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Sampras a humble champion

[May 20, 2003, DAVE HYDE] The trick to writing any athlete’s retirement story is in recalling some telling scene or witnessed emotion that sums up the departing name. When the subject was John McEnroe, for instance, there was the story of him approaching the old Lipton Championships bleachers to demand a fan stop smoking.

“You’ll feel better,” McEnroe shouted at him, “and so will I.”

That was McEnroe in an anecdote. Martina Navratilova, witty and willful, could be remembered by a serve-and-return with a male tabloid reporter at a Wimbledon news conference.

“Are you still a lesbian?” the man asked.

“Are you still the alternative?” Navratilova shot right back.

Personality, you see, remains the fertilizer for remembering sports legends, and the louder it was the easier they’re recalled, especially in an individual sport like tennis. But Pete Sampras heads off the court now in a manner so typically quiet, so understated – some preferred to hang the too-surface label of boring on him – that he again eludes the obvious scene or quote.

Through his coach, he withdrew from three tournaments he had entered, including Wimbledon. His heart wasn’t into tennis today, and maybe forever, Sampras said in what passed for a farewell from his courtside seat at a Los Angeles Lakers game. He wore jeans and a baseball cap.

No farewell tour. No curtain call. None of the is-he-or-isn’t-he game that plays out at least once with most legends, thanks be to Pete.

Modest. Decent. So utterly normal, in everything but his game. Wasn’t that how the Sampras story will be written?

He was never a favorite for the elementary sports fan, the one who needed the starter kit of a Jimmy Connors fist pump, a Williams’ sisters father or an Andre Agassi hair reinvention to b
e interested. Sampras was for the advanced fan. He was for people who were content with talent, understood discipline and appreciated an accumulation of excellence over time, most of all.

Excellence is always interesting in its own right, no matter the medium or subject matter. Personality provides flavor. There’s no denying that. But Sampras’ demonstration of excellence made you watch from the time he vaulted onto the international scene at 19, winning the U.S. Open against Agassi, then a 20-year-old mop-head.

He went through the boring label and shrugged at it, through the star tag and lived with it and through the inevitable straight-arrow comparisons to Agassi and profited from them. What he never did was publicly stray from who he was or what he believed.

At his seventh and final Wimbledon title in 2000, Sampras showed a rare view of emotion, running into the crowd to embrace his parents, who had made a rare trip to watch him. His parents had a healthy respect for the spotlight. So, obviously, did their son.

At his 14th major victory and fifth U.S. Open title last fall, Sampras got what every great champion deserves. One more day in the sun. One final chance for people to cheer him.

“A storybook ending – it might be nice to stop,” he said after it.

And so it appears he has stopped, and with him goes a slice of the sports world you don’t see enough of anymore. The kind that says a champion should act like one, a legend should.

You can do or say anything anymore in sports. It’s not just the athletes, who often get vilified. It’s the media that rewards the person who shouts loudest or can’t stop talking about the coach who starts the biggest scandal. It’s the fans, as evidenced by the recent chant in Boston directed at New Jersey guard Jason Kidd for striking his wife years ago.

In this sports forum, such a decent and dignified voice like Sampras seems strangely revolutionary by comparison. He was someone to celebrate, his retirement something to note. He wanted you to pay attention to his tenn
is excellence in the way Dennis Rodman asked you to watch his tattoos. If you missed it, you missed something.

Now for the anecdote. In 1996, at the Lipton, a ball boy and girl were asked after the tournament who was their favorite player.

“Maybe Sampras,” the boy said.

“Yeah, Sampras,” she agreed. “He never says a bad word, and says thanks to us a lot of times.”

The biggest names only have to do the littlest things to make people appreciate them. But only the greatest among them do. One more of them will be missed today.

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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