Disclaimer: I'm not going to lie to all you readers out there - don't expect the following article to be impartial. I'm probably going to be as biased as they come - and as unrepentant as all get out...which shouldn't be much of a change from all those reporters who get paid to tout their favourites right? Another warning: it's an article about a tennis player, the tennis player, but largely, it's not about tennis. Don't look for analysis of his serve motion.
Pete Sampras spun a magical web for his fans during Wimbledon 2000. He overcame adversity throughout the fortnight, culminating in a glorious win over an in form and always pumped Patrick Rafter. As fans, we were beside ourselves with joy - could it possibly get any better? Our minds were in hyper-drive - of course it could get better! The man had won Wimbledon with a gimpy leg!! The French Open was small fry compared to this! Bring on Flushing Meadows!
This Superhero of ours didn't climb walls wearing tights or fly wearing tights or drive a hot car...wearing tights. No, he won matches…in unfortunately baggy shorts. We weren't that disappointed - at least he was winning.
It's 2002 and we're desperate. He isn't winning and he's still wearing baggy shorts. What's a fan to do??
You've probably had it up to the eyelids with this phrase and its many sickening derivatives:
"It's been X number of tournaments since Pete Sampras has won a title."
No doubt we've all come close to murder a couple of times while reading disparaging articles about the state of our beloved's game - especially as there is almost always that annoying little nugget of truth. This is not Pete Sampras. He isn't closing out as he used to. What good are all those finalist plates? Pete Sampras isn't a finalist - he's a champion!
Everybody knows exactly why Pete is no longer the dominant force - even on grass as some over-zealous reporters had the audacity to claim. It was his aura - it was gone. It was his second serve - where was it? His feet - they were slower. Look at his hair - he's just older.
Through it all, as a Pete fan, you plug on, accustomed to negative comments though not quite like this. We're used to holding our own by shouting rejoinders such as: "He's not boring!"
"He does NOT look like a monkey!!"
"He is sick, he wasn't faking it!"
Nothing we couldn't handle.
Now we have to deal with serious arguments that cannot be ignored, no matter how hard we may wish for it to go away. So far we have yet to see if the real Pete Sampras shows up for this Wimbledon 2002, but it would be foolish to argue that for the majority of the past two years the Pete Sampras of old has not been in hibernation. We can only hope he's well rested when he returns. We can only hope he wins. This is no longer a given - has not been for a while - now not even at Wimbledon. I still get chest pains when I recall that match against Roger Federer in 2001 and I'm a young and reasonably healthy woman.
It's not easy being a Pete fan. I don't expect you to believe me however. Many fans of other tennis players say we've had it too easy - wins have always been the order of the day; they were expected and we wondered how much he would thrash his victim by, not whether he'd win. Please - that went without saying.
These days his pampered fans are all nervous wrecks. We look at draws where he's paired with an unknown player in the first round and take some pills in preparation.
Another dreaded quote always looms:
"He was just too good."
I would hope Pete says this in order to get pesky reporters off his back and tiresome post match conferences out of the way. Just tell them what they want to hear and head home. However, if this is his honest opinion, Pete's problem is mental. Unless Jose Higueras dabbles in sports psychology Pete may be looking in the wrong direction for answers. Nobody is too good for Pete Sampras and from any other mouth that quotation would be secular blasphemy. We only just tolerate it from the man himself.
I feel sorry for Pete - such weak words, but true. For so many years he's been all tennis, driven by the sport. He found his lady love in Bridgette Wilson and if only all aspects of his life could have then been a Happily Ever After. Instead his tennis career took a harsh fall - the only way to fall when you're at the top. I don't think his marriage to Bridgette is a reason why he's not the same Pete we've grown to see kiss those trophies. Getting married and playing tennis isn't exactly the toughest multi-tasking job there is. I always found it quite an insult to both bride and groom to suggest falling in love and making it legal played an essential part in the problems he's now facing. Bridgette is not his kryptonite (I had to stick to the theme) and the faster we all realise that, the easier it's going to be to get to the root of the problem - or problems.
Other general tennis fans wonder why we seem to throw so many drama sessions, railing at myriad uncaring gods. Isn't this the guy who got to the finals of two US Opens in a row beating Rafter, Safin and Agassi in 2001?
Well yes...but wouldn't it sound better if we could say he won the thing twice in a row? Never content those Sampras fans. We're also well aware time isn't exactly standing still. For the optimistic amongst us, Pete's got three of four more Slams left but the man is in his thirties and his back gets thrown out at all the crucial moments. You'd think it was working with the enemy.
It's been a harsh two years, especially this 2002 where he dedicated his time once again to tennis, made some eyebrow raising changes - and still lost. Roland Garros 2002, like Wimbledon 2001 was "devastating".
Pete never gives up though - but should he? A bone of contention even amongst steadfast fans. Nobody disputes that Pete should retire only when he feels to (Yevgeny Kafelnikov notwithstanding and who cares about him anyway?) but how sad it would be to see only the shadow of Mr Sampras still on court five years or even two years down the road. This is not how champions should go out.
When Pete Sampras, Grasscourt King, loses to Alex Corretja who is allergic to chlorophyll in a Davis Cup match on home soil, the word retirement is bandied about and rightly so. Reporters, however annoying they may be...and they are annoying... would not be doing their job if they didn't tell it like it is. This is not Pete Sampras.
"I was in the zone."
It seems as if the last time I heard him say that I was in diapers. I want to hear it again - and soon. It's always been a bit corny to me; he sounds like a jock in those teen movies:
"I was in the zone man!"
But I grin whenever I hear it. It reminds me of who he is. So he's not perfect, he's not invincible, he doesn't have abs of steel - but he's the best superhero the tennis world has today (bias alert, bias alert!). Too often these stars give up when they realise there's no chance of a win and behave badly when they are losing or have lost. Pete's no angel, but anyone would be hard pressed to think of instances when he was less than the gentleman. It makes him so much easier to follow during the hard times.
You'll never be embarrassed to say you're a Pete Sampras fan whether he's losing in the first round or closing out the set for the title.
It's time to make those reporters eat every one of their words and this summer at that croquet club would be the perfect time to do it. Spin another magical web for us Pete baby.
"If I didn't believe it, I wouldn't be here."
He believes and I believe. We'll see you at Wimbledon.
June 24, 2002