Long Live the King of the Courts!
Sampras Completes the Circle
Arthur Ashe Court at Flushing Meadows, New York on Monday evening, 25th August, 2003 was packed with more than twenty thousand expectant tennis lovers. Pete Sampras, five-time winner of the US Open, was due on court shortly, as he had been almost every August for the past fifteen years. But this year was different. This year Pete was not competing. The greatest competitor of them all had decided he must make the difficult decision to end his illustrious career, in the place where he had won the first and the last of his history-making 14 Grand Slam titles.
So often during that career Pete seemed not to have received due recognition for his supreme talents and achievements. On this special night, however, the United States Tennis Association had persuaded the shy and self-effacing Sampras to attend a ceremony honouring his career. How I wished I could have been there at such a momentous occasion in Pete’s life.
Waiting for the ceremony to begin, I reflected on how I had been similarly disappointed not to be present on that euphoric evening almost a year ago, when Pete had confounded his critics by triumphing for a fifth time at the Open and breaking his own Grand Slam title record. That had held for twenty-six months, since Wimbledon 2000. But from that date until 8th September 2002 Pete had not won a single title. So all that mattered was that he had restored his fortunes; of course the fact that I was not there was unimportant. Instead, I had shared the building tension with members of Samprasfanz in the Chatroom and then watched the match on television. No drama conceived by any playwright could have surpassed the one unfolding then!
Americans like to do things in style and the crowd and television audience were treated to a lengthy build-up, from a rock band, an excerpt from a Broadway musical, and a spectacular procession of flag waving and trumpet blowing. Well, Pete Sampras would never blow his own trumpet so he needed someone to do it for him. Fans were waving banners for him too, including a distinctive yellow one with blue lettering, held proudly aloft by a group of his loyal Samprasfanz.
Camera views from the top of the stadium were awe-inspiring, with the sheer size of the spectacle laid out in miniature so far below. There were off-court shots of Pete with wife Bridgette, smiling happily as they watched what was taking place. How different their thoughts must have been from those they normally shared before Pete went on court, especially during the long win-less months prior to last September.
At last, the phenomenon himself appears in the stadium. Pete walks towards the line-up of VIPs assembled to pay court to the king of tennis, accompanied by enthusiastic cheers and a standing ovation. His well-cut black suit accentuates his dark good looks, but the grey-blue shirt is casually open at the neck. He always hated those formal occasions, such as the Wimbledon Ball, when he was required to wear an awkward bow tie. He pauses for a moment to look around, as if he can hardly believe that all the fuss is for him.
David Enberg of CBS Sports gives Pete an appreciative welcome and then introduces those who are there to give their accolades. First up is Pete’s long-time friend and coach Paul Annacone. Pete is fairly comfortable with what Paul has to say, although he glances down at his shoes much of the time, smiling shyly. Some of the more extravagant compliments from John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi cause Pete to look slightly embarrassed and he seems glad to laugh at their jokes to ease his self-consciousness.
The Chairman of USTA, Alan Schwartz, then steps forward. He shows to Pete, the crowd and watching millions on television a magnificent, free-standing, commemorative plaque. Surmounted with an engraving depicting Pete in slam-dunk mode, there is a red super-hero cape attached to his shoulders. Mr Shwartz reads out the inscription, as follows:
“In a career that spanned three decades, Pete Sampras re-wrote the record books for the men’s game and re-defined the word ‘champion’. His quiet confidence, unfailing courage and unparalleled commitment to excellence defined him as a player and a person. Sampras’ 14 Grand Slam titles are a record which is likely to stand for all time, as will the legacy of a man who graced the great sport of tennis with his singular brilliance and class. He finished at number one in the rankings a record six years (1993 – 1998) and held the top spot a total of 286 weeks, another record. Sampras also tops the career earnings list with $43 million.”
I smiled inwardly at how ‘American’ the red cape and mention of his earnings seemed. And why not? Pete may be of Greek descent but he’s an all-American boy too, and one at last taken to the hearts of his compatriots.
The crowd and VIPs roar their approval as Sampras the Supreme is presented with the plaque. An expectant hush falls for a second and then it’s Pete’s turn to respond to all the lavish but well-deserved praise. The man who so often has been unfairly described as ‘boring’, ‘robotic’ and lacking in emotion now proves his detractors wrong again. Several times his deep, soft voice falters as tears threaten to get out of control. He wipes his eyes, puts a hand over his face and tries again, several times. Camera shots of the crowd show how enthralled they are by this unique piece of tennis theatre. As if remembering who he is and why he is there, Pete recovers his dignity and finally gets through his speech. Bridgette and baby Christian Charles come to join him and loud applause erupts again. Sampras junior sits quiet and solemn in his mother’s arms, a cherub at the Olympian court of King Pete. Requested to do a novel lap of honour so that all sections of the crowd can take their photos, Pete carries little Christian with him instead of his customary trophy.
The baby gazes wide-eyed and wondering at all the people and the noise. Clutching a tennis ball and looking gravely about him, the flashes from so many cameras prompt the little boy to drop the ball and reach for the security of Daddy’s broad chest. Pete kicks the ball into the crowd, to be retrieved by a jubilant young fan.
Watching Pete walking round the court with his greatest prize tenderly cradled in his arms and the exuberant response of the crowd, I am transported back to when I had first become aware of what a remarkable tennis player, what a special human being Pete Sampras is.
It was the summer of 1995 and I had been in hospital for several weeks. The days were long and boring, which I found depressing. My husband had to be abroad on business and I was missing him badly. I was only half-watching the television; they were showing tennis. Of course, it was late June – this was Wimbledon. I had only ever seen the highlights before, which we used to watch in the evenings after work.
I suddenly became aware of a dark, good-looking young man who attracted me with his brooding intensity. Oh I’d seen him briefly before, flashing dark and white across the court, and holding up the trophy in 1993 and 1994. Now I witnessed him on the way to his third title; so quiet, so graceful, so swift and deadly in execution of his shots and pursuit of the ball. I was held spell-bound. Between sets, after he had towelled down his Greek god-like face and broad chest, he stared pensively into the camera lens – straight at me it seemed. The significance of that moment was as powerful as a religious conversion. I know it was no the medication which induced what I felt then, and ever since when I’ve been in the presence of Pete. I swear he ‘came to me’ through the television screen and inspired me, with the burning self-belief of his gaze, to get well. Shortly after the Final and watching Pete hold up his third Wimbledon trophy, I was told I could go home.
Since then I have followed Pete’s career avidly. Each time I watched him hold up yet another trophy I could not have been more proud than if he were my own son. I was house-bound for some time, waiting for operations to restore my mobility, and Pete was a great source of solace. In fact he opened a new window in my life when I found Samprasfanz in 2002 and was able to share my feelings about him with so many like-minded people. Pete has engendered so many emotions in me for the past eight years: euphoria, pride, delight, encouragement, worry, stress, tears, joy. It’s been an exhilarating roller-coaster ride.
Back at Flushing Meadows, Pete gives the crowd a final solar smile and waves them farewell. As he walks off court for the last time, I feel sure that whoever comes after his blazing presence has departed will be an anti-climax.
I will miss Pete not only as the greatest tennis player ever but as a source of joy and inspiration in my life. I may never have the chance to thank him in person for all he has given me, but mere words could not convey what I owe him. Instead, I will continue to enjoy the many friendships which have grown from a shared admiration and love of the greatest tennis player of all time – hundreds of people of different ages, colours, creeds and backgrounds, brought together by what I call The Power of Pete.
These words from the greatest writer ever, William Shakespeare, seem apt for the greatest tennis player ever:
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” (Henry V)
“Good night, sweet prince,
May flights of angels sing thee
To thy rest.” (Hamlet)
And also from Voltaire:
“Appreciation is a wonderful thing; it makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”
Pete, I like to think that a tiny little bit of yourself will always belong to your numerous fans. How you deserve your new contented life, with your dear wife and son, after all the hard lonely years on the tennis circuit, chasing your dreams. These dreams you made reality and they are enshrined forever in tennis history. There are so many who will miss you so much, but we will always be grateful for the time you spent with us and what you gave each one.
The King has abdicated.
LONG LIVE THE KING OF THE COURTS in our hearts.