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A Great One Goes Out in Style

[August 25, 2003 Sally Jenkins] Pete Sampras will leave the game as he played it, a modest, easy, all-time great. You see all kinds of retirements in sports, and most of them are emotionally awkward and difficult to watch. There’s the weeping news conference. There’s the endless, ceremonial you’ll-miss-me tour. There’s the stutter-step retirement, in which the athlete retires only to unretire when he craves attention or needs the money.

Almost no one retires well.

But Sampras is retiring in graceful self-control. He plans to announce his retirement in a ceremony at the U.S. Open tonight, and a lot of people wonder why Sampras won’t make more of the event, allow himself to be more elaborately feted. The simple answer is that
Sampras doesn’t need it. He doesn’t need a last jolt of adrenaline or dose of adulation. He doesn’t need a prolonged ego bath. He doesn’t need more money, or trophies. He doesn’t need any of the things that other athletes find it so hard to walk away from. He’s content.

That contentment is a kind of achievement in its own right. Sampras has made himself invisible since his victory in last year’s U.S. Open. His 14th major championship now stands as the last match of his career, the perfect finish.

He’s never played in another tournament. He’s declined all interviews. He’s simply stayed at home with his wife and new baby. Typically, he’s chosen the anticlimactic first night of this year’s tournament, rather than the last, to make his announcement. The session isn’t even sold out.

Some may find this disappointing, but I find it to be utterly true to who Sampras is. He never trusted fame, and always boxed up and guarded his ego.

Here are two true stories about Sampras, and how he consistently handled his success from the time he won his first U.S. Open at 19, to his last at 32. In 1996, Sampras was traveling cross country in first class on a commercial jet, and sat next to Barry Bonds. Bonds
didn’t recognize him, and Sampras, shyly, didn’t introduce himself. Behind Sampras sat a friend of Bonds, who wanted to sit with the ballplayer. Bonds pointed at Sampras. “If this kid gets [up], you can move up here,” Bonds said. Sampras shrugged and moved, without a word.

At around the same time, he tried to go to dinner at a Florida steakhouse, only to find that the line for a table went out the door. Sampras, for perhaps the only time in his life, tried to use his influence. He walked up to the hostess and asked for a table. The
hostess didn’t know who he was. Sampras went to the back of the line, embarrassed, and never did it again.

Sampras has been the same reserved and methodical player throughout his career, no matter how many tournaments he won or records he set. Which achievement will stand longest? His record 14 Grand Slam titles? His seven Wimbledon titles? His six straight years as the year-end No. 1 player in the world? It’s the latter that Sampras might be proudest of, because it bespeaks an entire philosophy of the game, tennis as ethic. He wasn’t just great, he was dependably great. He never tanked, never ducked a commitment and struck every ball with serious intent. His work habits were equal to his talent.

For this he was labeled boring, but the label did a disservice to a player who made professionalism into artistry, and vice versa. He played complete and deeply realized tennis, but the lulling beauty of his game was so hypnotic that audiences couldn’t imagine it came from sweat and work. In fact, it was the product of grim focus, self-deprivation and discipline. He burned to win so much that he got ulcers. He spent hours sweating with weights in a Florida garage with no air-conditioning — “They don’t air-condition the court at the Open,” he said.

He traveled without seeing countries, rarely leaving his hotel except to practice, and he ate the same monastic training diet for years, sauceless pasta and chicken. “Every meal, whether I liked it or not,” he said. “Choking it down.” A rare splurge was to go to Vegas to play blackjack for a weekend, or to Peter Luger’s steakhouse in New York, which more often than not left him queasy because he wasn’t used to such rich food.

It was a source of frustration to him that the audience didn’t grasp how much effort was behind the ease. “People watch him win, and think that doesn’t look too hard,” his coach, Paul Annacone, said. “But he’d like people to understand just how difficult it is.”

The problem was that Sampras wasn’t willing to abandon his reserve in exchange for understanding. If that was the price, he preferred to be misunderstood. He suffered a rare public breakdown at the Australian Open, after learning that his coach and friend, Tim Gullikson, had terminal brain cancer, and wept on the court in the midst of a match against Jim Courier. But later, he was bothered by his new popularity as a result of the episode. “It galled me that it took something like that for people to say, ‘He’s human,’ ” he said.

He preferred to stay sheltered in the hills above Los Angeles in a home that was comfortable, not palatial, and hidden behind towering old trees. “No one can see in and I can’t see out, and I like it that way,” he said. “I’m Howard Hughes.” He kept his trophies on a shelf in the TV room, and enjoyed showing them, but with typical self-deprecation. “They aren’t as heavy as you think,” he said.

The press always found Sampras difficult to render precisely because he was so moderate and well-regulated. His genius came without the McEnroe-esque emotional torture, and therefore was un-dramatic. He was neither heroic nor villainous, he was simply excellent. Greatness was his only real excess. A villain or tortured genius would have been easier to describe. He was not a good conductor for audience emotions, either, because the whole point of him was that he was great every day, and the last thing audiences want at a sports event is the everyday.

But I’ll miss him, both personally and professionally. I’ll miss his hugely aspiring game, cloaked in that lazybones demeanor. I’ll miss the prodigious sleeper, the slouchy, gangly, drowsy kid who napped in the player lounge and shuffled around in flip-flops for the past 15 years. I’ll miss the determined, glowering athlete who internalized pain but couldn’t keep it from coming out sideways. I’ll miss the dedicated player who made a champion out of himself by deciding that his work should be equal to his talent. I’ll miss his gorgeous classicism, his buried humor, his essential decency and his shy friendliness.

I suspect I won’t see Sampras coming out of retirement to struggle to one more quarterfinal, just so he can hear applause again. I won’t see a seedier, paunchy version of him on the senior tennis circuit a few years from now. The only place any of us is liable to see him is courtside at a Lakers game, or walking his baby in the park, contentedly. But then, Sampras has never wanted to be seen. He only wanted to be great.

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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