Teen ace Pete Sampras an unlikely U.S Open champion
Posted: Wednesday July 28, 1999
By Alexander Wolff
He takes three balls from the ball boy and examines each. The briefest frown may cross his face before he throws the fuzziest one back, as if it were an undersized bass. That frown is all the emotion you're likely to get from Pete Sampras, the youngest man ever to win the U.S. Open and the first American to prevail since 1984. He keeps two balls, thrusts one into his pocket, hoists the baldest one -- ''I like the fuzz thin,'' he says, ''because the thinner ones go through the air quicker'' -- rocks, cocks and powders it toward some poor soul obliged to do something with it.
One hundred times, over the length of the tournament, the best tennis players in the world, including Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and a rejuvenated John McEnroe, could do nothing with the serve of Sampras, 19 years old, seeded 12th and now all-three-network-morning-shows famous. ''I've got a heater and a changeup,'' he says like some phenom just up from Triple A. Sampras is so welcome to U.S. tennis precisely because he splits the difference between the pious Michael Chang and the ostentatious Agassi. His style is classic serve- and-volley, and someday this Southern California kid of Greek ancestry will win Wimbledon. But Sampras will be forever linked with the U.S. Open, just as Boris Becker and Mats Wilander are identified with the tournaments that midwifed them, Wimbledon and the French Open, respectively.
Tennyson, anyone? In Sunday's final, Agassi watched cannon to the left of him, cannon to the right of him, as Sampras thundered and volleyed. Agassi could not make reply; he could not reason why. ''Why are you so slow?'' he muttered to himself between points. There was an answer in the numbers that the announcer up in the Flushing Meadow press box calls ''sadistics.'' Sampras hit 13 aces in the match. Agassi not only never had a break point in the first two sets, but he also never even forced a deuce game on Sampras's serve, which hovered around 120 mph during the final. The final arithmetic -- 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 -- had a grim progression to it.
Sampras's father stayed home too. For all their son's reserve, Soterios (Sam) and Georgia Sampras, who reside in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., are so emotional that they can't even watch him live on TV, preferring instead to view the matches on tape, with the outcome already known. Not that Pete believes in on- site support. He has a coach, Joe Brandi, but his spiritual mentor is none other than his victim in the quarterfinals, Lendl. Last December, to prepare for the Masters, Lendl invited Sampras to his Greenwich, Conn., home to be a workout and hitting partner. Sampras sampled the ascetic life-style -- rigorous training, plenty of sleep, eat-to-win diet -- that had turned Lendl into the best player in the world. Between the end of last year and the start of the U.S. Open, Sampras rose steadily from No. 81 to No. 12. Still, he had no premonition of what he would do at the tournament. Indeed, after an easy third-round defeat of Jakob Hlasek, Sampras summarized his chances thus: ''Maybe in a couple of years, but I don't think it's realistic right now.''
Only after he had upset Lendl 6-4, 7-6, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 did Sampras feel he could take the prize. In the final he seized breaks early in the first two sets, and by the third, Agassi's spirit was broken. Sampras went up 4-2 in the clinching set by breaking Agassi at love, and wherever he was, Robby Benson must have been bracing himself for the prospect of people stopping him in the street and saying, ''Hey, aren't you Pete Sampras?''
Sampras had learned from his opponent's semifinal. ''Agassi hit it in the corner for three hours,'' Becker had said after losing 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. But Sampras realized that Becker had let Agassi do so.
''Becker had a bad game plan,'' said Sampras. ''He tried to outslug Andre. He should have come to the net as soon as possible.''
Only five years ago Sampras was just another counterpunching junior with a two- fisted backhand. After he did poorly in the 1985 Easter Bowl junior tournament, his coach at the time, Dr. Peter Fischer, prevailed upon him to change his game. Sampras went to a one-handed backhand, improved his serve by studying tapes of Rod Laver and began rushing the net. Over the short term the switch seemed rash; he lost to players he had beaten easily, and his ranking plummeted. But the trade-off was meant to pay dividends later on. As Sampras grew into his body, the tumblers of his serve-and-volley game began falling into place. It was Agassi's misfortune to get whacked in the face as the safe door swung open. After reaching the finals of the only two Grand Slam events he played this year, drawing one guy (Andres Gomez) who seemed too old to beat him and another (Sampras) who appeared to be too young, Andre was oh-fer.
''For whatever I do the rest of my career,'' Sampras told the crowd as he accepted his trophy on Sunday evening, ''I'll always be a U.S. Open champion.''
To some, image may be everything. But Sampras -- with his feet on the ground, an ace in the air and a “NO I'M NOT” T-shirt in his future -- has proved that reality counts for something too.
Issue Date: Issue date: September 17, 1990