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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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."