07-02-2005, 08:37 PM
Join Date: Jun 2004
Re: Out Of Bounds - Sampras
Patriotism and tennis: a bad mix
Published Wednesday, February 19, 2003
American men's tennis is in a weird place right now. Of the three older living legends right now, one is on top of his game, one is on hiatus with his future in question and the youngest of the three is about to retire.
They all continue to behave weirdly, if not badly. There's no wonder you don't see people hanging out around campus talking tennis.
The U.S. tennis motto used to be, "The more things change, the more things stay the same." Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang marked something of a golden age of the sport or at least a seamless transition of the tantrum-prone John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors to players just as good if not better.
Every time I really want to like Agassi, he goes and does something stupid or perplexing. Right now, at 32, he continues to be the hottest player in the world, having won all 12 of his matches this year, including a 6-3, 6-1 win over Italian Davide Sanguinetti in the Siebel Open final in San Jose, Calif., Sunday.
What's odd about Agassi is that while he seems to place great importance on beating some run-of-the-mill Italian at some run-of-the-mill tournament in San Jose, he decided not to play in the Davis Cup tournament last weekend in Croatia, where the U.S. once again was humiliated and sent back to Group Play, the minor leagues of international tennis.
It's not that Agassi has never shown patriotic pride or doesn't know its meaning. When he won the 1996 Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, he called it "the greatest accomplishment I've ever had in this sport." His father Mike was an Olympic boxer for Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics and explained the importance of participating for one's country to him.
Flash forward to this year. Agassi wins the Australian Open, the first major of the year, and announces as part of a wager with his wife Steffi Graf -- you may remember her from her 22 Grand Slam singles titles and her 1997 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue photos -- that the two will play mixed doubles at the French Open in May. (Graf had bet against her husband winning.)
Forget for a second that Agassi and Graf, two extremely inexperienced doubles players, wouldn't stand a chance even if their opponents each put a leg in a potato sack and play three-legged. Why is Agassi devoting his energy to such a lame pursuit while sitting out the Davis Cup? It's not like we can just beat anybody without him. Hell, we barely beat Zimbabwe a couple of years ago without him.
Yes, this would be the same Agassi, who once proclaimed himself the leader of the "Rock and Roll Tennis" movement and then had a "special friendship" with Barbara Streisand at the same time.
That leads us to Michael Chang, who once drew Agassi's ire because he didn't play enough Davis Cup. Chang announced his retirement effective at the end of this year's U.S. Open. At 5-foot-9-inches and 160 pounds, he almost never had a size advantage over his opponent, but he more than got by on his speed, hustle, guile and smarts -- he won the 1989 French Open at age 17, and when he needed to up his game a notch, he got a racket with a bigger head and developed a 130 mph serve that got him to No. 2 in the rankings in 1996.
Chang's behavior, though, was too unusual for him to achieve mass acceptance. He is so religious that he missed the 1993 Australian Open because of Bible study classes. No, I am not saying that studying the Bible is unusual, but missing a Grand Slam event, an event that often defines a player, is. Fans would wait forever for his autograph as he wouldn't merely sign his name but put, "Jesus loves you, Michael Chang."
While Chang has announced his retirement, no one knows about Sampras' future. I really, really like Sampras because as much as we Greeks dominate the sports world and then marry beautiful blondes like Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, it never gets old. He hasn't played since his U.S. Open win last September over Agassi, the tennis equivalent to Jack Nicklaus' win at the 1986 Masters. He backed out of the Siebel Open at the last minute only saying he wasn't prepared. To be fair, he recently became a father for the first time, perhaps stealing away some of his attention.
With his record 14 Grand Slam titles and 276 weeks at No. 1, Sampras makes a good claim at being the best ever. However, he is duller than skim milk and the tax code combined. "I never wanted to be the great guy or the colorful guy or the interesting guy," Sampras once said. "I wanted to be the guy who won titles."
Sampras has taught us one thing though: that even boring people can snag beautiful blondes. By the way, does anybody want to hear about the tax code?
07-02-2005, 08:59 PM
Join Date: Jun 2004
Re: Out Of Bounds - Sampras
Bidding farewell to tennis are two greats — Pete Sampras and Michael Chang. Leaving the courts behind will probably be the most difficult decision they have ever taken.
On August 25, for one final time, Pete Sampras held a Centre Court crowd spellbound as he finally walked away from the sport, which turned him into one of America's all-time greats. Tributes and tears filled Arthur Ashe Stadium as Pete Sampras took an emotional final bow at the U.S. Open. Movie stars, politicians, past champions, Sampras' family and friends along with thousands of ordinary tennis fans filled the centre court to honour the man widely considered the best to swing a racket.
"I know in my heart I'm done, 100 per cent done," Sampras said. "I think I'm going out on my terms. It's not painful. It's emotional. It's a closed chapter. But a part of me is still out there.
"This is something that I love to do and which I have been doing since I was seven. I was emotional just driving here. Saying goodbye is not easy. But I know in my heart it's time." Sampras, who is 32 and became a father in November last, leaves with 64 singles titles, including a record 14 at Grand Slam tournaments: seven at Wimbledon, five at the U.S. Open and two at the Australian Open. Known for his mild-mannered demeanour off and on the court, Sampras wiped away tears during the tribute, which also included a three-minute highlight video with clips from each of his major final victories and taped words from Andre Agassi. Sampras was given a plaque with a photo of him in his trademark pose of jumping for an overhead smash, with a red superhero's cape superimposed. The plaque read, "In a career that spanned three decades, Pete Sampras rewrote the record books for the men's game and redefined the word `champion'."
Tributes from John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Boris Becker were nearly too much for Sampras. "This is pretty overwhelming. I'm touched," Sampras told the crowd. "I'm going to miss playing here. But I know in my heart it's time to say goodbye."
A determined, relentless competitor, he is mentioned more than any other player of his generation as the role model and inspiration for the current crop of youngsters making their mark on the tennis scene. He will be forever associated with Wimbledon, where his skills translated perfectly to grass, and where he went 56-1 while winning seven titles in eight years.
Last year's U.S. Open title was particularly sweet, given that Sampras hadn't won any tournament in more than two years. The man he beat in the third round, 1997 finalist Greg Rusedski, called Sampras "a step and a half slow" — but Sampras just kept winning en route to what he called the happiest moment of his career.
Sampras came full circle, having won his first Slam in Flushing Meadows at the age of 19 in 1990 and his last there a year ago.
After the ceremony, Sampras took a lap around the court with his son in his arms while Pearl Jam's song "Alive" blared overhead and fans stood. After a full circle, Sampras kept walking, right through the door that leads to the locker rooms.
"While Sampras waited a year after his last match — beating Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final — to tell the world that he was finished, Chang has been on a farewell tour since the beginning of the season and made clear the U.S. Open would be it for him. And unlike the half hour tribute to Sampras, there was no big celebration of Chang's career on August 26.
Only a few thousand fans were on hand for the start of his match against No.15 seeded Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, but, as always, Chang gave it his all.
"On court it would be nice to be able to be remembered as a person that gave his best — win, lose or draw," said Chang, whose career highlight was winning the 1989 French Open at the age of 17. "It's going to be tough leaving tennis."
Chang used to be among highly seeded players, reaching No. 2 in the rankings. He would have made it to the No. 1 had he beaten Sampras in the 1996 U.S. Open final. But now, at 31, he is a step slower, and can't get to the shots he used to. He won just two of 12 matches this year.
One by one, the generation of American stars who grew up playing junior tennis against each other in the 1980s and collected Grand Slam singles titles together for more than a decade is calling it quits.
"It's a weird feeling. You just sort of expect to leave the dance with the ones you came with. When they decide that it's time for them, it's a sad feeling," said Agassi, truly summing up the feeling of the millions of fans around the world.
Last edited by angiel : 07-19-2005 at 11:47 PM.
07-07-2005, 09:33 PM
Join Date: Jun 2004
Re: Out Of Bounds - Sampras
History awaits at Centre Court
Sampras seeks to continue personal Wimbledon tradition
Click here for more on this story
Posted: Saturday July 04, 1998
WIMBLEDON, England (AP) -- It's a Wimbledon tradition, just like Strawberries, cream and rain: Pete Sampras standing proudly on the Centre Court lawn, holding high the most treasured trophy in tennis.
The scene has become familiar in the 1990s, and Sampras hopes to repeat it Sunday. He'll bid for his fifth Wimbledon title in six years against big-serving Goran Ivanisevic.
"This place over the years has brought out the best in me," Sampras said. "It's been treating me pretty well."
History is always in the air at the All England Club, and that will be the case Sunday. With a victory, Sampras would match Bjorn Borg's modern men's singles record of five Wimbledon titles, which the Swede won consecutively in 1976-80.
H.L. Doherty also won five times in the first decade of this century. W.C. Renshaw holds the record with seven titles, all in the 1880s.
A win would give Sampras 11 Grand Slam titles, tying him with Borg and Rod Laver for second place on the all-time list. Roy Emerson holds the men's record with 12 titles.
In sum, a victory by the 26-year-old Sampras would strengthen the argument that he's the greatest player of all time
"Sampras is our Michael Jordan at this point," said three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe, a commentator for NBC-TV.
London bookmakers list Sampras as a 1-3 favorite, in part because he's 4-0 in Wimbledon finals and 26-1 on Centre Court, with the only loss in the 1996 quarterfinals to eventual champion Richard Krajicek.
But Ivanisevic poses a threat because of his thundering left-handed serve. Both players have topped 132 mph during the fortnight, and as in any match between big servers on grass, the final could be decided by just a handful of points.
"You're going to have to ride the wave with Goran," Sampras said. "He's going to hit his aces. He's going to hit his double-faults."
Ivanisevic, a Wimbledon runnerup in 1992 and 1994, survived a 15-13 fifth set against Krajicek in the semifinals.
"I don't think he's going to win," Krajicek said of Ivanisevic. "There were a few holes in his game. He's playing good, but I don't think Pete would let him get away with what he got away with against me."
The 26-year-old Ivanisevic's quick temper has always been blamed for his failure to win a Grand Slam. The Croatian's poise was tested in the semifinals, when he blew a two-set lead and failed to convert a pair of match points.
McEnroe -- and most everyone else -- expected Ivanisevic to fold at that point.
"You say, `Forget about it. Here's Mr. Mental Midget. He's gone,'" McEnroe said. "That's been his knock in the past."
Instead, Ivanisevic rallied from a break down in the epic fifth set to earn a shot at Sampras.
Ivanisevic trails the series 10-6 and has won only one of the past eight meetings, but they haven't met since 1996. They've played twice at Wimbledon, with Sampras winning in straight sets in the 1994 final and in five sets in the 1995 semifinals.
Sunday, Ivanisevic said, may be different.
"Pete has just maybe a slight advantage in that he knows how it is to feel that victory," Ivanisevic said. "You know, he was holding the trophy four times. But I think we're both going to be a little nervous, and I think this year I have the best chance."
Both finalists are best on grass, and the return to Wimbledon has helped them shake long slumps. Ivanisevic, a former top-five player now ranked 25th, had won only one match in his previous five Grand Slams. He began the tournament a 20-1 longshot to win the title.
Sampras entered as the favorite, even though he had failed to reach the semifinals in the past three majors. This year Sampras' results have been so far below par that if he loses Sunday, he'll drop to No. 2 in the rankings behind Marcelo Rios.
But although Sampras spoke recently about how badly he needs a vacation, Wimbledon has erased any doubts regarding his motivation.
"It would be nice to win every week, but I'm not going to," he said. "I'm going to have my bad days. But I've been pretty consistent since I've been here at Wimbledon, and I certainly hope I can do it one more time."
A 10-2 record in Grand Slam finals suggests that Sampras is at his best in pressure situations. But he was uncharacteristically testy during a semifinal victory over Tim Henman, complaining to the chair umpire and tossing a broken racket into the stands.
"I was very intense," Sampras said. "You have to be at this level, and at this stage in the tournament."
He knows what's at stake, even without looking at the record book.
07-07-2005, 09:41 PM
Join Date: Jun 2004
Re: Out Of Bounds - Sampras
Sampras on roll and having fun
Cincinnati always a good time for him
By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MASON — See Pete ride water slides at The Beach. See Pete take batting practice with the Reds. See him blow out birthday candles, eat at Waffle House, go to Riverbend.
Pete Sampras is arguably the top player in tennis history, but when he's in Cincinnati, he isn't afraid to take in the town. He has made a point of making himself at home here.
The fact he usually sticks around in the Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati draw hardly hurts.
“You always look forward to coming back to a place you play well,” he said.
Including his 6-4, 6-2 beating Tuesday of Mariano Zabaleta, Sampras is 35-8 (.814) here, including three championships. This week, he could surpass Michael Chang's total of 38 victories to become the tournament's winningest active player. Sampras' winning percentage is second only to Mats Wilander (36-7, .837) in the event's history.
Sampras is 27-4 (.871) here since 1991. There is only one place he has had as much success here during the same span: Wimbledon.
Sampras has been good to this tournament, and it has been good to him. His birthday annually falls during the event — he turns 29 Saturday — so he often celebrates here. Sampras even took time Monday to visit Cinergy Field, meeting some Reds and taking batting practice. (Tuesday Story)
“In Toronto (last week), I heard that was a possibility,” he said. “To meet Ken Griffey Jr., who is one of the all-time greats, and to see him hit a few out and be able to partake in some batting practice, it was great.”
Sampras never played baseball, so he said he was pleased to hit a couple of balls well. “Close to the warning track,” he said. “On a roll.”
Fact is, Sampras looks more relaxed now than ever. The obvious thinking is relief after setting a record with his 13th Grand Slam title last month at Wimbledon.
“Being with 11 or 12 Slams, people talked about the pressure of breaking the record,” he said. “I didn't look at it as pressure. Obviously I wanted to do it. Now that I did break it and I do have the unbelievable record put away, sure, it feels great. But now that I'm where I am, I'll try to add on to that.”
Sampras elected not to play in the Olympics next month because it's just 10 days after the U.S. Open concludes. As far as playing for his country, he said, Davis Cup represents his commitment.
Right now, his goal is to recapture top form on hard courts. Sampras took nearly a month off after Wimbledon before playing in the Tennis Masters Series Canada last week; he blew three match points in an eventual quarterfinal loss to Marat Safin.
“This is a Grand Slam type of atmosphere,” Sampras said. “When you can win here in Cincinnati, you know you're playing great going into the U.S. Open.”
07-16-2005, 08:50 PM
Join Date: Jun 2004
Re: Out Of Bounds - Sampras
Sampras power earns glory
By John Parsons
The clamour to reduce the dominance of service power in men's tennis is bound to intensify after another Wimbledon final in which rallies were a precious commodity.
One rally of eight shots in the 10th game of the first set was the longest on offer as Pete Sampras, the defending champion trounced Goran Ivanisevic 7-6, 7-6, 6-0 in the shortest final since John McEnroe overwhelmed Jimmy Connors in 1984. It was almost certainly the hottest, too, as temperatures touched 116 degrees on Centre Court.
This 108th Wimbledon final lasted 115 minutes, four minutes less than the classic women's singles final 24 hours earlier when Conchita Martinez became the first Spanish winner of the event, denying Martina Navratilova's magnificent challenge.
Sampras, who has now won four of the last five Grand Slam tournaments, missing out only at the French, raced through the third set against a totally demoralised opponent in a mere 19 minutes, conceding only seven points. It was only the third love set in a final - and the first in a match-winning set - since the last of Fred Perry's three successive victories, in 1936.
Ivanisevic, who admitted he had been thrashed by a player who was "just too good", struck another 25 aces and Sampras 17, taking their totals respectively over seven matches to 165 and 117.
Yet brilliantly though both players served, especially in the first two sets, before the Croatian lost heart after dropping his second tie-break, you can have too much of a good thing. The sooner now that ways can be found of slowing the balls for grass-court matches, the better.
This year's final should accelerate such a change, the only one immediately practical and one which is currently being urged upon the International Tennis Federation.
Other ideas have been mooted - returning to the old foot-fault rule of the 1950s whereby the server had to keep part of one foot in touch with the ground behind the line until the ball had been delivered.
More recently too, restrictions on the size of racket heads and their flexibility have been mentioned, though trying to turn the clock back on racket technology could prove to be a commercial and legal minefield.
With hindsight, the damage was done in the mid-1970s when, in introducing rules governing the size, composition and stringing, etc, of rackets for the first time, the game should have insisted upon wooden rackets only.
A buzz of excitement went round this marvellous arena when Ivanisevic, with apparent ease of delivery, struck three aces in his first service game. Before long, however, apart from the obvious drama created in the tie-breaks, the excitement was mainly restricted in the first set to the way Ivanisevic saved two break points at 3-4, and three set points at 4-5.
"We're doomed," said a voice near me as Ivanisevic escaped. "Doomed to tie-breaks," he continued, like Private Fraser from Dad's Army. In fairness to Sampras, who has clearly achieved his teenage dream of becoming "a right-handed version of Rod Laver", he did illustrate more variety and occasional touches of subtlety than Ivanisevic.
He had brought his game to a peak at the right time and underlined his greater mental strength by repeating his effort against Jim Courier in last year's Wimbledon final when he also took a two-set lead on tie-breaks.
Then Courier pounced on one brief lapse of concentration in the third set and kept the match alive. This time, Ivanisevic, once he had double-faulted on the first point of the second game and was broken to love, knew he had no chance.
Against Becker in the semi- finals Ivanisevic never missed a first serve in the tie-break. In the first yesterday against Sampras he missed three out of four, most crucially from 2-3 to 2-5, allowing the American to punish him with stunning and well-directed returns.
Although there was an exchange of mini-breaks in the second-set tie-break, Sampras edged ahead 6-5 and then took it as Ivanisevic was unable to control the pace of the top seed's next return.
Sampras, who began the final game with a perfect backhand, reached match point with his third perfectly-executed lob over his 6ft 4in rival. Then, with the title, which he will value infinitely more than the #345,000 prize money, secured as Ivanisevic put a forehand volley wide, Sampras not only threw his racket into the crowd, but followed it with two of his shirts as additional prized souvenirs.
"Winning the first time is something you'll never forget. Maybe the second is just a little bit sweeter," said Sampras, who is almost too close to perfect for his - and the game's - own good.
Last edited by angiel : 07-16-2005 at 08:56 PM.
07-19-2005, 11:50 PM
Join Date: Jun 2004
Re: Out Of Bounds - Sampras
"Now that he has served up a U.S. Open title at 19, Pete Sampras
insists he won't 'flake off and get a bad attitude'"
By Bruce Newman, Sports Illustrated
October, 1990 (date not confirmed)
Pete Sampras is trying not to change: change clothes, change his
game, change lanes, change the music, change his smile, change
rooms, change the cute way he scratches his head when he answers
"I think what's so cute about him is he's just another kid," says
Ivan Lendl. " I don't think he's fully realized what's happened to
To Pete: A cute and sweet guy. Don't ever change.
Change cars, change religions, change your hair, change any bill
larger than a 20, change phone numbers, change the water into wine,
change partners and dance. "Dear Pete," writes Marie Shay, an
admirer from Haverford, Pa. "Please continue the same dress code and
don't let the designers change you. We need a clean-cut young
person like you to set an example for the kids." Marie adds, for
good measure that Andre Agassi "looks as if he came out of a ragbag
and a dark closet."
Hey, Peeeeeete! Stay just the way you are and don't ever change.
Sampras Has been trying not to change. "I'm a nice kid with a good
attitude," he says, as if trying to remind himself, "and I'm not
going to change."
There, you see? Ever since Sampras ragbagged Agassi in straight sets
in the finals of the U.S. Open last month, people who had never even
heard of him before his victory here have been telling him – begging
him – not to change. At 19 he is the youngest men's winner in the
history of the U.S. championships, just over five months younger
than Oliver Campbell was when he won the title in 1890. "I think of
Pete not as a man of 19," says his father, Soterios, know to nearly
everyone as Sam. "I think of him as my little boy."
Maybe that's it. Maybe that's who Pete Sampras is after all.
America's little boy. "I'm just a normal 19-year-old growing up
with a very unusual job," he says.
Peeeeeete! Don't forget to take out the garbage and put away the
Grand Slam. Pete?
"If I flake off and get a bad attitude, I'll be disappointed," says
Sampras. "I want to be the same person that I was two months ago."
One reason Sampras is running so hard to stay in place is that he
has done almost nothing but change for the past five years. He has
gone from short (5'5") to tall (6 feet), become a high school
dropout, changed rackets (wood to graphite), changed his ranking
(off the computer to fifth in the world), changed his backhand,
changed coaches and – like most kids – changed his mind. One of his
After Sampras became the first American male to prevail at Flushing
Meadow since 1984, when John McEnroe won the last of his four titles
there, and had sent his 13th ace (and 100th for the tournament)
whizzing past Agassi's earring on championship point, the first
person he thanked on national television was Dr. Peter Fischer, a
California pediatrician. "I don't know if I would be here right now
if it wasn't for him," Sampras said, leaving a breathless nation to
wonder whether Fischer had cured him of some particularly lethal
strain of the mumps. Would future teen champs thank their
Fischer, however, had done something far more medically complex than
merely treating Sampras; he treated him like a sacred, if somewhat
empty, vessel. "He's a very weird guy, but brilliant," says
Sampras. "Maybe too brilliant. He wanted to put his brain in my
body." Fischer came remarkably close to completing this transplant,
until Sampras began about a year ago to develop a mind of his own,
at which point it began to get crowded in there.
If you had to have someone trying to stick his brain into you body,
chances are you would want that person to be Fischer, who has so
many brain cells to spare that they appear to have formed a lava
dome at the top of his head. Fischer has an IQ of 190 perched atop
a body that never quite knew how to take instructions. Only by dint
of sheer determination did Fischer forge himself into a B-level
tennis player with a game that, by his own description, "aspires to
When Sampras and his father first encountered Fischer, in 1979 at
the Jack Kramer Tennis Club near their home in Rancho Palos Verdes,
Calif., Fischer lacked the game, the golden tan and even the fleecy
white hair that are standard issue for modern-day tennis coaches.
Fischer was hitting with a ranked junior player the day that Sam
approached him about coaching his son, who was seven at the
time. "I guess I must have looked good," says Fischer, "or Pete's
dad knew very little about tennis."
"So how much do you charge?" Sam inquired.
Fischer, whose previous coaching experience, as someone would later
point out, consisted almost entirely of teaching newborns how to
take their first few breaths, thought for a moment and
"You're hired," said Sam.
The elder Sampras still refers to tennis as "a sport for the upper
class," and rarely does he miss an opportunity to distance himself
from the ranks of the dread Tennis Parent. The son of Greek and
Eastern European immigrants, Soterios grew up in Chicago before
moving to 1965 to Washington, D.C., where he met the woman he would
soon marry. Georgia Vroustrous had left Greece when she was 19,
with no more of an idea of how to speak English than how to put it
on a tennis ball. She was working in a beauty parlor when she and
Sam were married.
Sam worked for seven years as an aerospace engineer for the
government during the day and at night ran a delicatessen in which
he was a part-owner, in McLean, Va. He and his wife saved enough
money to move their four children – Gus, now 22, Stella, 21, Pete
and Marion, 17 – from the chilly East to the more Mediterranean
climes of Southern California. The set out across the continent
with everything they owned lashed to the top of the family car. Six
people and a parrot named Jose crammed into a Ford Pinto for seven
days. "We looked like the Griswalds in Vacation," says Gus.
Not long before the family moved to California, Pete had discovered
an old wooden tennis racket in the basement and spent hours down
there whacking balls against the wall. When Pete was six, he and
Stella went with their father to a court at a public park in
Torrance, down the hill from their new home in Rancho Palos Verdes,
and Sam watched in amazement as his son ran down the balls and
gracefully stroked them back with fluid, two-handed strokes. "I had
never seen anybody get on a court for the first time and hit the
ball so smoothly," Sam says. "Like it was the easiest thing in the
Pete and Stella became fixtures on the courts. Sam and Georgia took
turns hitting basket after basket of balls to their kids – despite
the fact that neither parent played – to save the expense of
lessons. A membership in a private tennis club was out of the
question at that time, but not for financial reasons. "I was going
to let them grow up like normal kids and forget about tennis," Sam
However, two strangers who happened to see Pete Hitting in the park
one day convinced Sam that his son was a prodigy. The two men
persuaded Sam that the boy needed the sort of guidance he could get
only at a club, never dreaming that when they said Pete should work
with a teaching professional, Sam would begin mulling over the names
of some of his tennis-playing acquaintances – a CPA with a strong
overhead, a gynecologist with a fair forehand. So he turned Pete
over to what was certainly the country's top pediatrician
specializing in serve-and-volley. "I had never been a real coach
for anybody before Pete," Fischer says. "But as time went on, I
learned to coach and he learned to play."
Most of the time it is all Sampras can do to keep from laughing
during his matches; he is still amused and amazed by the things he
can do. The disarming grin that followed both the winners and the
blunders at the U.S. Open has always been there. "Since he was a
little boy we always called him Smiley," says Robert Lansdorp, the
teaching pro who helped tutor Sampras on his ground
strokes. "People always wanted to watch him because he always had
that smile on his face."
He has existed in on almost perfect state of grace, doing exactly
what he wanted to do with his life from such an early age that he
has no memories of life before tennis. "He was seven and swinging
as hard as he could," recalls Fischer, "and he was hitting lines and
smiling. Pete always loved the things he could do with the ball."
To make sure there was nothing he couldn't do with it, Fischer the
pediatrician referred Pete to a series of specialists in other
fields – a footwork coach, a volley coach and Lansdorp, who had
tutored Tracy Austin before she became, at 16, the youngest player
to win the U.S. Open. Lansdorp frequently dismissed Fischer as
a "well-intentioned amateur,: but by the time Sampras was nine,
Fischer was firmly entrenched as the architect of the boy's game,
and he had already conceived a grand design. "The concept of what
makes a tennis player is mine," says Fischer. "That's a hundred
percent me. What I was really offering was a thought process, not
my ability to hit tennis balls. It was a challenge. This was an
opportunity to see if I could do something that hadn't been done
since Harry Hopman's days. The idea of taking somebody from ground
zero, organizing a whole career, and possibly even changing the way
the game is played." Oh, is that all?
The idea was fairly simple: If at all possible, Sampras should be
Rod Laver. "I want to be him," Pete said once, almost plaintively.
Fischer borrowed old 16-millimeter films of Laver's matches, and
together he and his little lab project would sit in a darkened room
at Pete's house and peer into the flickering reflection of a lost
time, an image when tennis players wore white and their rackets came
"My ideal was always Laver because he could win on all surfaces,"
says Fischer. "He could win any way he wanted – and do it with
If Fischer could not inhabit Sampras' body, he came close to taking
control of his mind. "We were a left-brain, right-brain couple,"
"Pete is very instinctual and I'm analytical. The two of us meshed
Fischer began taking many of his meals at the Samprases' house,
imparting tactics between bites. "He seemed like part of the
family," Pete says. "Here I was, this little kid, and he was trying
to make me into a great tennis player. I was just playing along,
doing what he was telling me to do."
Sampras played in one of his first junior tournaments when he was
nine and lost, oh and oh, in the first round, primarily because he
was playing in the 12-and-under division. From the start, in fact,
Fischer had him playing in age groups higher than his actual one,
which meant Sampras lost a lot to bigger, stronger players. "He was
always short, just a little skinny kid," says Stella.
In addition, Fischer had him serving and volleying despite the fact
that most of the top pros at the time were baseliners – save for
McEnroe. Moreover, Sampras was still too short to have much more
than a popgun serve. "If you're a little kid playing serve-and-
volley," Fischer says, "you're going to get passed a lot. And Pete
got passed a lot."
When Sampras was 14, Fischer told him he should abandon his two-
handed backhand, his most reliable shot, because in the history of
tennis there had never been a great player with a two-fisted
backhand. The first time Sampras tried the new shot, the ball
sailed over the fence. "Pete cried," says Sam.
"He was without a doubt the best player of his age in the world at
the time he switched," Fischer says, "and he ended up losing to
people he had already beaten. But he went along with it. The goal
had always been to become a great pro, not to win trophies as a
kid. I probably have most of Pete's trophies, and there are
relatively few. He was willing to lose a few matches to learn how
to play the game."
"To lose a consistent shot and have everyone picking on my backhand
was very frustrating," says Sampras, "but eventually everything
started coming together." At the age of 15, he made the 1987 Boys'
Junior Davis Cup team and beat Michael Chang, the 18-and-under
national champion, in the second round of the U.S. Open Junior Boys'
championships. Chang had already been awarded a wild-card entry
into the main draw of the U.S. Open, where he lost in the second
round, but he still became the youngest male ever to win a match in
By then Sampras had leveled off at his current cruising altitude of
six feet, and the popgun had turned into a cannon. His deliveries
were hard and well-placed, and opponents found them almost
impossible to read. This, too, was designed by Fischer. "You can't
read Pete's serve because his motion is the same for all his serves
until he hits the ball," Fischer says. "I'd have him throw the ball
up, and then I'd call the serve – flat, topspin. He couldn't have a
different motion because he didn't know what he was going to serve
until I called it."
It was inevitable that Sampras would one day tire of Fischer's
standing over him and pulling strings as if he were a marionette.
They began to disagree about whether Sampras was working hard
enough. Then the money became an issue. Fischer, finally, wanted
to be paid. "I don't care about the money except in terms of
pride," he says. "What am I worth to him? When Pete was only
winning trophies, giving me trophies was adequate compensation. He
gave me everything he could. When Pete's making hundreds of
thousands of dollars a year, it's a little bit different."
Last November, Fischer told Sampras he didn't think he wanted to be
his coach anymore, not for free anyway. Then he told Sampras to
think it over and call him in a year. Sampras called the next
day. "Make your decision," he told Fischer. "It's now or never."
Fischer said he would not be intimidated and hung up.
They did not speak for three months, until Sampras had won his first
professional tournament, the U.S. Pro Indoors, in Philadelphia,
where in the final he defeated Andres Gomez (who would later win the
French Open). After the match, with the tournament director sitting
at his side, Sampras said, "No one remembers who won Philadelphia,
who won Memphis, any of those tournaments. The way you make a name
is the Grand Slams."
That night he called Fischer and told him he could not have won
without him. "When he's playing like Pete Sampras, it doesn't
matter who the opponent is," Fischer says. "It's like he's playing
Sampras hired a new coach, Joe Brandi, but he continued having
trouble maintaining his concentration during matches, a longtime
weakness. Once in the middle of one of Pete's junior matches,
Fischer asked Gus if he knew the score of a match on a nearby
court. Gus, who was watching his brother play, had no idea. "Why
don't you ask Pete?" Gus replied. "I'm sure he knows."
When Pete heard in June that Fred Perry had said Sampras would win
Wimbledon soon, the teenager said. "Fred, you're out of control."
Then he went out and proved it by losing in the first round to the
No. 41-ranked player in the world, Christo van Rensburg. But at
Flushing Meadow he advanced quietly through the draw until he
stunned Lendle in a dramatic five-set match in the quarters.
Sampras won the first two sets with surprising ease but then
suffered a letdown for two sets before overwhelming Lendl in the
fifth. After two days off, Sampras was petrified about a semifinal
meeting with McEnroe, who by that time had become the tournament's
favorite. But this time his concentration remained steadfast and
his serve never faltered. McEnroe was a loser in four sets.
Compared with those two old lions, Agassi was a pink pussycat. He
had lost only two sets in the tournament, yet Sampras routed him 6-
4, 6-3, 6-2. Once again, Sampras didn't hesitate to acknowledge
Fischer's contributions, when he took the microphone in the post
match interview. "That was his reward," Sampras says.
Sampras and Fischer are on friendly terms, and neither man will rule
out a professional reconciliation. But negotiations have stalled,
and Fischer is no longer consulted on tennis matters.
At dinner that evening in New York, Sampras could scarcely stop
thinking about how his life would change. "And I didn't sleep at
all that night, just lying in my bed and trying to think about what
happened and what the future was going to be like," says
Sampras. "I couldn't believe it. I was now part of an elite group.
My name was going to be on that trophy with guys like Lendl and
Becker and McEnroe and Connors and" – he stops to take a breath –
"and Laver. I couldn't believe that Pete Sampras, a 19-year-old
kid from California, was going to be on that trophy. Forever."
Some things don't ever change. Even some people.
07-20-2005, 12:19 AM
Join Date: Jun 2004
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."
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