the semifinals, told him he can win at Roland Garros. "I have to win the French to be considered the greatest ever," he says. "If I don't? It's a strike against me. But let's be realistic: I can win there." If he doesn't, Sampras says, it will be only because he is beaten, not because he runs out of steam. Sampras's illness against Corretja sparked speculation that he suffers from a form of anemia and that this malady had caused his breakdowns in long matches.
There was talk that he had checked into the Mayo Clinic for a complete physical. Sampras says he never did. There was no reason to. He says he and other members of his family suffer from thalassemia minor, a condition that can inhibit the blood's ability to carry oxygen and that is common to people of Mediterranean extraction, but it has never had any effect on the tennis court. His only concession to the disease is an extra steak or three a week. "It had nothing to do with what happened at the U.S. Open," Sampras says. He never got himself checked out after the tournament because, he says, "I knew what I had to do: Get my ass in shape. I know what happened. I didn't do any weights the last few years, I didn't do any bike. I wasn't in bad shape, but I wasn't in top shape. And I could get by." Early in his career, just getting by was fine with Sampras.
At the beginning of 1992 he was ranked sixth in the world and happy about it. Then he lost the U.S. Open final to Stefan Edberg and was stunned by how horrible that felt; for months afterward he found himself kicking off blankets, replaying points. Even today he upbraids himself for not having 10 major titles. Since then, with the guidance of Gullikson and now Annacone, Sampras has worked to plug every hole in his game: spotty ground strokes, a predictable backhand, halfhearted volleys and, now, conditioning. Pushed, especially by Agassi, two years ago, Sampras became smarter at working points, less dependent on his serve. He has added a dependable slice backhand and shored up his service return. He has no weaknesses. "That's the sign of a champion: Each year you fill another chink in the armor," says McEnroe. "He may not have as much ability as a couple of guys [in the past]--and I say only a couple--and he may not be as fit as others, but he has both. It's very rare. He has almost all the shots, and he's worked hard. He's capable of doing anything."
Except, in the biggest matches, losing. Sampras's 9-2 record in Grand Slam finals is the best of any great player in history. Nobody--not Bill Tilden, Don Budge, John Newcombe, Emerson, Laver, Borg, not even Connors or McEnroe--has a better winning percentage than Sampras when it matters most. Funny: When, at the Nuveen press conference, Connors tells why he most admires Gonzales, there is no talk of entertainment or showmanship. "He was a bad sonofabitch," Connors says. "He'd do anything, stand there for six hours, to win a match." Connors could well have been describing Sampras today. "I need to win," Sampras said after being upset by Sergi Bruguera in the semifinals of the Lipton Championships in March. "I didn't play the way I should, and when I lose now...it's worse than just losing. It's like a death."
He has come a long way from his "bag of bricks" days. Even Connors admits it. "What I like is that he's prepared to play day after day after day," Connors says. "I would like to see him have stiffer competition. He doesn't have Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl--three, possibly four, of the greatest playing at the same time. But what I like about him is that he doesn't care who he plays. He still goes out and performs." Sampras, after the initial shock of hearing a compliment from Connors, agrees. He misses the Agassi of two years ago.
He feels Agassi gave him one of the best matches of his life, in the 1995 U.S. Open final, and he wants more. But if no one is going to push him, he's going to keep pushing himself. Sampras is 25, the age at which most modern players begin to fade, yet he is motivated and fresh. "I am in my prime right now," he says. "The story's not over. "I think about Pete [Fischer], and he was right about everything he said since I was 10 years old. Everything. Maybe we both were lucky, but I feel even stronger about winning the majors than I did before. Winning a Slam...you feel like you're making history. Pete had no idea what it was like, but I do, and he was right. It's not about money. It's about making history. I thought it all went in one ear and out the other, but now I know he was spot-on. "He keeps talking about the French. All you need is the French. And I say, 'Well, what about the other ones?' Another Wimbledon, another U.S. Open is what it's all about."