The Man Who Was Too Good He played his heart out and won a record 14 Grand Slam championships, but nonaficionados never warmed to the genius of Pete Sampras

August 31, 2003

Lord knows, he kept up his end of the bargain. Ever since Pete
Sampras won his first major championship, as a 19-year-old at the
1990 U.S. Open, he did everything a sports hero is supposed to.
Not only did he set records, dominate his era and treat opponents
and officials with unwavering respect, but he also produced more
moments suitable for a hokey storybook than anyone could expect
from a man so guarded and shy.

Sampras won the 1995 Australian Open despite weeping on-court
over his coach Tim Gullikson's fatal illness, won the '95 Davis
Cup final for his country despite being carried off the court two
days earlier with sore hamstrings and won the '96 U.S. Open
despite being so dehydrated and sick with an upset stomach that
he vomited and nearly collapsed. He set a men's Grand Slam record
with his 13th title at Wimbledon in 2000, and, of course, in last
year's U.S. Open final, he rallied after the two bleakest years
of his career to beat archrival Andre Agassi--his first finals
victim at Flushing Meadow--in the last match of his professional
life.

Sampras's run was sublime and surreal, the greatest in the
history of men's tennis. And yet, though the cynics held their
tongues on Monday, when at 32 he announced his retirement at
Arthur Ashe Stadium, for many it was not enough. The curious fact
is that Sampras was hardly beloved. The compliments came with
complaints: Sampras didn't sell. Sampras didn't jack ratings.
Sampras was too boring, too colorless, too expressionless, too
... too ... good.

He was always the argument you couldn't win. Tennis purists loved
his skill, naturally, and they will unhesitatingly declare
Sampras's second serve, his running forehand and his leaping
overhead as treasures that belong under museum glass. But for a
public that didn't grow up playing, tennis becomes charismatic
only when rackets are flying or fists are pumping or new ground
in fashion is being broken. It doesn't matter that beloved
figures like Joe Montana and Tiger Woods have proved themselves
duller, colder characters than Sampras; the former competed in a
sport America loves and the latter in a game America plays.
Sampras arrived when the tennis boom was but a distant echo. His
timing was abysmal.

Worse still, in a sound-bite age, he couldn't explain himself.
Sampras didn't possess Agassi's glibness and perfect recall of
matches; he'd been a tennis prodigy, isolated from the
socializing caldron of high school and to this day has few close
friends apart from his wife, Bridget. He spent most of his adult
life obscenely rich yet feeling unappreciated, alone with a
talent he didn't fully understand. After winning Wimbledon in
1998 to tie Bjorn Borg's record of five titles, he spoke of how
"melancholy" the moment made him, of how his greatness seemed to
exist wholly apart from his control, of how uncomfortable he was
with what he was able to do. No one has been more mystified by
Sampras than Sampras himself.

Yet in a world as spun and packaged as professional tennis, all
that made for a rare honesty. Growing up, Sampras's role models
were blank-faced assassins like Borg and Ken Rosewall and Rod
Laver, and he tried carrying himself at a similar remove. But his
emotions, his physical lapses embarrassed him. He would hunch
over during each crisis, trying to hide with millions of eyes
boring into his back.

Sampras had no choice: His body spoke for him, and it never lied.
You knew every tear, every illness, every moment on court was
true. You knew winning gave him a release he needed nearly as
much as breathing. You knew, when it ended on Monday, that he was
happy, and that part of him now could never be happy again.
--S.L. Price

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY VICTOR JUHASZ

"I am women's boxing. Most women don't appreciate what I've
accomplished." --THE LATEST, PAGE 26

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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