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Sampras Blazing Trail to Greatness
Star Hasn't captured fans' Imaginations, Just titles

August 25, 1999

He’s on the verge of breaking Roy Emerson’s record for the most men’s grand slam singles titles ever. He’s won at least one grand slam event in each of the past seven years. His combined record at Wimbledon, the U.S., Australian and French opens is an astonishing 156-28. Yet, for some, Pete Sampras still seems wanting. Maybe he’s made it look too easy but as the 1999 U.S. Open starts, I think it’s time re-evaluate the Pete Sampras legacy — and more to the point, re-evaluate the way we (the media, fans) have constructed that legacy.

Twenty years ago, tennis was never more popular. Today, it seems everybody plays golf. But in the late 1970s, it appeared that everybody was wearing tennis togs (remember how short those shorts were?), buying John McEnroe headbands (bright red) and trying to control their wayward backhands with their Jimmy Connors T-2000’s (how did Jimbo ever hit with that thing?). But at the same time, we said we wanted a better cut of champion. Tennis was popular but the men’s game was filled with brats.

McEnroe couldn’t seem to get through a match without commanding some poor, overmatched official into tennis’s seventh circle of hell. Connors wielded a mighty return of serve but he also employed a middle finger with equal dexterity. And don’t forget Ilie Natase, that tennis anarchist whose personality could morph from Pancho Gonzalez to Abbie Hoffman to Ernie Kovacs in the space of a few points.

Sure, Bjorn Borg was a good boy, but we wanted an American champion we could be proud of. Well, he showed up in 1990.

Pete Sampras became the youngest man to ever win the U.S. Open that year, just a few weeks after turning 19 years old.

Since then, Sampras has become the dominant player of his era and ranks among — if not at the top — of the list of the sport’s all-time greats.

He has won when it matters most — in the majors. He’s won with grace and he’s lost with courtesy. He won matches when he was physically sick to his stomach (1996 U.S. Open quarterfinals), when he was emotionally wrecked (thinking of Tim Gullickson during the 1995 Australian Open) and when the Davis Cup was on the line (1995 vs. Russia).

But it just didn’t seem like it was enough. Tennis — especially the men’s game — has been going through a rough patch and Sampras has had the misfortune of being the dominant player during a down decade for the sport.

Instead of embracing Sampras, many of us have looked upon him as Exhibit A when it comes to explaining tennis’ troubles.  His serve is too dominating. The rallies are too short. He always wins. The game’s gotten dull.

We said we wanted a champion with manners but I guess we didn’t really mean it.

Sampras is not one to emote, or wear his heart on his sleeve and tell us his deepest secrets. Now that we’re at the tail-end of a decade that has wallowed in self-confession, I think it’s time to be grateful for a champion with Sampras’ sense of reticence.

It’s especially appropriate as this year’s U.S. Open begins. Sampras started the decade by winning his first grand slam title at Flushing Meadow. It would make for a nice, millennial coda if the player of the decade bested Emerson’s record at the final major tournament of the 1990s.

After all, the Sampras Era may be nigh. Sampras is only 28 but he’s been around so long he seems like an old 28. In conversations, Sampras talks about his life after tennis with a sense of immediacy that indicates he won’t be on the tour much longer.

In the end, Pete Sampras probably won’t ever reach larger than life status. He doesn’t symbolize a movement in a wider, societal context. He may not be the most embraceable or passionate champion the sport has produced. And maybe he should have made more of a commitment to Davis Cup play.

But a champion shouldn’t be judged by social historians. When it comes to qualities that Sampras actually has had some control over — like effort, dedication, grand slam titles and, yes, good manners — he’s passed every major test.

If, in the passing of time, we end up feeling that perhaps we slighted the great Pete Sampras during his prime, then, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves.


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